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HBO: How did you come to Kevin Carter, and what compelled you to want to tell his story?
Dan Krauss: I came to Kevin Carter in much the same way many photojournalists have, which is by hearing of his legend, a cautionary tale of the dangers of witnessing extreme degrees of bloodshed. He is known as the man who had seen too much, who had witnessed this extraordinary period in South Africa, who had taken this very famous photograph and was tormented by what he had seen.
That's as much as I knew going into this story. And, of course, I was drawn to this mystery. The mystery of why Kevin had taken his own life so soon after winning the Pulitzer Prize, which by any measure is the highest achievement for a journalist.
What I discovered was that Kevin's story is much larger than just that question. It's an epic parable that really questions morality in the technical age where history is photographed and recorded. Kevin's story is really emblematic of a dilemma that has a very broad scope, and has to deal with this question of whether it is better to document or to intervene in scenes of suffering.
HBO: What were your first impressions when you began to speak with family and colleagues who worked with him?
Dan Krauss: One of the more emotional moments was meeting Kevin's family and friends face to face for the first time. because In my mind, he had grown to be sort of this legendary fellow. He almost had the attributes of a fictional character. Of course, I knew from a practical level that this was not the case, but when I first entered his parents' home and saw their family photos and saw remnants of Kevin's life, I remember being struck by the realization that Kevin was a human being first, and a legend second. I can still feel it now.
HBO: Give a little context about what it was like working in South Africa at that time.
Dan Krauss: The violence which accompanied the decline of apartheid and the emergence of a democratic society in South Africa was extraordinarily brutal. People were hacked to death and burned alive in front of Kevin Carter's lens. Many photographers are able to use the camera as an emotional shield to protect themselves from what they're witnessing. But Kevin was as exposed emotionally as his film was to the images that he saw.
He, in some ways, was perhaps not adequately suited to do this kind of work because it took its toll on him in a much more serious way than it did his colleagues. That's not to say his colleagues weren't also deeply affected. They were.
And the environment at that time--there was a lot of drinking and drugging going on, but it was not purely hedonistic. It was a reaction to the difficulty, the strain of this work. You have to imagine, it's almost like hopping between hot and cold water.You would spend your mornings taking photographs and reporting on the violence that happened the night before, which was often going into the townships and trying to find burned corpses, or hacked-up bodies,.And then you would spend the afternoon in the suburbs having tea and filing your pictures.
And so you had this huge disconnect between these two realities that were very closely situated. Photographers were constantly moving between the safety and comfort of the suburbs and this hellish world of violence and chaos in the townships. And they were trapped between those two worlds. They were lost in a sense. They didn't really have a firm footing in either world, and I think that caused some dysfunction.
HBO: The reaction to Kevin's famous photograph-- can you talk a little bit about the impact that had on him.
Dan Krauss: Winning the Pulitzer was the strongest affirmation that his work was being noticed, and that his work was having an effect lLike many of the photographers in South Africa during this period, Kevin believed that photographs could indeed change the world, as they did in Vietnam for the United States. You could argue that those photographs changed public policy, changed the course of the war; changed the world.
And Kevin and his contemporaries hoped to achieve that same goal. They believed that photographs could help bring attention to Africa, and in turn help cure some of its ills. And this photograph was the strongest affirmation of that ideal. And so it was a huge boost to Kevin, but at the same time it was accompanied by this criticism about his behavior, how he should have acted in Sudan. And it weighed on him tremendously. The criticism that was leveled at him was devastating to him because I think in part he questioned whether the criticism was indeed valid.
HBO: The criticism being, Am I exploiting my subject or am I helping?
Dan Krauss: Yes. It brought to the fore an issue that had been in his mind throughout his entire career as a photographer,which is: what is the right thing to do? Is it to make the photograph or to attempt to save the victims? Are the victims even savable? Can I do anything with my own two hands to change the situation or is the camera the best means to an end to accomplish change? And that is a question that was pervasive throughout his entire career, and this single photograph of the vulture and the child brought that question into sharp relief. And I think what tormented him is that he didn't have an answer to it. It wasn't an easy problem to solve, and that haunted him.
And then of course the other factor with that photograph is that it brought him a great deal of acclaim. And I think it's difficult for anyone to live up to that sort of expectation. When you take a Pulitzer Prize winning picture, suddenly you have been vaulted into an entirely new league of photography. And I think he had a lot of self-doubt as to whether he could live up to his reputation now that he had won a Pulitzer. And the fact that his best friend, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed while Kevin was being interviewed about his Pulitzer Prize made him tremendously guilty because he was not there when Ken died. He felt that Ken was the person most deserving of a Pulitzer. He was considered by many, including Kevin, to be the best photographer in South Africa during that period.
HBO: Kevin's daughter Megan had a very interesting take on the photo.
Dan Krauss: She said something very enlightening I thought, and wise beyond her years, because she was a sixteen year old when she spoke to me. She said that in the photograph of the vulture and the child she actually saw Kevin as the child and the world as the vulture. It was a very interesting perspective because a lot of people envisioned Kevin as the vulture, if you apply the symbolism of that picture to Kevin Carter's particular circumstance.
Many people thought that photojournalistsat large, and in this case Kevin Carter specifically, were the vultures praying on the suffering of other people with their cameras. But Megan reversed that whole archetype. She put Kevin in place of the child who was suffering and being watched by the world.
HBO: What can we take away from Kevin's story?
Dan Krauss: I think what we can take away from it is a broader understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject, subject and photographer, subject and the world, photographer and the world. This is a very complex relationship. One thing I hope audiences take away is this understanding that beyond the borders of the frame lies a much larger and perhaps more meaningful context and that as viewers, we need to think of photographs as things which provoke us to take action, to make us think about the broader context in which the photograph was taken, and to truly understand its benefit. The benefit of a photograph is also part of its value in terms of spurring people into action. I think that's what Kevin wanted. I think that's what many great photographers want. And I hope that message comes through loud and clear.
When a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Debates, Give or Take
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
PARIS — There is a civil contract implied by photographs. An Israeli writer, Ariella Azoulay, published a book making that point. Henri Cartier-Bresson made it too. He described shooting pictures of people as a “sort of violation,” adding, “if sensitivity is lacking, there can be something barbaric about it.” There can be, of course, and not just when the subject doesn’t like the image.
We, viewing the pictures, are complicit. As consumers of images we bear witness through them. Or we’re voyeurs. In either case we complete a transaction that we instigated, in that a photograph is made hoping someone will look at it. It’s a message tossed into the ocean of time, and how we read that message, whether indifferently or with compassion, can have moral dimensions.
All this is the familiarly messy, philosophical heart of photography, and it’s also the subject of a show that just closed here, itself a mess. “Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography” was organized by Christian Pirker and Daniel Girardin, a lawyer and a curator from Switzerland, where the exhibition originated. Louvre-length, two-hour lines daily snaked out the door of the Bibliothèque Nationale here until the end of last month. (The show moves on to South America.) Inside, scrums of visitors clustered before 80 or so pictures, more or less famous troublemakers, spanning the era of the daguerreotype through Abu Ghraib.
Like everywhere else, sex and violence sell in Paris. “Controversies” ended with a David LaChapelle photograph of a white stallion nibbling on Angelina Jolie’s bare breast, the ostensible excuse for which was some legal squabble about depicting sex with animals.
There were also wall texts about copyright and fair use laws, about public decency debates, hoaxes and shifting social standards to accompany pictures like Annelies Strba’s photograph of a 12-year-old girl named Sonja in her bubble bath, Secundo Pia’s picture of the Shroud of Turin, Todd Maisel’s dismembered hand from 9/11 and Paul Watson’s image of the corpse of an American Marine dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by an angry mob.
Near Kevin Carter’s unbearable view of a starving, huddled Sudanese child stalked by a vulture, an advertisement by Oliviero Toscani for Benetton posed two glamorous models as nun and priest, kissing.
A mess, as I said. But willy-nilly, some big questions arose. The biggest, as Mr. Girardin ventured by telephone the other day, was, “What is possible to show in a photograph?” He elaborated: “What does society accept or refuse? Why are some pictures shown over and over, and then they suddenly become unacceptable?”
In that case he was alluding to a portrait by Boris Lipnitzki from 1946, not a remarkable photograph but a curious case. Jean-Paul Sartre leans over the footlights at the Théâtre Antoine, pinching the remains of a smoldering cigarette between his fingers. This is the picture that in 2005 the Bibliothèque Nationale doctored for the cover of a catalog for a Sartre exhibition. The library expunged the cigarette. Nearly a decade earlier French postal authorities, as part of a national anti-smoking campaign, issued a stamp based on a famous snapshot by Gisèle Freund of André Malraux, tousled, perennial cigarette between lips. Authorities guillotined the cigarette.
That rightly burned French critics who decried — this was the French equivalent of freedom fries, you might say — what they called American-style political correctness, notwithstanding that the history of photography is rife with subterfuges concocted in the name of some greater social good, American and otherwise. It happens that “Controversies” included one of those tinkered Soviet photographs of Stalin from which Nikolai Yezhov, bloodthirsty head of the secret police, himself executed when he fell out of favor, has been purged like Malraux’s Gauloise.
One regime’s moral authority is another’s tyranny.
Which gets back to the original question about civic contracts. By virtue of its economy and proliferation, photography has been one of the most convenient weapons of the powerless even while it serves the powers that be. During the early 1960s, when French authorities required Algerians to have identity cards, a conscript in the French Army, Marc Garanger, was ordered to shoot their portraits. He photographed some 2,000 Algerian women, many of whom had been, until they uncovered themselves for his camera, veiled throughout their adult lives.
This was a profound violation for these women. Making the pictures turned Mr. Garanger entirely against French rule. He registered his opposition in these official portraits, through the humanity of his subjects, whose anger, which the pictures make perfectly obvious, conveyed both their oppression and resistance.
“For 24 months I never stopped, sure that one day I would be able to testify with these images,” Mr. Garanger recalled two decades later. “All of this I did with more force than the dominant military ideology of the era that surrounded me with hatred and violence.”
With more enduring effect anyway. A particularly beautiful portrait of a woman named Cherid Barkaoun, mournful but proud, large eyes kohl-rimmed, hair braided, absently clutching a scarf to her chest as if to keep hold of some sliver of privacy, reaches across half a century.
Compelling our attendance in a very different respect are the blurry, clandestine photographs shot at Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944, by a Sonderkommando, one of the prisoners forced to assist in the exterminations, a Greek Jew known as Alex. He perished like the rest. The only photographic remains of the mass killing in process, these pictures include a view taken through a doorway from inside one of the gas chambers. (The black of the door frame serves as an obvious metaphor.)
Bodies are being cremated in a pit outside. Apparently too many victims overwhelmed the Nazi crematoriums. So under a bright sun, several figures, other Sonderkommandos, one of them walking as if on a tightrope among the corpses, stand before plumes of rising smoke and mounds of the dead in the open field, waiting to throw more remains on the pyre.
I stress this gruesome photograph because a few years ago a debate transpired in France over whether these pictures should be seen at all. Claude Lanzmann, the director of “Shoah,” and two others, Gérard Wajcman and Elisabeth Pagnoux, insisted they shouldn’t, that what happened at the camps can’t be adequately represented in archival snapshots, which provide only some fraction of the truth. “Archival images are images without imagination,” Mr. Lanzmann explained at the time, having avoided them in his film by relying on testimonials, which by implication presented the Holocaust as an enduring calamity.
Against Mr. Lanzmann’s injunction, Georges Didi-Huberman, a French art historian, wrote a book defending the value of looking at the Birkenau pictures. It seems absurd now, a debate from Planet Academe. The pictures need to be seen, to bear witness to what happened, because knowing is better than not knowing, and also to complete the transaction with Alex and a dozen others who sneaked the camera into the camp and smuggled the negatives out in a tube of toothpaste.
But tortured though it was, at heart that French debate revolved around a deep truth. Years ago Susan Sontag recalled her first sight, at 12, of the pictures taken by British soldiers arriving at Bergen-Belsen. “When I looked at those photographs, something broke,” she wrote in “On Photography.” “Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror. I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying. To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them.”
To see something, in other words, is to face the prospect of becoming inured to it, even if only slightly. Photographs reveal horrors to which they also accustom viewers. That was the ultimate problem with “Controversies.” The show squandered our mercy for a rambling survey.
It violated the civil contract. Even that image of the starving Sudanese child becomes a little easier to bear. Not much easier, maybe, but just enough to recall Cartier-Bresson’s word, barbaric. He was talking about portraits and street scenes, not pictures of incomprehensible suffering. But the same emotional transactions apply.
It’s not just the perpetrators’ barbarism but ours that photographs like these expose.