Death Through the Lens

Photography can be a dangerous art both for the exponents and their subjects.

The Most Beautiful Suicide

On May 1, 1947, twenty three-year old Evelyn McHale threw herself from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. She fell a thousand feet and landed on the roof of a limousine. Four minutes later, photography student Robert Wiles arrived at the scene attracted by the loud band. He found Evelyn’s body embedded in the indentation in a pose reminiscent of peaceful sleep, her face bearing a serene expression. Weeks later, Wiles’s image was published in Life magazine. The contrast between the violent, lethal force of the fall and the beauty of Evelyn’s repose made it a memorable and iconic image. It achieved even greater fame when Andy Warhol appropriated it.

Leap to Freedom

One of the iconic images of the Cold War is of a young East German border guard vaulting over razor wire into West Berlin in the early days of the construction of the Berlin Wall. In 1961, Conrad Schumann defected after seeing a young boy who had attempted to cross the barrier being dragged back to the eastern side. As Schumann himself crossed over, the moment was captured by photographer Peter Leibing. Leibing, then nineteen, won the Overseas Press Club Best Photograph award and his career blossomed.

Schumann, meanwhile, having left behind his family and friends in the East, began a new life in West Germany. He married, had children and signed copies of the photograph which became a compelling symbol for would-be defectors. But he was deeply troubled both by his desertion of his family and friends and by his fear of the Stasi. Letters from his family in East Germany imploring him to return and visit them were in fact dictated by the Stasi who were anxious to get a hold of GDR’s most famous defector.

In 1989 after the fall of the Wall, he did return to visit his hometown. Already suffering from depression, Conrad was disturbed by his former comrades’ belief that he was a traitor. He committed suicide in 1998.

The Vulture

In March 1933, Kevin Carter flew in to the village of Ayod to cover the famine in Southern Sudan. While adults were retrieving food from the UN plane, Carter photographed the children who had been momentarily left alone. One was a young girl, so weakened by starvation that she could barely crawl. As Carter framed the picture, a vulture landed in the background. He took the photograph and flew out again.

After it was published in the New York Times, Carter became famous. But along with the accolades were questions about why he had done nothing to help the girl. With her fate unknown, Carter was compared to the other subject of the image, the vulture. In April the following year, he received the Pulitzer Prize for photography. Two months later, with his career at its peak but struggling with long-standing depression made worse by the criticism, drug use and financial problems, Kevin Carter asphyxiated himself with carbon monoxide from his pickup truck.

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