Perilous line between observer and player

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am


They were two photos that shocked the conscience of the world, yet their outcomes could not have been more different for the photographers who took them and the children in them. Two of the most iconic photographs of the second half of the 20th century, they should put to rest any doubt about the world-changing power of great photojournalism, but the stories behind them tell much about the heavy responsibility of those who took them.

Friday was the 40th anniversary of the photo that brought home the full horrors of the Vietnam war. Nine-year-old Kim Phuc was photographed among several terrified children running from a burning village that had been bombed by South Vietnamese warplanes. Phuc was naked and crying because napalm had burned off her clothes and layers of skin.

Vietnamese photojournalist Huynh Cong 'Nick' Ut took the shot and then carried Phuc to a nearby hospital, demanding that medical staff give her adequate treatment. Some time later, other foreign photographers helped arrange for her to be treated in a better-equipped US-run hospital. If Ut had not helped her and she had died, he would have killed himself, Ut said. Phuc held and kissed Ut on Friday at a party held in Toronto to honour him.

The second iconic picture was taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 during the Sudan famine. A vulture is seen stalking a starving child with her head on the ground under a burning sun. Carter walked away after taking the shot, for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize. No one knew for sure what happened to the child, though Carter said she was not far from her mother and an aid centre.

The photo helped raise worldwide awareness of the famine in Sudan. But questions about Carter's behaviour contributed to his unstable personality, according to colleagues Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva in their book The Bangbang Club. He suffered from depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. Carter killed himself after winning the prize.

We were not there; we cannot judge. But I would like to think everyone has a responsibility to help those in peril - journalism is no excuse.