Getting a Winning Shot

Book with Kevin Carter's picture. (Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)

Photographer Kevin Carter watched the vulture and the starving child crouched in the sand. A freelancer from South Africa, Carter was in Sudan to film the 1993 famine. When he got a good angle, bird in the background, child up close, he snapped away, sold the photo to the New York Times, and a year later won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

An earlier winner for a startling image was Eddie Adams. 25 years before, in Vietnam, the Associated Press photographer caught the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong officer on a Saigon street. Adams had been following the buildup ─ seen in the frames of his contact sheet ─ as the prisoner was led to the chief of the Vietnam police force, then shot. He said he thought the man was only being brought to interrogation.

Adams wasn’t happy about his Pulitzer for spot photography. “I was given money for showing one man killing another…I was a hero.”

Kevin Carter had trouble with his win too. He got flak for not helping the child, UN feeding center nearby, instead, fiddling with composition. He said once done, he shooed the bird away.

This year Ali Mahmud offers up a contrast. He didn’t win a Pulitzer like the other two or stumble upon a tragic scene but he did all right for himself. He might even have gotten a lift to the site with the killers.

The Missouri School of Journalism gave its top award for Team Picture Story of the Year to the Associated Press for the “collaborative effort of a photography staff,” the shooters from Gaza on October 7th. Mahmud’s picture of terrorists in a pickup truck carting off the body of Nova rave victim Shani Louk, one pointing  at his prize, led the pack. (In a second photo, the terrorist, face still rabid, is looking directly into the camera.)  Missouri defended its choice: the image captures “the harsh realities of war.”

But there was no war when Mahmud and “the staff” filmed away. They were at a massacre, got a scoop, then a prize. A crime against humanity ─ defined by the London Charter, the basis of Nuremberg, as “murder, extermination, enslavement, and other inhumane acts against a civilian population” ─ was ongoing and it seems they didn’t warn, intervene or just turn away. It was a photo op.

Kevin Carter and Eddie Adams caught decisive moments on their own. Despite blowback on Carter and Adams’ regrets, their pictures did some good. Donations for food to Sudan increased; opposition to the war in Vietnam rose.

Ali Mahmud’s win is a far cry from then.  Moral questions have been raised, petitions to rescind signed, a lot said. Did he and the other photographers know about the attack plans, did they hitch a ride with the terrorists? The Associate Press denies the men knew. A school of journalism has honored their on-the-spot camerawork. Rights to Ali Mahmud’s photo can be licensed on the Associated Press site, prices ranging from $35 for editorial use on a digital platform to $495 for corporate use (website, presentation or company newsletter).

Ethical concerns are disturbingly not in the picture.

About the Author
Donna Schatz is an Israeli-American photographer, documentary producer and former TV camerawoman who worked in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon as well as Bosnia and the US.
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