Thanks to everyone at Duke for a great visit. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with a great group of archivists there, as well as to screen Missing Lives: Disappearances and Impunity in the North Caucasus to a more general audience. Produced with partner Human Rights Center Memorial, the video documents the problem of enforced disappearances and torture, as a hallmark of the second Chechen war, and now spreading to neighboring republics. For more visit the Hub.
On the plane home I read Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’s New Yorker article, Exposure: the Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib, a postmortem (as it were) on the Abu Ghraib photographs taken by Sabrina Harman and others. I haven’t seen Morris’s film yet but the article is superb. One comes away both repelled by and sympathetic to Harman, appalled at her actions and yet acutely aware that her drive to document, however perverse, allowed the Abu Ghraib story to emerge. Harman, along with a number of other recruits who took or appeared in photographs, was court-martialled and convicted; the interrogators were not. What’s fascinating to me – as an archivist of images, often of abuse and suffering – is knowing the story behind the images; even a single, static photograph is endlessly complex in terms of how it came to be, its creator’s motives or point of view, its literal truthfulness versus its symbolic truthfulness. Gourevitch/Morris describe the circumstances of the most famous of the photographs, of a man the MPs dubbed Gilligan, hooded, shrouded, attached to electrical wires, standing on a box. They write:
“…the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols…”
“The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this.”