Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music (Day Three). “Click, Click, Click, Click, Click …”

I could have chosen a number of Manic Street Preachers songs for today’s Song of the Day.  I could have chosen Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning) from Everything Must Go (1996) about Willem De Kooning’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and his ability to produce some of the most acclaimed work of his career during this period; I could have chosen Between The Clock and The Bed, from Futurology (2014), named after a 1940 self portrait by Norwegian artist Edward Munch; I could have chosen Black Square from the same album, named in tribute to the 1915 work by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement; I could have even chosen La Tristessa Durera (A Scream To A Sigh) from Gold Against The Soul (1993), the title of which is taken from Vincent Van Gogh’s last words.  I considered all of these songs but then decided to look at Kevin Carter from Everything Must Go, which tells the story of the South African photojournalist of the same name.  I then got into a debate with myself over whether photojournalism is a ‘visual art’.  I feel that photojournalism can be a visual art.  In fine art photography, the artist pays careful attention to aspects such as the composition, the focus, the lighting and the poses of the figures in the photograph.  The artist looks for work where everything came together to create something unique.  Art is a communication so therefore, photojournalism is no less disadvantaged than any other form of photography.  In the modern age, museums in many countries show the work of photojournalists as art.

Kevin Carter was born in 1960.  He began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and became associated with what has come to be known as The Bang Bang Club.  The Bang Bang Club was primarily made up of four photographers (Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva) who were active in the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, during the transition from the Apartheid system to a government based upon universal suffrage.  Following the lifting of bans on ANC and IFP, there was much black on black factional violence between the supporters of the political parties.  The name The Bang Bang Club was coined by the South African magazine Living.  The group was first described as The Bang Bang Paparazzi but ‘Paparazzi’ was dropped in favour of ‘Club’ as the members felt the term misrepresented their work.  The name is derived from the way in which township residents spoke to the group about the “bang-bang” referring to the violence occurring within their communities.  More literally, “bang-bang” refers to the sound of gunfire and is a colloquialism used by conflict photographers.  Kevin Carter was the first photojournalist to capture a public execution by ‘necklacing’ in South Africa in the Mid-1980s.  He would later say of this:  “The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced if there was no media coverage?’”  Carter’s professional life with riddled with conflicts between professional responsibilities and moral considerations.  He was also deeply affected by the death of colleague Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed by friendly fire during a fire fight between the National Peacekeeping Force and African National Congress supporters in the Thokoza township on the 18th April 1994.  Greg Marinovich was left seriously injured.

Kevin Carter’s life became irreparably altered in 1993 when he took a picture of a 2 year old Sudanese girl, a famine victim, attempting to make her way to the feeding centre.  As he crouched nearby, Carter saw a vulture landing close to the girl.  Positioning himself as not to disturb the bird of prey, he took the picture which would gain him notoriety when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994. On winning the much coveted prize, Carter jubilantly wrote to his parents saying. “I swear I got the most applause of anybody.  I can’t wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive”.  However, this initial joy was short lived.

Carter would later admit that he waited for about 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings.  Once he realised it would not, he took the photograph and chased the bird away before the girl resumed her struggle.  Following this admission, friends and colleagues of the photographer began to question why Carter had not done more to help the girl and whilst the photograph was highly acclaimed by many, many others were critical of the ethics employed by the photographer.  Following his Pulitzer Prize win, Florida’s St Petersburg Times said of the photograph: “The man adjusting his lens to take the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”.

Carter’s life was spiraling dangerously out of control.  He began to use drugs heavily in order to help him cope with the guilt that he felt and the adulation he had received for the photograph all over the world, as well as death and destruction he had witnessed.  One of his drugs of choice was ‘dagga’, South Africa’s locally supplied marijuana, which escalated to an addiction to the ‘white pipe’, a lethal mixture of dagga and Mandrax, a banned tranquiliser. He also quit his job working with the Weekly Mail and joined Reuters News Agency with whom he began by covering the country’s first multiracial elections.  Soon though, his job with Reuters would be under threat due to his drug use and the questionable quality of his work.  On one occasion, for example, Carter was told to stay in Cape Town in order to cover French President Francois Mitterrand’s state visit to South Africa.  The story was front page news but according to various sources, Carter sent his film in too late and when the photographs did arrive, there were several complaints that they were too poor to use.  At this time, Carter openly spoke about suicide, on one occasion threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas himself to death.  On the 27th July 1994, racked with guilt and sadness, the 33 year old Kevin Carter parked his pick-up truck near to a place where he used to play and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving a suicide note reading:

“I’m really, really sorry.  The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist … 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, or killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The Manic Street Preachers’ tribute to Kevin Carter features lyrics written by founding member Richey Edwards, who had disappeared on the 1st February 1995.  Draw parallels if you will to the effects that the imagery expressed in his lyrics and fame had on Edwards to the effects that the imagery expressed in his photographs and fame had on Carter.  A powerful retelling of the life and death of Kevin Carter, the song reached number 9 in the UK singles chart on the 12th October 1996.  The song documents Carter’s rise to fame in the wake of his most famous photograph (“Hi Time Magazine, Hi Pulitzer Prize”), his guilt at not having helped the girl in the photograph and drug use in order to quell feelings of guilt (“Vulture stalked white piped lie forever”), the attitude of some and eventually the photographer himself to his work, describing it as the elephant in the room (“The elephant is so ugly, sleep it’s head”) and his death in the final verse (“Click, click, click, click, click, Click himself under”).  The song Kevin Carter represents the photojournalist’s descent into madness caused by guilt as a result of sacrificing morality for art and his death as a result, as seen through the lens of the world.