Inconvenient Evidence

Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib

New York
Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib
International Center for Photography
September 17–November 28, 2004

The exhibition halls on the ground floor hosted a showcase of black and white, almost noir, photographs of the moment in American life that has been rescripted by Botoxed-baby-boomers, as the “end of innocence,” or the tragically abbreviated aegis of John F. Kennedy. Inconvenient Evidence was staged in the underground level of the International Center for Photography (ICP), in a room that housed nearly twenty desktop-printed reproductions of the digital photographs captured by US soldiers as they tormented, tortured and sexually abused Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. On the fourth wall of the room, four framed photographs captured by photojournalists from the news services were hung, documenting reactions of everyday people to the worldwide release of the images of torture. The exhibition was bracketed during a period of widespread political activism in New York, beginning with grass-roots opposition to George W. Bush’s tenure during the Republican National Convention and ending with the elections on November 2, 2004.

Despite the charge of the horrors the pictures documented, Inconvenient Evidence did not really generate a debate beyond the circles of cognoscenti and literati in the city. Trials of a number of indicted servicemen and officers, taking place in the same time bracket, garnered significantly less media attention than for example the trial of Scott Peterson, accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, on the very “holy” day of Christmas in California. Questions were raised in the media regarding the showcasing of these images in a museum. Reviewing the exhibit for the New York Times (October 12, 2004), Michael Kimmelman titled his piece “Abu Ghraib returns — as art?” He writes: “Once ubiquitous on television and in newspapers, they now qualify as quasi-aesthetic artifacts, pictures you may choose to seek out — for edification, as a distraction, even,” and in closing he writes: “We live in an amnesiac society. The Abu Ghraib photographs have passed from the headlines to the art pages in half a year. One can only imagine how much further they may retreat in six more months.”

The intention of the chief curator at the ICP, Brian Wallis, was not to co-opt the photographs as art. Rather, as the statement posted on the center’s website claims, it was to treat the images as documents, “evidence,” that raise a number of meaningful questions to be addressed in the public sphere. The digital snapshots, Wallis argues, interrogate “the relationship between photography and war” because beyond conventional function, they were also “instruments of maltreatment and sexual/cultural humiliation.” Their nature as digital snapshots by amateurs, he continues, as well as their mode of dissemination via the worldwide web marks “a sea change in representations of war via image-making technology.” The amateurs standing behind the lens were not “objective observers” but elements in the army corps of perpetrating the crime. Perhaps inspired by Susan Sontag’s article entitled “Regarding The Torture Of Others,” published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (May 23, 2004), Wallis perceived the exhibition as an occasion to reflect on “the place of photography in documenting and constructing the truth.” In jest with all these considerations, a symposium was organized (in conjunction with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics) on November 9, at the Cooper Union, hosting Brian Wallis as the moderator for a panel discussion with Seymour Hersh, Luc Sante, and David Levi-Strauss.

I cite Wallis as the author of the statement posted on the website, because it is the statement he presented at the symposium. The text he authored in the small catalogue distributed to visitors at the exhibition, was markedly different. This is one of the many oddities surrounding the showcase, all stemming from the profound ambivalence of the liberal American intelligentsia in relation to their relationship to American empire, its history, but also its present manifestation in the occupation of Iraq. The motivation to find a politically coherent position, vaguely clutching to a discourse of humanism, in the midst of a discursive realm shrouded in the fog of punditry, a body politic collapsed from by a bankrupt hegemony of two political parties, and a civil society practically entirely decimated by a corporate take-over from business philanthropy, falls flat on its face.

Just consider the discreet discursive shift in the titling of the exhibition, Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Iraqi Prison Photographs” elides the identity of the photographers. The subject to whom the “evidence” will cause “inconvenience” is thus abstracted, left open to interpretation and to the possibility of redeeming the photographers, who are documenting one another engaged in the crimes; the regime and its institutions that have afforded the venue and means for the crimes committed and documented; and the society at large embodied in the visitors to the exhibition. At first glance, the use of “Iraqi Prison” and “Abu Ghraib” seems peculiar because of the redundancy: Abu Ghraib is a prison in Iraq, arguably an Iraqi prison, although it falls under the jurisdiction of the American military command and could also qualify as an American prison. The second operative shift is in the re-iteration of “prison.” It avoids the direct reference to what the photographs depict very explicitly: torture, abuse, rape, practices in breach of the legal regimes guiding prisons and incarceration. Not only is responsibility abstracted, but so are the crimes.

Less discreet and more troubling was the choice of geographical locales in the four images borrowed from photojournalists depicting outrage and grief the digital snapshots of crimes roused, namely Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Israeli occupied Gaza. In the American public sphere, all four places are tightly bound in representations as festering grounds for suicidal anti-American terrorism and radical freedom-hating Islamism. At the symposium, I asked Wallis to explain how their inclusion and their implications integrated with to the set of interrogations the curators intended to raise with the exhibit, specifically, considering the photographs were, according to Sontag, another face of Americans. He replied that by the time the exhibition was in the process of being set-up, there was no photographic evidence of the digital images’ presence in the public sphere in America. And moreover, he chose these locales because he wanted to show instances of civil protest inscribed in the Middle East, in the framework of a religious war. He saw the acts they represent as pertaining to religious practice.

There is yet a clear mapping of how the digital snapshots have penetrated American consciousness, and the variety of significations they carry. If their display at the ICP can be regarded as portend, then they are well on their way to being emptied of their immediate signification and canonized as icons. To cite one example, the Los Angeles–based Forkscrew Graphics have appropriated the advertisement campaign for iPods to produce a posters series entitled “iRaq” replacing silhouettes of youth dancing to the sound of their iPods with, for one, the silhouette of a hooded man with electrodes attached to his fingers. In Iraq, all the significations contained within the digital snapshots of torment, torture and sexual abuse have remained intact. An exhibition of twenty-five Iraqi artists organized by the Hewar Gallery, produced works that showed no ambiguity as to Sontag’s assertion.

Sadly, it has become all too facile to quote George Orwell under the Bush regime. I will refrain from invoking Big Brother as a literary parallel to John Ashcroft. Rather, I will invoke him in order to understand the American liberal intelligentsia, the curators at ICP and their scuttling to reconcile the Geneva Conventions with “manifest destiny,” and the International Court of Justice with “The White Man’s Burden.” The most propitious parallel to their confounded moral and political dilemmas, I have found is in Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant. Within, the author transcribes a moment of supreme ambiguity in his youth, when asked to kill an elephant “ravaging the bazaar,” while employed as a sub-divisional police officer in the British colonial administration in Moulmein, lower Burma, as a sub-divisional police officer. The text is available on the worldwide web, free of charge.

Curated by Brian Wallis at the ICP and by Jessica Gogan and Thomas Sokolowski at The Andy Warhol Museum.