Alfredo Jaar (1956) Chilean-born artist, architect, and filmmaker New York-based

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  • Retelling Kevin Carter's Story

Alfredo Jaar (1956) Chilean-born artist, architect, and filmmaker New York-based

  • “All art is political.”
  • (“Interview with Alfredo Jaar” in European Alternatives, by Eva Otto, 20 December 2008)
  • “The Sound of Silence“
  • Jaar’s latest project, prepared by the artist for 13 years, retells the story of Kevin Carter and his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving Sudanese girl gazed by a vulture.
  • “This work is a theatre built for a single image, and a model of thinking about an image, and that might suggest that all images should be thought about.” (“Alfredo Jaar’s Sound of Silence” in British Journal of Photography, by Diane Smith, 12 September 2009)

Very strong ethical debate:

  • There were several accusations against Carter:
  • for setting up the scene (Afrikaans journalists);
  • for having the cruel heart of taking the photo when the child seemed in pain:
  • “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”
  • (“The Life and Death of Kevin Carter” in Time, by Scott MacLeod, 12 September 1994)
  • for not helping the child after he took the photo.


  • the photo was taken in the very close proximity of a feeding centre;
  • Carter affirmed he chased away the vulture and saw the girl resuming her way to the feeding centre;
  • Carter was embedded with military troops at the moment.
  • What do you think is
  • Alfredo Jaar’s message?
  • First Interpretation
  • "Mr. Jaar does exploit a sensational story, and in shaping it, he manipulates us."
  • "Mr. Jaar is a tuned hybrid of set designer, art director, editorial writer and graphic designer," using all "journalism's basic components - images, information and narrative – and placing them in slick," accusing the artist for trivializing Kevin Carter's story.
  • (New York Times)
  • “Carter had to numb himself to the pain around him. It’s a self-defense mechanism. You can imagine how he had just watched thousands of people starving to death, far too many to help, and how that small, frail girl seemed like another joining the masses. But you also think how easy it would have been to pick up that one tiny, frail body and carry her to safety, to give her food. And that’s what Carter realized and could not live with.”
  • (HoustonPress)

Ethical & Legal Issues that can be addressed adopting this interpretation:

  • Is it ethical:
  • to teach ethics through manipulation?
  • (- artistic manipulation of language and narrative rhythm;
  • - repeating Carter’s name as a whispered sad lamentation;
  • - omitting that Carter's suicide ghastly followed the death of his best friend, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed by friendly-fire in Thokoza township);
  • Is it ethical
  • to explore human response to the suffering of others by provoking new sufferings?
  • (new intrusion to Carter's family's grief and to his memory);
  • Would the intrusion to Carter’s family grief stand for a strong case in court?
  • Would the mentioning of Corbis and Bill Gates’ names stand for a strong case in court as bad publicity?
  • No – due to the savvy presentation.
  • (no direct accusations or implications)
  • Second Interpretation
  • “The Sound of Silence” installation as an invitation to meditation over media’s ethics.
  • Responsibilities are not belonging to the individual photographer who surprised others’ sufferings but of those who control their circulation and dissemination and of those who are asking for them (media practitioners and consumers.)
  • “Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence is a threnody for South African photographer Kevin Carter, a committed witness who became a tragic sacrifice and a scapegoat for our guilty desire to see images of others’ suffering.
  • Blaming the photographer who makes these images is like blaming the soldier for what’s going on in Iraq. The photographer and the soldier are our representatives, our surrogates. We put them in position to do our bidding. The troops didn’t start the war and they don’t decide how it is prosecuted. Photojournalists take the kind of pictures that they know they can sell to news organizations, who sell them to us. Kevin Carter wouldn’t have gone to Sudan on his own. We put him there. We put him in front of that starving child, and then accused him od moral detachment for making the image we wanted him to make. Where is our moral engagement in this? Where is our complicity? And where is our forgiveness?”
  • David Levi Strauss Excerpt from his essay in the FOTOFEST2006 Catalogue
  • “…to document these realities is their way of intervening.”
  • “…in fact we are the vultures, the vulture is us. We are the ones who are guilty of such criminal, barbaric indifference. And the vulture didn’t need to open its wings to make that point.”
  • (“Inconversation” in The Brooklyn Rail, by Phong Bui, Dore Ashton, and David Levi Strauss, April 2009)

Ethical Issue

  • Is Jaar’s accusation towards media professionals and consumers an ethical one?
  • Is he not eluding the important role media has of informing?
  • (for instance, the image of the starving Sudanese girl called world’s attention to famine in Sudan and pressured U.N. to intensify their efforts)

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