On the day that American troops came back from the Persian Gulf War (the first one) I wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times arguing that I would like to have celebrated with them but I barely knew what these soldiers had done in Iraq, considering that photography had been banned by the first President Bush. Since he did not want “another Vietnam,” a conflict where the public actually was able to view what was happening to their family members and friends, the war passed largely unseen, reenacted in televised “virtual scenarios” with various experts supposedly explaining what was happening, or photographed from the points of view of “smart” bombs as they were about to hit their sterile targets. Blood was hardly ever seen.
This second Persian Gulf War (waged by the second Bush) “embedded” photographers, making it difficult to have an outsider perspective on a conflict when permission had to be given before publishing images of wounded or dead soldiers, and when each photographer had to stay with a specific unit. Given language difficulties and very real fears of kidnappings and executions, we saw very little of this last war except for bombings and, at the very beginning, imagery that tried to show battles as World War II-style liberators fighting evil.
But then of course the Abu Ghraib prison photographs were published, taken by soldiers, and the blindfolds began to fall off. We saw what was either “a few bad apples” at work or evidence of a systemic policy of sadism and torture. While many believe the latter, the Bush Administration worked hard to convince the public that only a few low-level soldiers were to blame and should be punished. What is not in the frame does not exist—a cynically naïve way to read photographs.
Now the Obama Administration is denying release of photographs concerning other misdeeds by American soldiers that were scheduled to be made public on May 28, arguing that it would put those on current duty in greater danger due to acts by another few bad apples, and these soldiers pictured had already been punished anyway. This returns to the old Bush scenario that all is in order and the disturbing power of photography to provoke both questions and nightmares should be squelched.
The ACLU brief was filed to have the photographs released because they are “critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse,” according to lawyer Amrit Singh. Their executive director Anthony D. Romero added: “Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.” (Also see Salon.com’s statement for why they published more of the photos from Abu Ghraib prison in 2006, including the one reproduced above. It’s well worth repeating today.)
First the government disarmed the professional photographers, rendering them all too mute, and now it is the imagery by the soldiers themselves that is being placed out of bounds. We are increasingly living in a world where photography that still manages to shock is considered too mature for viewing, but only if it is political.
For the moment we are mostly left with the photo opportunities. One hopes that this is not the final word.