Kevin Carter was born in apartheid South Africa and grew up in a middle-class, whites-only neighborhood. As a child, he occasionally saw police raids to arrest blacks who were illegally living in the area. He said later that he questioned how his parents, a Catholic, "liberal" family, could be what he described as 'lackadaisical' about fighting against apartheid.
After high school, Carter dropped out of his studies to become a pharmacist and was drafted into the army, which he hated. To escape from the infantry he signed up for the professional air force, mistakenly trapping himself into four years of service. In 1980, he witnessed a black mess-hall waiter being insulted. Carter defended the man, resulting in him being badly beaten by the other soldiers. He then went AWOL, attempted to start a new life as a radio disk-jockey named "David". This, however, proved more difficult than he had anticipated. Suffering from depression, he attempted suicide. Soon after, he decided to serve out the rest of his required military service. After witnessing the Church Street bombing in Pretoria in 1983, he decided he wanted to become a news photographer.
In March 1993, while on a trip to Sudan, Carter was preparing to photograph a starving toddler trying to reach a feeding center when a vulture landed nearby. Carter reported to have taken the picture, because it was his "job title", and leaving. He came under criticism for failing to help the girl:
The St. Petersburg Times in Florida said this of Carter: "The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene."
Sold to the New York Times, the photograph first appeared on March 26, 1993. Hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask the fate of the girl. The paper reported that it was unknown whether she had managed to reach the feeding center. In 1994, the photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
João Silva, a Portuguese photojournalist based in South Africa who accompanied Carter to Sudan, gave a different version of events in an interview with Japanese journalist and writer Akio Fujiwara that was published in Fujiwara's book The Boy who Became a Postcard (絵葉書にされた少年 - Ehagaki ni sareta shōnen).
According to Silva, they (Carter and Silva) went to Sudan with the United Nations aboard Operation Lifeline Sudan and landed in Southern Sudan on March 11, 1993. The UN told them that they would take off again in 30 minutes (the time necessary to distribute food), so they ran around looking to take shots. The UN started to distribute corn and the women of the village came out of their wooden huts to meet the plane. Silva went looking for guerrilla fighters, while Carter strayed no more than a few dozen feet from the plane.
Again according to Silva, Carter was quite shocked as it was the first time that he had seen a famine situation and so he took many shots of the children suffering from famine. Silva also started to take photos of children on the ground as if crying, which were not published. The parents of the children were busy taking food from the plane, so they had left their children only briefly while they collected the food. This was the situation for the girl in the photo taken by Carter. A vulture landed behind the girl. To get the two in focus, Carter approached the scene very slowly so as not to scare the vulture away and took a photo from approximately 10 metres. He took a few more photos before chasing the bird away.
Two Spanish photographers who were in the same area at that time, José María Luis Arenzana and Luis Davilla, without knowing the photograph of Kevin Carter, took a picture in a similar situation. As recounted on several occasions, it was a feeding center, and the vultures came from a manure pit waste:
"We took him and Pepe Arenzana to Ayod, where most of the time were in a feeding center where locals go. At one end of the enclosure, was a dump where waste and was pulling people to defecate. As these children are so weak and malnourished they are going head giving the impression that they are dead. As part of the fauna there are vultures go for these remains. So if you grab a telephoto crush the child's perspective in the foreground and background and it seems that the vultures will eat it, but that's an absolute hoax, perhaps the animal is 20 meters."
On 27 July 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, aged 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."