Tarver received his BFA in journalism and graphic arts from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma and his MFA in fine arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He worked as a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for over thirty years. In 2012, he was the joint recipient of the Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer for his work on a series documenting school violence in the Philadelphia public school system. He was also awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He currently teaches at Swarthmore College.