by Linda Williams
Morris’s contextualization and constant reframing of the photos, qua photos, makes it possible for us to realize that the human pyramid and the simultaneously orchestrated masturbations were most likely not the worst or even the true crimes of the U.S. military and “other governmental agencies”—code for the CIA and other groups whose presence in the prison never formed part of the official record and who could thus apparently act with impunity—at Abu Ghraib.
When Susan Sontag wrote not long after their publication that these “photographs are us,” she meant that we as a nation are responsible for what they show: the corruption, waste, and immorality of our occupation of Iraq (26). But I suggest that they are also “us” because we recognize in them a familiar spirit of play, however perverted, that seeks distraction—even something called “fun”—in the very midst of horror. Kracauer writes of the mass ornament:
“Here, in pure externality the audience encounters itself. Its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions.”
This disclosure “in distraction,” he adds, “is therefore of moral significance.” What is “legitimate,” then, about the photos framed by this film is that with the aid of the Interrotron Morris makes us see how such photos could have made sense to these soldiers “on the ground” who craved a higher vantage point that would dissociate them from the prisoners with whom they lived. The photos were a legitimate expression of the frustration of their own impotency, their own inability to act successfully as soldiers, their pathetic imitation of “norms” that utterly failed to tell them their duty. Both the framed photos and Morris’s extravagant (re)enactments of what might have occurred are the ornamental cluster fucks of this misguided war
The most important ethical lesson of the film, however, may be to discourage us from judging Harman, England, or any of the cast of characters from any higher ground, as Pack would do and as the military tribunal did. The value of the film, rather, is to have shown us what it was like to be there on the ground aspiring to be somewhere else, somewhere higher.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag argues that pictures cannot provide their own interpretations; they need captions to provide context. This may not be an accurate assessment of all photos, but it seems patently true of these almost too obviously self-incriminating ones of Abu Ghraib. On first seeing these pictures, few people thought they needed further explanations or a frame of reference. In Morris’s film it is the interviews and the imaginative enactments of possible acts that provide the rich captions to complicate each photo.
Judith Butler challenges Sontag, writing that we do not always need a caption to understand that a political background is formulated and renewed through the work of a frame:
“Whenever and wherever the photograph yields up its own forcible frame to visual scrutiny and interpretation, it opens up the restrictions of interpreting reality to critical scrutiny . . . we come to interpret that interpretation that has been imposed upon us.”
This, I argue is what Morris’s film does. It asks us to interpret the interpretation, to witness the witnesses. But it does so not only by citing the photos that so “forcibly” framed these acts of inhumanity but also by reframing and contextualizing them, showing us how very delimited these frames were, how much of “the visual field,” as Butler puts it, is “ruled out” (952).
The photos of Abu Ghraib pointed to and were often themselves evidence of crimes. But they are not the smoking guns they seemed to be. They suggest that “straight photographs” must always be considered in light of what we know about the situation of their taking and that very often, as in the torture-death of al-Jamadi, the real incriminating photo does not exist. Had the military prosecution that focused so intensely only on the little guys pursued the larger “primary framework” that set the conditions for what we see in these pictures, rather than assume, as the Guantánamo alum Pack does, that nakedness and stress positions were to be expected, then we might have gotten to the bottom of the torture that took place under the direct auspices of the “other government agencies.” Such a trial might have discovered whose decision it was to keep prisoners naked and shackled, whose decision it was to hold prisoners indefinitely and drive them to despair. But that would have been another movie.
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