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May 19, 2004

Commentary on Prison Images

The following commentary was written by photographer John Rosenthal and will be running in the Philadelphia Enquirer tomorrow. They wanted a "photographer" to talk about the prison images from the point of view of photography itself. This was passed around via a campus email, although I'm still uncertain as to why this method is used to pass around such material.


Very few photographs change our minds about anything. One that did was Nick Ut's 1972 photograph in Trang Bang, Vietnam, of nine-year old Kim Phuc, running down a street naked and screaming after her house had been strafed with napalm.

I showed it to my mother in 1973, and all her opinions about the war in Vietnam changed. She became a dove overnight. My mother realized deep in her heart that she was more a mother than a patriot. And there were thousands of mothers like her in America who said, "Photographs don't lie. America must be doing something wrong."

So, in the highly charged, highly politicized arena of war, one photograph, a photograph that revisualizes the enemy, or ourselves, can change everything.

And the Pentagon knows it.

Nor is it surprising that the disturbing photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison were taken by a shutterbug from 320th Military Police Battalion clowning around with a cheap digital camera, and not by a professional journalist draped in lenses. Or that the video of Nick Berg's death was just a hand-held home movie of horror.

As it turns out, "embedded" professionals are too embedded - embedded in fighting units upon whose good-will and expertise their very lives depend; embedded in the Pentagon's need to control the flow of visual information, not only to protect the integrity of covert military operations but also to make sure that the nervous American public isn't frightened or disgusted by the reality of war; and embedded in the economic reality of selling newspapers back home to a readership that is generally happy not to know certain things.

Embeddedness, so it seems, not only means limited access, also it means that the savagery of war must be visualized within an aesthetic that is safe and marketable. The best war photographers in the world, hired by news magazines to cover the war in Iraq, had to settle for the exoticism of Baghdad, visual adventures in firepower, rich desert colors, and textures, the murky beauty of tanks in sandstorms, and the earnest faces of our brave young men. The rather ho-hum mysterious grandeur of war.

I realize now that it had to be snapshots, and hand-held video, not professional photographs, that brought the news home. Not only because cheap snapshot technology is everywhere (think: camera phones) and impossible to block, but because snapshots are not mediated by a sensibility we're forced to think about, either to distrust or admire. There's no ambitious artist/magician standing behind a snapshot worried about lighting, film, lenses and composition.

Snapshots are innocent and uncontrived, and, for the most part, happy. Like home videos, they don't bother with the elaborate ironies and machinations of art. We take them spontaneously, hoping to record what we'd like to remember. This usually means the best of times.

"Shock and awe" the Pentagon called it, but nobody except frightened civilians was really surprised by America's firepower. Real shock lies in the discrepancy between what we believe to be true and what isn't, an unmasking that occurs, shockingly, in a second or two. Looking at the snapshots from the Abu Ghraib prison, we recognize right away the comic elements we've seen in a thousand snapshots. It's the genre itself. We chuckle before we think. The chuckle is the point. There's the familiar, exaggerated machismo created typically for the camera, the silly, self-mocking thumbs-up gesture; a man, dressed like an action figure, sitting on another man's back; a pyramid of naked bodies; a man with a leash around his neck. Even the snapshot of the hooded man, naked and spreadeagled with electrodes attached, seems too grotesque to be anything but an elaborate visual joke, an attempt to recreate a cheesy S&M photo without a dominatrix. For a second or two, complicity between subject and photographer is assumed. Complicity is at the heart of most snapshots, but especially in those that depict sexual submission.

And then it hits us.

There is no complicity whatsoever. No more than between a German soldier and an old rabbi dancing naked in the streets of Berlin. This is not playing at degradation; this is degradation. It's even worse than torture because torture implies that someone's got something you need. As a cop, you've got to be serious about that. But these prisoners are beyond contempt. Everything they believe about human dignity can be mocked, especially the privacy of their bodies. It's kind of like a snuff film.

Americans at play. Shock and awe.

Of course it remains to be seen whether the Abu Ghraib snapshots will change anything. Some changes have happened already. Apparently, torture during interrogation is out. And President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have apologized, some say meaninglessly, to the Iraqi people and offered reparations. A military court-martial will try and undoubtedly convict the photographer and his foolish cohorts.

Meanwhile, a Christian evangelical tells me that George Bush is God's mercy to the godless Iraqis. The military police in the photographs, he says, were simply young men and women who hadn't been raised well. And Rush Limbaugh asked his listening audience: "You ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off?"

Posted by Woundwort at May 19, 2004 09:18 AM | TrackBack
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Americans at play. Shock and awe.

I like his premise here - or is it his conclusion? Americans are inherently vicious, degrading abusers, who basically lack redeeming qualities. America is basically Nazi Germany, hence the comparison to rabbis and SS soldiers.

In the old days, it would get you tarred and feathered to look at a few people engaged in bad acts and condemn a country. Today, this column ought to win a Pulitzer. Talk about progress, huh?

And did Rush Limbaugh really say that the abuse was excusable as "blowing off steam"? Funny, all the times I ever listened to him, I never thought he'd be the kind of guy to say something like that.

And the evangelicals are chalking up the abuses to bad parenting and poor personal choices? Guess I'd better quit believing in God, too. Or at least the Christian one - you'd never see a Moslem advocating torture or abuse, I tell you.

I guess the real lesson here, if I read the article right, is that the abuses happened as a result of christian conservatives and talk radio hosts.

Okay, fair enough. But then we need to re-look at the holocaust, to see what role Walter Winchell and Father Coughlin played.

Posted by: Blackavar at May 19, 2004 10:51 AM

Minor point: It's Inquirer, not Enquirer. (The latter spelling goes with National and/or Cincinnati.)

Posted by: Lex at May 19, 2004 11:02 AM

I agree with the "Inquirer" observation (saw it with a Google search), just giving it to you guys exactly how I received it.

What amazes most about this is that this stuff comes across our work's email, sent to every man, woman and child (of legal working age, of course) who works here. This is but a part of what I receive in the course of a week. Much of it has to do with supporting one side of the political isle or another, and while I don't care to hear much from either side, it surprises me that people send this stuff around. I have gotten stuff for presidential support rallies, as well as peace protests. For the most part, I ignore it all. Even if I agree with some of their comments or positions, I ignore most of them simply because I don't care to read this stuff from my coworkers who are trying to persuade me to their point-of-view. However I did read this one for whatever reason, I don't know.

In this post I was struck by the comment that "this is worse than torture." Dude, I disagree. I would much rather you strap a collar to me and make me bark naked than to shove something up my fingernails or worse. I think he was going for drama with that (as well as others) statement.

Posted by: Woundwort at May 19, 2004 12:31 PM

Don't you guys have a "no non-work-related-e-mail" rule? I thought every corporation/organization/institution in the world had one of those.

Posted by: Lex at May 19, 2004 04:20 PM

Lex, you would think so, but our email is used for everything from political stuff to selling cars. Apparently somebody missed the memo.

Posted by: Woundwort at May 19, 2004 04:22 PM

Heard this read aloud on WUNC this afternoon. . .

Posted by: Clover at May 24, 2004 03:11 PM

Heard this read aloud on 91.5FM this afternoon. . .

Posted by: Clover at May 24, 2004 03:11 PM

Too many people condemn the revelation rather than the acts.
There were real rapes and real murders and real sodomies -- and most of the humiliation tactics are of a general sexual harrassment type.

Don't want to know about ? I am sure that Eisenhower did not want to know about what he saw, either.

This kind of thing is flat-out against the Geneva Conventions, especially the 1984 one that states that no attack or threatened attack is grounds to suspend decent treatment.

Posted by: meg at May 24, 2004 06:13 PM
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