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Beyond Words: Deciphering The Digital Prison Photos

Beyond Words: Deciphering The Digital Prison Photos


Film and now electronic images have been influencing world events for almost a century now. The prison photographs coming out of Iraq this spring are images that not only are reshaping world opinion, but are also unique in both form and function. All of these pictures were made, as far as I know, by amateur photographers — people actually involved in the events themselves. Some say that as many as 1,000 such photos were made — all of them with digital cameras. In the past, most opinion changing images were made by professional photojournalists and videographers functioning as news reporters. These amateur photographers used digital cameras and computers — which allowed them to make, store, copy, and even transmit and ultimately publish their images via the Internet with instant ease, and at no cost. And so digital technology itself — this time in the hands of rank amateurs — has come to play a central role in shaping world opinion.

(Digital technology apparently also played a major role in still another picture-scandal coming out of Iraq this spring. Pictures published in the UK involving the British military were apparently electronic fabrications, undermining the validity of news reporting still again in this era of journalistic fraud.)

Another unique aspect of these crudely made digital snapshots made by American soldiers in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib Prison is that those who made them were actually recording their own criminality in progress. Some images not only document their actions, but even go on to show us how these soldiers felt about what they were doing, as they went about doing it.

Still another important fact has emerged — many of these photos apparently were made as part of the actual punishment and pressure these soldiers are applying to their prisoners. They were making these pictures not just to record the event as documentation or personal souvenirs, but to further humiliate the Iraqi prisoners in their care, in order to “break” them.

Ultimately, these electronic images were not only published in newspapers and magazines everywhere, but also shown by television networks all over the world, and with varying contexts. In the most recent, and horrific, twist, the kidnapped American, Nicholas Berg, was murdered on videotape. According to his executioners, the killing was in reprisal for the American photographs coming out of Abu Ghraib prison.

Nobody can say where all of this will take us. The images themselves are only evidence — the substance rests in the brutality itself and its political effect on history. But when that history is written, electronic imaging will loom large as the visual story teller.

Phil Douglis, The Douglis Visual Workshops

Editor’s note:  For another reading of these photos, see the May 23, 2004 
New York Times article Regarding the Torture of Others(must be registered) by Susan Sontag — whose essays and books on the role of photography in society have given us much food for thought over the last 30 years.

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