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The Spectacle of Violence

in Alfredo Jaar's The Sound of Silence


In March 1993, Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist took a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young famine-stricken Sudanese toddler eyed by a vulture several feet away. Carter had been documenting the famine in South Sudan, and the young girl depicted in his image had collapsed on her way to a nearby United Nations feeding center. Carter had watched from a distance for some twenty minutes to capture the scene. Once the image had been taken, he chased away the vulture and left the child behind, on orders given to photojournalists “not to touch famine victims for fear of spreading disease.”[1] Shortly after it was taken, the image was bought by the New York Times and reproduced by newspapers worldwide. Hundreds of people wrote asking what had happened to the girl, and many criticized Carter for not intervening. Three months after receiving a Pulitzer Prize for the image, Carter died by suicide.


In 2006, Alfredo Jaar created an installation dedicated to Carter’s image, The Vulture and the Little Girl. The work took the form of a vessel that visitors could enter to watch a film retelling the narrative behind the image, and detailing instances from Carter’s life around the taking of the photograph. While Jaar’s film focused on the photograph, the story was told through text; short sentences written against a black background and silence, in white pulsating font mimicking the flash of a camera. This paper takes The Sound of Silence as a case study analyzing how Jaar’s interactive work is able to reenact the spectacle created by photography, through the production of an installation using mechanisms comparable to that of the camera. Through a deconstruction of The Sound of Silence, I argue that the piece simultaneously replicates and subverts the effects of the image on its viewers by historicizing the photograph and framing it according to a new logic emphasizing its auteur as opposed to its subject.


[1] "The Vulture and the Little Girl," Rare Historical Photos, December 24, 2013,

Presented at “Fictions and Frictions: The Power and Politics of Narrative,” Art History Symposium
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,

 March 2, 2019

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