Point and Shoot

How the Abu Ghraib images redefine photography


In spring of 2004 the International Center of Photography in New York presented an exhibition called “War in Iraq: The Coordi­nates of Conflict,” featuring the work of James Nachtwey, Christopher Morris, Ron Haviv, and other veteran photojournalists. Apparently timed to mark the first anniversary of the Iraq conflict (the American invasion began March 19, 2003; President Bush triumphantly announced its end a month and a half later, on May 1), the show included most of the usual tropes of combat photography, from portraits of weary but determined foot soldiers to bloody corpses of the enemy. What was different about the pictures compared with traditional war photographs was that all had been shot with digital cameras.

The curators, Peter Howe and Edward Earle, spoke to this difference in the exhibition brochure:

This is an unprecedented moment in the history of photojournalism, and in our understanding of its role in the media. The war in Iraq demonstrates a dramatic change in the way news is gathered: the development of laptop computers, digital cameras, satellite phones, and micro recording devices has enabled the photographer to give viewers immediate, live access to the battlefield.

At the same time the exhibition was on view, however, a much more dramatic and profound change in the history of photojournalism was making itself felt in the corridors of power in Washington and soon thereafter in the press and across the nation. During the first two weeks of May, millions of Americans were exposed to pictures of the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, twenty miles west of Baghdad. The photographs, in color and from digital cameras (albeit with lower resolution than the professionals’ models), were taken by American soldiers complicit in the sexual humiliation, psychological terror, and physical injury of their charges, all of whom were prisoners of war or, in the less precise official description, detainees.

Much has been written about the moral, ethical, and political dimensions of these photographs, about whether United States military policies condoned and encouraged the abuses, about whether the word torture appropriately describes what they depict, about how young Americans thrown into a situation for which they were ill trained and ill prepared could so quickly succumb to depravity. When select members of Congress were shown some 2,000 of the pictures and video clips in mid-May of last year, they quickly concluded that what they saw was too disgusting to be shown to anyone else. The pictures have since been quarantined as potential legal evidence.

Without forgetting or discounting the importance of these debates, which our nation surely needs to have, I want to focus on the unprecedented manner in which these photographs were taken, transmitted, and received. What they suggest about the future of photography as news and about the nature of information as a cultural commodity is both tantalizing and disturbing.

The Abu Ghraib photographs were taken with commonplace “point and shoot” digital cameras owned by at least two of the alleged participants in the abuse. Being digital, the cameras recorded the scenes as arrays of pixels that were instantly compressed into a near-universal format called “JPEG.” The advantage of such compression is that it makes it easier to store pictures on a hard drive or memory card and to send them, via e-mail and the Internet, to friends and relations. The sharing of e-mail photographs has become the common coin of today’s image economy, and it has contributed to a proliferation of all sorts of photographs, from shots of cars for sale on eBay to explicit pornography. The Abu Ghraib photographs are, as Michael Kimmel­man, the chief art critic of the New York Times, has remarked, “the visual equivalent of cell-phone chatter.”

They are, however, cell-phone chatter with the capacity to dominate the news and shock the national psyche. Soon after their appearance, the doyenne of American cultural critics, Susan Sontag, provided an analysis of their problematic power in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. There she noted a change in the cultural role of picture taking:

The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib . . . reflect a shift in the use made of pictures—less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers—recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities—and swapping images among themselves and e-mailing them around the globe.

This may be why Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has since banned the use of cameras by soldiers in Iraq. In any case, it seems fair to agree with Sontag and say that photographs no longer serve mainly as first drafts of history, or ciphers of memory, or treasures of affection, or any of the other high-sounding social functions ascribed to them in the twentieth century. They now are simply visual talk. And rarely are they capable of complete or coherent sentences—they speak in a contemporary patois of “whatever’s” and “what have you’s.”

Less than four months after the close of the “War in Iraq” exhibition, the International Center of Photography mounted a new show on the same subject, called “Inconvenient Evidence,” only this time the works on view were the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. The images were downloaded from Web sites like www.newyorker.com, www.washingtonpost.com, and www.thememoryhole.com, then printed out with a desktop ink-jet printer and push-pinned to the gallery walls. A simultaneous version of the show appeared at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. (You can easily reduplicate the exhibition at home; the pictures are still available on the Web sites mentioned.) The exhibition’s presentation was clearly meant to resist aestheticizing its subject. What was most radical about the show was not the installation, however, but the museum’s recognition that its implicit subject, photojournalism, had been irrevocably altered.

ICP chief curator Brian Wallis, in a brief essay in the exhibition brochure, put the phenomenon in a representational context:

Aside from the atrocities they depict, as photographs, the images from Abu Ghraib contradict the studied heroics of twentieth-century war photography that have been updated to the current conflict. Away from the photojournalistic flourishes designed to make war palatable—the heroic flag-raisings, the dogged foot soldiers close to the action, the sense of shared humanity among combatants, and the search for visual evidence that war is universal and inevitable—the often-banal JPEGs from Iraq proffer a very different picture: war is systematic cruelty enforced at the level of everyday torture.

Wallis’s analysis alludes to but does not make explicit the existence of conventions and under­­­­­­­standings that have governed the traffic in war photo­graphs since the nineteenth century. For example, Roger Fenton’s photographs from the Crimean War—often cited as avatars of modern photojournalism—were taken with the benefit of a letter of introduction supplied by Prince Albert. To some historians, this means that Fen­ton was serving not as an objective journalist but as a propagandist charged with showing the British public a comfortable, well-supplied army. This may be too simplistic an interpretation, as the curators of a Roger Fenton exhibition recently organized by the National Gallery indeed suggest, but the complexity of Fenton’s motives does not negate the fact that his presence on the front was sanctioned by the British military of the day.

The same could be said of Robert Capa’s presence on a landing craft on D-Day, or of W. Eugene Smith’s beside marines on the beaches of Iwo Jima. All of the great photojournalism of World War II, and of the Korean War as well, was made possible by the collaboration of the government and the media. Magazines such as Life promised not to publish pictures of American dead, and the photographers knew where their allegiance lay. The government provided access, transportation, and a measure of security. All this cooperation between government and free press began to unravel during the Vietnam War, the first conflict to be both widely photographed and televised in color. The appearance of war’s ugly, inhuman side, in photographs by Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and Larry Burrows, helped fuel American dissent against our involvement. Ronald L. Haeberle’s even more shocking photographs of the aftermath of the My Lai massacre, published in Life in 1969, were the Abu Ghraib pictures of the Vietnam era. Yes, they seemed to say, American troops could behave with the kind of bestial cruelty that we imagine belongs exclusively to our enemies.

Unlike Adams, Ut, and Bur­rows, Haeberle was not an accredited news photographer but a soldier whose job was to take pictures for the army. If he had followed the rules, his pictures might never have been seen: he handed in his black-and-white shots to his superiors but kept for himself those shot in color with a second camera. This subterfuge allowed news of the My Lai killings to escape government control. It was only after Haeberle returned to the United States months later, however, that the pictures came to be published. Meanwhile, professional newspaper and magazine photographers were permitted to courier their film back to the States to be processed, so their work was not controlled by the military. Any censorship came from their own sense of what could be published and from that of the picture editors for whom they worked.

This new system of media self-control and self-censorship might occasionally break down, as it did in the Reagan years, when photographers were barred outright from following our troops to Grenada, but on the whole it has proved enormously useful to both the government and the media. The system preserves the notion of a press operating freely while ensuring a generally sympathetic view of American combat troops, if not of any given war itself. In Iraq, the system was refined to permit two types of photography operations: embedded journalists attached to a single unit, who function much as Capa had, and the oddly named “unilaterals,” who can decide for themselves where they go but who work without much military assistance or protection.

As both Sontag and Wallis note, the Abu Ghraib pictures represent a violation of the prevailing norms of photojournalism. But the violation is not merely a matter of semiotics or tone. The essential violation is that the pictures were not subject to the constraints of the military-media alliance. Lodged in hard drives and e-mails, and later uploaded onto the Internet, the digital images escaped the control of both the Pentagon and the professional picture-making establishment. These photographs tell us that the codes of objectivity, professional ethics, and journalistic accountability we have long relied on to ensure the accuracy of the news—at least in rough-draft form—are now relics. In their place is a swirling mass of information, written as well as visual, journalistic as well as vernacular, competing to be taken as fact.

Despite the digital nature of the Abu Ghraib photographs, no one (at least no one this side of paranoia) has questioned the veracity of what they depict. This seems curious because the anxiety about digital photography when it first appeared some twenty years ago was that it would defeat our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. The development of image-altering software such as Adobe Photoshop made this anxiety seem justified. Yet not even a hoax involving fabricated images of British troops abusing Iraqis has dented the compelling quality of the Abu Ghraib scenes. Their narrative cannot be dismissed as a concoction because, in part, it illustrates what the soldiers said happened there (as well as some things they left unsaid), and in part, the images were first delivered not as news but as private messages confined to a small circle of the participants.

Of course, as with photographs from previous wars, the believability of the images coexists with the knowledge that they were arranged specifically for the camera. In the Civil War, the photographers working for Alexander Gardner sometimes moved dead soldiers’ bodies to places that would make for better photographs. No one would claim that the horror these images show is obviated by this deception. Similarly, knowing that at Abu Ghraib cameras were used to humiliate the prisoners as well as to record the camaraderie of their tormentors does not undermine their authenticity. And though they resemble at times the tableaux of the contemporary art photographer Andres Serrano, the pictures never ask to be read as anything but snapshots.

Photography is said to have become democratic at the end of the nineteenth century, when George Eastman loosed the Kodak camera on the world. (“You press the button, we do the rest,” was his advertising slogan.) No longer the province of professionals trained in arduous darkroom work, or of amateurs whose interests lay in art, taking photographs became possible for great numbers of middle- and working-class people. With the Kodak, nearly everyone could have a camera, and everyone could have an album of photographs of family and friends. But individual photographs were discrete, tangible objects. To achieve widespread currency they had to be published, and to be published they had to conform to the desires and norms of the media.

The means of transmission of today’s digital images is seamless and profligate by comparison. More than a few “bloggers”—Web diarists—take pictures during the day and upload them onto their Web sites at night. With the rise of cell phones that include digital camera functions, a trip home is no longer even necessary: you can send the pictures off into the electronic network instantaneously. No one controls what pictures can and cannot appear on these sites, or on those devoted to pornography, sadism, and similar unsavory subjects. No one can control them, so the flow of visual information goes unchecked. Beheadings are broadcast on streaming video; collages of uncertain authorship show presidential candidates buddying up to bad guys. More and more Web sites with more and more pictures means a vast new democracy of the image, but one that is so free it becomes chaotic and incomprehensible. With no valve to stem the flow, the flood of images threatens to become not only out of control but also beyond control.

In the case of the Abu Ghraib pictures, the free flow of information made possible by digital cameras and computers helped expose a tawdry chapter in the history of the American military. But there are downsides to the potential that images, and cameras, can now be anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps the most obvious one is surveillance: municipalities have not only installed cameras at intersections to ticket red-light runners retroactively, but, in locations where terrorism is a threat, like Washington, D.C., they have installed video devices that constantly scan the streets and sidewalks. It is not clear whether these cameras are effective as instruments of social control or whether a total information environment enhances the possibility of totalitarian government.

What does seem clear is that the uncontrolled flow of digital images—and all other kinds of information, for that matter—reduces our ability to distinguish what is real from what is fabricated and what is important from what is irrelevant. This is not to deny that real images can be irrelevant, or fabricated ones important, but to say that distinguishing these qualities has always been a crucial feature of visual literacy. The norms of reportage still require that photojournalists refrain from tampering with their pictures, as several recently fired news photo­graphers can attest. But the worry over media manipulation of photographs pales beside the threat that we will be exposed to an unedited, unvetted picture world where all images seem equally important and equally trivial. There is no way we will want to look at all of them.

Such a world is perhaps a variant of Jean Baudrillard’s famous formulation of the simulacrum, in which images refer only to other images and not to things as they really are. But merely declaring that we live in an image world does not make explicit the dire consequences of being unable to sort one image from another. Instead of offering us freedom, the uncontrolled flow of pictures distracts us from the task of determining for ourselves what might be real enough to really matter. We face the prospect of being reduced to the status of consumers who, given a hyper-abundance of choices, lack the ability to choose. Those in power benefit from this abandonment of discernment; they get to make the choices for us. Thus the liberty of an unchecked image environment may prove to be less a blessing than a subtle form of tyranny, and the democracy of the camera a perverse kind of fascism.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Andy Grundberg is an art critic and the author, most recently, of How Photography Became Contemporary Art.


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