This exercise required you to look at examples of news photography, specifically covering emergencies or disasters and question the objectivity of the images. It suggested looking at Abu Ghraib and the London bombings but also any other similar news events. I chose first to look again at the Abu Ghraib photographs which I remember well hearing about on the news and I remember my reaction to them then which hasn’t diminished over time. For the purpose of this exercise I have decided to focus on a single image, Picture 17 (Guardian Unlimited, 2004).
It is telling that even with the act of removing this photograph from the rest of the series it stands alone as a powerful image which probably would have been newsworthy in its own right.
The revulsion you feel looking at this image of a young American woman grinning and posing for a photograph over the corpse of an Iraqi detainee inevitably leaves a viewer with a sense of utter dismay that any human being could sink to this level of sickening behaviour.
The girl is fresh-faced and in any other context e.g. a family photo with her ‘folks’ back home, she would have appeared as ‘wholesome’ young American, but in the juxtaposition of her thumbs up over the corpse staged specifically to capture a ‘memento’ of a death of one of the ‘enemy’, she has chosen to depict herself as a chillingly brutal character, devoid of any natural human compassion or decency.
Of course what we don’t see in the image, and what makes this type of photography not entirely objective is the understanding of the possible circumstances that led the girl to willingly participate in these staged photographs; we don’t see the woman’s work colleagues being blown up by improvised explosive devices; we don’t understand the stress she encounters being away from her family and working in a warzone on a long tour of duty; and we can’t appreciate the psychological pressure to ‘fit in’ and mirror behaviours displayed by work colleagues she has to ultimately rely on day-to-day for her safety. The viewer can only surmise these ‘extenuating circumstances’ and has no real comprehension of the events surrounding the photograph. However, as viewers we might also still conclude that whatever the real life context, or horrific experiences endured, the knowledge of these would not lead a viewer to condone or forgive her behaviour.
I think this is partly due to the situation in which the images are taken. The soldier appears to be doing this for her own entertainment and it appears to be being carried out in a perfectly safe environment, i.e. there is no background showing any of the ‘war zone’ backdrop to contextualise the awfulness of the images. Further, the images are posed and therefore pre-meditated. They are not the result of a reaction immediately after an embittered bloody battle where the heat of the moment has given rise to erratic behaviour. Finally, the image is one of a series, each of which defies belief and comprehension in the level of depravity reached. Effectively, it was not a one-off, rather an engrained pattern of terrible behaviour towards enemy soldiers.
As part of my research into these images I discovered that a series of portraits of the victims had been created by fashion photographer Chris Bartlett. His exhibition “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals” was his way of bringing some dignity back to the individuals. (Vargas-Cooper, 2014). In the article the photographer was quoted as saying “I wanted to use the camera to restore these peoples’ humanity through beautiful portraiture,”
I was particularly drawn to the image depicted in the article where the photographer has used a shallow depth of field to deliberately hone in and focus on the soldier’s eyes. The sitter seems to be challenging the viewer for a reaction to his treatment. His eyes appear defiant but simultaneously ridden with pain. Maybe he wanted the perpetrators to look at his image directly and for them to feel some remorse. Maybe he just wanted to challenge them to view him as a human being, rather than the degraded toy or prop he was used as in previous images. Maybe he was calling out to the authorities and questioning how they could let this happen? Whatever the sitter’s and photographer’s personal intentions, it is an extremely powerful and memorable image.
Guardian Unlimited Article Index (2004) The Images that Shamed America. At: http://www.theguardian.com/pictures/image/0,8543,-13004919007,00.html
Vargas-Cooper, N (2014) Photo Exhibit Restores Dignity to Victims of U.S. Torture. At: https://theintercept.com/2014/09/18/detainees-portaits/