24 November 2008

The War of Images ~ Interview with Julian Stallabrass

1.53 am Oct 20, 2003. Detainee is handcuffed in the nude to a bed
and has a pair of panties covering his face, the Abu Ghraib prison,
Baghdad, Iraq. Photo taken using cameras owned by Cp. Charles
A. Graner Jr. and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II.

I lifted this image from this interview in FOTO8 with Julian Stallabrass, an incisive art critic and historian who curated the Brighton Photo Biennial this fall. I recommend the interview and want to call your attention to this exchange between Stallabrass and Guy Lane, his interlocutor. Lane starts, articulating views that, while commonplace, I suspect are not his own:
On a related point, in considering material for the exhibition did you come across photographs which you considered, on moral grounds, to be unsuitable to display? I’m thinking of Abu Ghraib

We are displaying Abu Ghraib pictures. We’ve chosen to do it in a particular way: they will be seen in a gallery along with others as part of a grid printed on vinyl, so I guess we’re trying to discourage the view of these things as artworks.

What do you say to the argument that re-publishing them perpetuates the abuse, in a way, on the grounds that initially the photography was part of that abuse and torture?

I don’t really go along with that. Rather, my feeling is that they haven’t been seen enough, or remembered enough. They seem to have almost dropped out of public memory, in the West anyway, as if they were some kind of aberration rather than a photographic outcrop of standard US military policy. We’re juxtaposing them with other material – images from Iraqi resistance websites, and also official pictures taken by US Army photographers. So I think to re-present them in these circumstances, to use them against the US Army’s own propaganda, can have an instructive effect.

It's true that photography was used as a “force multiplier” in Abu Ghraib: the taking of pictures, the presence of women, the dogs in the jail – all functioned to terrify and humiliate prisoners. I think it’s one thing to say the act of taking a photograph in those circumstances serves that purpose; but it does not follow that to show the photograph in other circumstances re-enacts that abuse.
The general question raised here, of course, concerns the uses of photography. Surely, the U.S. Military Personnel at Abu Ghraib photographed prisoners for their own purposes, some of which were to "terrify and humiliate" their captives. But republishing them - especially under the circumstances Stallabrass sketches and especially given that in the U.S. they have fallen wholly off the public's radar screen even as Obama commits to not conducting even a legal inquiry (let alone prosecutions) into the use of torture as official policy - seems like a necessity, an ethical and political imperative. It seems to me that not keeping these images in the public eye perpetuates the abuse, allowing our torturers to evade notice and consequences and ourselves to avoid seeing our complicity.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home