Photojournalist Kevin Carter was born in South Africa in 1960, the year of the Sharpville Massacre, when the South African police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing 69 people. He gassed himself to death in 1994 after receiving the Pulitzer Prize. Artist Alfredo Jaar’s installation The Sound of Silenceat DiverseWorks tells what happened to Carter in between.
You have to wait for the green light before you enter Jaar’s installation. It runs on a precise cycle that builds dramatic tension. Sitting on benches in a darkened room, you watch as Jaar silently tells Carter’s story through a projection with white typewriter-style text on a black background. Brief sentences, the lines of the story fade in and out of the screen.
As a young man, Carter was conscripted into the South African security forces, but he went AWOL after his fellow soldiers beat him for shielding a black waiter they were attacking. He later wound up working at a camera repair shop and from there found his way into photojournalism, working for a Johannesburg newspaper. He and three other risk-taking white photographers became known as the Bang-Bang Club, as they documented riots, murders and atrocities. They were often arrested themselves.
In 1993, Carter went to Sudan. After landing in Ayod, he immediately began photographing famine victims, wandering among the masses of people starving to death. In exhaustion, he walked into the brush and heard a faint sound. It was a tiny girl trying to make her way to a feeding station. As he was about to photographer her, a vulture landed behind her. He sat and waited for 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings. It never did, and Carter took the photograph anyway. Then he shooed the vulture away, sat under a tree and lit a cigarette as he watched the small girl struggle on. Under the tree he “talked to God” and cried.
He sold the stark, tragic picture of the girl on her hands and knees and the vulture watching in greedy anticipation to The New York Times. It was circulated around the world through other news agencies. Thousands of people wrote to him, wanting to know what had happened to the little girl. Why didn’t he help her? The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and in July of that year, he killed himself by hooking up a garden hose to the tailpipe of his truck. In his suicide note, he wrote, “I am really, really sorry, I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children…The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
In capturing the tragedies and injustices of the world, 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 had seemed like just 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.
I won’t give away all of Jaar’s installation, but suffice to say it is an incredibly powerful meditation on violence and humanity. The DiverseWorks exhibition is a part of FotoFest, and it was jointly commissioned by the two organizations. It is the best thing in all of FotoFest 2006. The biennial photography festival has not one but two themes this year: “The Earth” and “Artists Responding to Violence.” Each theme seems tailor-made to work that leans toward the literal and photojournalistic, and by and large, that’s what FotoFest has delivered. But the Jaar exhibition is a stellar exception.
The majority of the “Artists Responding to Violence” segment is at FotoFest’s Vine Street headquarters. It’s a typical FotoFestian conglomeration. The standouts at Vine Street are two videos: Two Brothers and Mouths of Ash by Juan Manuel Echavarra. In both videos, a series of Colombians who have survived massacres sing haunting songs about what they have witnessed. The camera holds in tightly on their faces, ravaged by life, poverty and what they have seen. The incredibly moving work makes you want to immerse yourself in their faces and their laments. Unfortunately, it’s shown on a monitor in a room crowded with photographs; the video would function much better with its own space or as a wall projection. Echavarra shows other work as well — a series photographing the possessions of people who were kidnapped, images of battered mannequins — but nothing is as strong as the video, and the other works detract from it. It would have been better to let the strongest piece stand alone.
Also addressing violence in Latin America, the series El Lamento de los Muros (The Wailing of the Walls) consists of large-scale, gritty black-and-white images by Paula Luttringer. Luttringer photographed the interiors of notorious Argentine secret prisons where people, Luttringer among them, were “disappeared” during the country’s “Dirty War.” The photographs are dark and purposely indistinct as they record the brutal, decrepit spaces where people were held. But the real power of the work comes from the testimonies Luttringer collected from fellow women who were disappeared. Small text boxes accompany every image; they contain stark accounts of imprisonment, torture, rape and life afterward. Integrating the text and images differently might have worked better — video also could be an option. Still, Luttringer’s work is a harsh reminder not only of what happened 30 years ago in Argentina, but of what people are capable of. The victims’ suffering didn’t end just because they survived.
The vestiges of another repressive regime are the subject of No. 65 (2003) by Nathalie Latham. Latham tells the story of her visit to a former secret Soviet city, a military complex with a plutonium plant, accompanying U.S. scientists studying the effects of radiation on chromosomes. Her story is told through accordion-folded books displayed on shelves and pasted with photographs, accompanied by the artist’s handwritten narrative. Some of the images of Soviet-esque offices are nice, and the information about the city is interesting, but many of Latham’s observations and dealings with people come across as superficial. The whole thing has the air of a “My Summer Vacation” school essay.
Some of the least illustrative works in the show are Liza Nguyen’s images from her trip to her father’s native Vietnam. Nguyen took samples of soil from notorious sites such as My Lai, where U.S. troops massacred more than 300 civilians, and Dien Bien Phu, the site of the epic French defeat. She poured out the soil and photographed it against a stark white background, printing the color images about four feet high. You stare at the different shades of earth in each photograph. The enlarged dirt particles yield no stories in and of themselves. But we project the histories of the places onto them — the napalm bombs, the bullets, the blood, the Agent Orange. The dirt bears witness to the lingering emotional, physical and environmental impacts of war.
There are a couple of other decent works in the show, but much of what remains runs to mildly interesting photojournalism and awkward digital photography. FotoFest did branch out with some 3-D work at Vine Street, but with disappointing results. During her husband’s deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, Elizabeth Mellot-Carren made a series of clay boxes and filled them with things like rose petals and photos. No doubt Diaries of Enlistment, 2003-2004 is personally meaningful to her, but it doesn’t translate to a larger audience — at all. The boxes come across as self-consciously sentimental. Meanwhile, her installation about rape, One Day, presents stacked and suspended female bodies cast from paper. The model was obviously a Barbie doll — not for the sake of pop-cultural commentary, but for the sake of convenience.
If only everything were as strong as the Jaar piece. FotoFest needs to be more open to photo-based work that pushes the envelope, but at the same time, it needs to be more selective. The Jaar piece was phenomenal, and going from it to Vine Street starkly illustrates the difference between photojournalism and art. Jaar is by no means the only artist out there making powerful, photo-based work, but too few of the others have found their way into FotoFest. We can only hope The Sound of Silence is a harbinger of things to come.