In this article Michael Costello considers, and bounces off, Sontag's interpretation of the photographs of Abu Ghraib prison. I will spell Costello's op-ed piece as the article will disappear in the Murdoch archives in ten days or so. He raises the question of photography and truth.
As we all know photographs have always been manipulated, through the darkroom, touch-ups in ads and portraits, photographs that make politicians presidential photographs in advertising and tabloids using photographic trickery to turn the fantastic into the supposedly realistic. We are used to reading the photographs of our visual culture critically.
The assumption of the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib prison is that were truthful. They have been accepted as saying that these events did happen. They are not seen to be fictions.
Costello begins by asking a question that goes to the heart of the photographs of the torture of Iraqi's in Abu Ghraib prison. He asks:
"How much truth do the photos of torture by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison tell us about the war in Iraq? The British painter, David Hockney, has just pronounced that photographs can no longer be trusted in the digital age when pictures can be manipulated by anyone who has a camera."
However, as Costelllo rightly points out the pictures of US soldiers are not fakes. They are real. So how much of the truth do they reveal?
To answer this Costello introduces Sontag:
"In 1977, Susan Sontag wrote the influential book On Photography. She attacked photography, arguing that it limits experience "to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir". But more than 20 years later she revisited and revised her opinions in a new book called Regarding the Pain of Others. She no longer argues that images and photographs anaesthetise the conscience by making terrible events seem less real."
'She points out, correctly, that there were extensive public reports of torture allegations in the months leading up to the publication of these pictures, but no one took any notice. It was the photos that made the allegations suddenly real and serious... Up to then, the reports had only been words on which doubt could easily be cast and which did not require action. But it is a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words. So maybe it is a case, as Sontag says, that the defining memory of this war "will be the photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib".
"These photos are real. They do have a devastating impact. But Sontag fails to ask the key question. While the photos are real, just as the images we see on television each night are real, are they the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"
Hardly. In the earlier post we indicated these photos operate in terms of disclosing what has been hidden from public view. The history of photography in war has been a history of both the changing versions of the conflict between the perspectives of the government and the press and changing photographic coverage. The Pentagon and the government learned from Vietnam that it was dangerous (and a mistake ) to allow press photographers too much freedom. This account says that the press was throttled:
"...during the Gulf War, where photographers were kept away from the combat zone except under tightly controlled conditions. In the Gulf War, virtually no combat photographs were published, so that it was left to images of the aftermath to suggest what had happened — and then a photograph of an incinerated Iraqi soldier caused a controversy because of its graphic revelation....the imagery of war is becoming video images showing cruise missiles and plane-launched bombs, along with official shots of the military in effect "on parade," i.e., in controlled, even staged circumstances, and shots — how ironic that term — of refugees, the casualties of war."
So we have different perspectives on, and interpretations, of the war.
Costello loads the deck in this way of the whole truth because he defends the positive aspect of the occupation. He says that although the photos are:
"....real, they are only part of what is happening in Iraq - the newsworthy part. How on earth can you make interesting pictures out of the fact that the education system in Iraq has been rebuilt? How do you make a gripping visual drama out of the fact that there is a free press? How do you make visually exciting the fact that a large number of local elections have been successfully conducted?"
Costello says that you cannot. So although these photographs of torture "are real and a shame and stain on American leadership and its honour, the latent proposition that they are the whole story of the war is false. And it is false not because the particular media outlet is either pro or anti US, or pro or anti a particular war. It is false because this seems to be the nature of pictorial news."
This is very misleading for two reasons. First, as far as I know no one is claiming that these photos are the whole story of the war. Secondly, these are not news photos per se. They were taken by the American soldiers with digital cameras for their own amusement and, presumably, for military pruposes.
Costello then concludes his op-ed by ssaying that if Sontag is right about thje power of these photos to determine what we recall of events, then:
"... if she is right, those memories, those judgments will predominantly be ones of chaos, horror and suffering and will be inaccurate in that they are only part of the tale. It may be, therefore, that a democracy can no longer sustain prolonged actions of this kind because it is the nature of the all pervasive media that it is those images of horror, suffering and chaos that will cumulatively overwhelm the views of any electorate."
That may be say so about democracies. But Costello has forgotten that Australian democracy was divided about Australia going to war with Iraq, with a majority opposing the US intervention without the UN.
Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 30, 2004 04:59 PM | TrackBack