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june 2009

Fear of pictures


by Hans Durrer

On June 27, 2008, the New York Times, under the title "4,000 U.S. Deaths, and a Handful of Images," published a report about the censorship of photographs of dead American soldiers in Iraq.

"If the conflict in Vietnam was notable for open access given to journalists — too much, many critics said, as the war played out nightly in bloody newscasts — the Iraq war may mark an opposite extreme: after five years and more than 4,000 American combat deaths, searches and interviews turned up fewer than a half-dozen graphic photographs of dead American soldiers."

  An astonishingly small number, isn't it? I wouldn't have thought that censorship and self-censorship would be that effective. How come we've got so few pictures to see? Because, argued the New York Times,
  "It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in the field.
  While the Bush administration faced criticism for overt political manipulation in not permitting photos of flag-draped coffins, the issue is more emotional on the battlefield: local military commanders worry about security in publishing images of the American dead as well as an affront to the dignity of fallen comrades. Most newspapers refuse to publish such pictures as a matter of policy."
Next Looks indeed like a complex issue, doesn't it? So what is there to do? "Simplicity is the only thing that works in a complex world," says Carne Ross, a former British diplomat. Well then, plain and simple: War means to kill and to get killed. To show war like it is includes showing pictures of the ones who got killed. Without restrictions.
  That the people in charge of the U.S. army do not want pictures of dead American soldiers being displayed is hardly a surprise for they know that what we will remember are images. And, since images are likely to set free emotions, that spells danger — for these emotions are beyond the reach of the military.
  The issue is not complex, the issue is simple: Whoever will see what war is really like will not support it.
  This however is not what the public discourse on Barack Obama's recent decision to block the release of photos showing graphic abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq is all about. This discourse is about introducing once again the complexity issue. The main argument is that the publication of these photos would not only shock the world but erode support and inflame hatred in the Muslim world and thus could make things awfully difficult for U.S. soldiers wherever they are.
  Sure, such a scenario is not improbable; it has however absolutely nothing to do with the photos, it has only to do with how U.S. soldiers have behaved — for the photos simply depict some of the things that have taken place. By the way, and that is important to remember, quite some other things that have taken place have not been photographed.
Next Remember the pic of U.S. soldier Lynndie England with a prisoner on a leash? We look at it and think we understand — and in a way we do because the message is, in a general sense, obvious and, needless to say, England's behaviour is indefensible. This photo is however also sending quite some other messages that are not visible — and they should, hopefully, trigger questions such as these: Was this the normal treatment of prisoners? Who ordered or allowed it? How many soldiers were involved, how many prisoners? Who did know about this? And so on and so on.
  In order to understand photos we always need to ask the famous five W's and the one H ? Who was involved? What happened? When? Where? Why? And, How did it happen?
  Photos are tricky: they ratify what happened before a lens at a given moment; they do however not tell us what happened before and after the shots were taken. By singling out one moment, photos do not tell us a story but point in a certain direction for photos are at best indicators. They represent fragments but never give the whole story. Actually, they do not tell a story at all but they can trigger quite a many.
  This does not mean that we shouldn't see the photos that Barack Obama and his cronies do not want us to see — in fact, quite the contrary — it however means that when we eventually will get the chance to see these shots — and undoubtedly we will, the first surfaced already — we need to remember the men and women who, by blocking their release, contributed to the cover-up of these abuses.
  Bush Junior, Rumsfeld, and Cheney were often accused of using the fear card. Now Obama is doing the same. After he had decided to block the release of these photos and in turn got the approval of Republicans (they surely were having a ball), it might probably have dawned on him that yet another thing (apart from the military tribunals) has started to go terribly wrong.
  On 23 May 2009, Philip Gourevitch, the author of the recently published The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times ("The Abu Ghraib We Cannot See"). There he argues that the photos at Abu Ghraib were taken by members of the Military Police. And what for? "Just to show what was going on," Specialist Harman was quoted as saying, and to be able to say, "Look, I have proof, you can't deny it." Gourevitch writes: "Had a journalist taken the photos, there would have been prizes. Instead, the photographs were used by the administration and the military to frame the soldiers who took and appeared in them as rogues acting out of their own individual perversity. In this way, the exposé became the cover-up: the soldiers who revealed our corruption to us were made scapegoats and thrown in prison."
  There is indeed no doubt about that. Gourevitch continues: "Just as it was a public service to release the Abu Ghraib photographs five years ago, Mr. Obama is right today to say we don't need more of them." For this Gourevitch offers two reasons: it would endanger U.S. troops (that is very likely indeed) and it wouldn't be telling us anything we do not already know (that however is very unlikely).
  As he says himself, Gourevitch has seen "many more pictures than were ever published in the press" and he had also "more than two million words of interviews to work with, and as many words again of government paperwork, and in this way I could show that most of the worst things that happened at Abu Ghraib were never photographed." So he concludes that "in order to tell the story of the pictures most effectively, I decided not to include any of them in the book."
  Well, why not, but as much as photos can distract from the story as much they can — together with the accompanying text — make the story more forceful. In short; we need both, pictures and words.
  2009 © Soundscapes