The viewer as accomplice


General Photography

On the BBC’s website British photographer and documentary filmmaker David Modell discusses the torture photos from US prisons in Iraq. His conclusion is quite upsetting and provocative but well worth to be quoted in full length:

“The pictures from Abu Ghraib are […] not snatched, clandestine images, taken to uncover the truth and disseminate it. In the almost perfect compositions it is obvious that they were taken in a perversely relaxed atmosphere - emphasised by the demeanour of the troops. And this reveals an appalling reality - that photographs are a deliberate part of the torture. The taking of the pictures was supposed to compound the humiliation and sense of powerlessness of the victims. The photographer was the abuser. When we view the pictures, we are forced to play our part in this triangle of communication. […] By looking at the images we become complicit in the abuse itself. It is this that makes them intolerable for the viewer and why they are so destructive to a war effort built on the spin of ‘liberation’.”

(thanks, Philip!)

Update (13 May): A couple of days ago, Luc Sante in the New York Times discussed the images and compared them to photographs of lynch mobs: “Like the lynching crowds, the Americans at Abu Ghraib felt free to parade their triumph and glee not because they were psychopaths but because the thought of censure probably never crossed their minds. In both cases a contagious collective frenzy perhaps overruled the scruples of some people otherwise known for their gentleness and sympathy - but isn’t the abandonment of such scruples possible only if the victims are considered less than human?” (story - thanks, Todd!)

And in a very interesting article, Brendan O’Neill ponders what the way the images made it out into the open says about what’s going on, with some details that I wasn’t aware of: “The photos from Abu Ghraib may have only recently been published but many in the American media have known of their existence for months. Barbara Starr of CNN’s Washington Bureau wrote a news report about the photos four months ago, on 21 January. She reported that a source from inside the Pentagon had told CNN that US military command’s investigation of abuse was ‘focused on Abu Ghraib’, and that ‘US soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners’, photographs ‘which may depict male and female soldiers’. Why didn’t CNN pursue the story further, and try to get hold of the photos that its rivals CBS would eventually unveil 100 days later on 29 April?”