Susan Sontag died in 2004 and that was a tough year for photography. One difficult to forget. In 2004, the images of Abu Ghraib got out and with them started a revolution in photojournalism. From then on, authenticity, a ‘quality’ so dear to documentary photography, changed hands. Legitimacy and believability were no longer available to the professionals but to civilians who shot everything that moved – from the men paraded around on leashes in Abu Ghraib to the occasional fuck on campus. Soldiers and victims are now the ones holding the power of truth, or so it seems.
On May 23rd 2004, the New York Times published an article by Sontag entitled Regarding the Torture of Others, a reflection on the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos and the role of photograph the so called states-of-exception.
Four years later, in 2008, Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure came out. The documentary revolves around the ‘procedures’ in Abu Ghraib and features soldiers directly involved in the photographs as well as others who portray themselves as passive observers (if there can be such a thing in this situation). Lynndie England, one of the women involved in the tortures and humiliations depicted in the famous Abu Ghraib shots tells us how she used to spend her time, both on and off duty, and we quickly find the why that complements the tale: those actions where made out of boredom and with an entertainment goal, even if she arguments that she was just following the examples given (“that was what we saw”, she says). Ultimately, she justifies her actions saying “I was blinded by being in love with a man”. What an irony.
Another female military photographer is featured telling us how she made a photograph of a ‘detainee’ (yes, ‘prisoners’ have rights; ‘detainees’ don’t) that looked like Jesus Christ. In other words, she knows her icons. Apparently, she soon realized what the photographs depicted was wrong and allegedly started to document the tortures not for fun but to show what the USA military where doing, how serious it was.
As we know now, the photographs became the problem, not the events depicted in them, which keep happening in one form or another. Sontag quotes secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld to whom the problem is that soldiers are behaving like tourists «”running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise.”» The Photographs act as proofs and because of their permanence they hold the power to question moral superiority, a power that serves to legitimize words. If words used to be enough to account for our own lives, build our narratives, tell our stories, now “to live is to be photographed”, says Sontag. Visual language is what sticks, particularly in the form of photographs and it seems that the further one is from the event represented the easier it is for reality to be replaced by an image of that reality. When I think of Abu Ghraib what immediately comes to mind is the photograph of that hooded man, standing on a box with his arms open. That’s how iconic that image is.
«Yes, President Bush said in Washington on May 6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was “sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But, he went on, he was “equally sorry that people seeing these pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.”» (Sontag, 2004)
Roman Krol, another military featured in Morris documentary, describes what is depicted in some of the photographs or, how I see it, how the society of the spectacle justifies his actions. In his own words: “The yelling was just [pause] it was just for show I believe. To show, the spectators, this would be done to anybody who breaks the rules.” Krol goes on to explain how he thinks the photographs were stupid, there was even a sign saying they weren’t allowed (!), how he never saw a flash, otherwise he would have…
Again, the torture isn’t the problem. The existence of the document is. Going back to Sontag’s article, she quotes republican senator Inhofe as saying he was not the only one «”more outraged by the outrage” over the photographs than by what the photographs show.» For Inhofe, the media were responsible for american lives, for they were responsible for spreading the photographs of the events. Sontag kills the argument in an heartbeat:
«There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are dying not because of the photographs but because of what the photographs reveal to be happening, happening with the complicity of a chain of command — so Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and (among others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, suggested, after he saw the Pentagon’s full range of images on May 12. “Some of it has an elaborate nature to it that makes me very suspicious of whether or not others were directing or encouraging,” Senator Graham said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that viewing an uncropped version of one photo showing a stack of naked men in a hallway — a version that revealed how many other soldiers were at the scene, some not even paying attention — contradicted the Pentagon’s assertion that only rogue soldiers were involved. “Somewhere along the line,” Senator Nelson said of the torturers, “they were either told or winked at.” An attorney for Specialist Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had his client identify the men in the uncropped version; according to The Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the men were military intelligence and one a civilian contractor working with military intelligence.»