The above photo depicts a brutal form of execution known as necklacing, carried out by forcing a rubber tire, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The victim may take up to 20 minutes to die, suffering severe burns in the process. The practice became a common method of lethal lynching during disturbances in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.
Photojournalist Kevin Carter was the first to photograph a public execution by necklacing in South Africa in the mid-1980s. He later spoke of the images:
“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”
He went on to say:
“After having seen so many necklacings on the news, it occurs to me that either many others were being performed (off camera as it were) and this was just the tip of the iceberg, or that the presence of the camera completed the last requirement, and acted as a catalyst in this terrible reaction. The strong message that was being sent, was only meaningful if it were carried by the media. It was not more about the warning (others) than about causing one person pain. The question that haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?”
(Source: Wikipedia: Necklacing)
In March 1993 Carter made a trip to Sudan. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to an emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (Source: Wikipedia: Kevin Carter)
It is unknown what happened to this young girl after this photo was taken. What is widely known is that Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, presented to him on May 23, 1994 at Columbia University.
On July 27, 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river, near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:
“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”
This is certainly not a new story, but it’s something that’s been on my heart lately. Photographers, journalists and writers give voice to suffering and chaos. Hopefully in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to it, thereby calling others to action. But in that moment and the moments immediately following, what are they doing about it? Would Kevin Carter be alive today if he had set down that camera and come to the aid of that little girl? Would the darkness have consumed him had he chosen to be a light instead of a neutral observer? I just don’t know.
I’ve said before that one of the occupational hazards of being a writer is that you’re always writing. Every situation becomes a potential story. But I never want to come to a place where what I put on paper becomes more important than inserting myself into the bigger story of life. Especially if by abandoning my mental pen and notebook I might have a hand in changing a tragedy into a happily ever after, or at least an after.
“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there’s all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” – Arthur Gordon
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“By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction” – William Osler