Writing on photography

Mute Witnesses: Pentagon Releases Detainee Abuse Photographs

After over a decade of legal wrangling the United States Department of Defense has finally released a tranche of nearly 200 photographs documenting the abuse of detainees during the Bush administration’s war on terror (see here for the whole set). The American Civil Liberties Union who have fought for this release since 2003 continue to push for the publication of another 1,800 images which are still being withheld. The released photographs are reported to document abuse which took place at a number of sites around Iraq and Afghanistan, and may also include photographs from locations in other countries. But what’s most noticeable about these photographs is the mute banality of so many of them. They feel very much as if they’ve been selected for how little they show and say. In many cases there is little or no visible trace of the injury that is apparently being documented, in others it looks as if there is no injury being recorded at all, and what has been released are in fact grab shots taken at other stages of the detainment process, for example on initial arrest. Almost all of the photographs are rescans of bad print outs, and have been copied or reproduced so many times that there is little information which can be gleaned from them.

The actual muteness of photographs positioned as being of great relevatory value is certainly not a new issue in photography and it’s something I often talk to students about in some depth because it has particular implications for a practice like documentary photography, which hinges so much on showing things which the camera is often actually very poorly equipped to reveal. We place expectations on photographs which we have been primed to view as evidence, expectations which often cause us to extrapolate and imagine (apt word) things that the image itself is sometimes not really able to show, or which in some circumstances it’s creator is unwilling to really reveal. Photographs are mute without some form of external context and explanation, which are noticeable in this collection of photographs for their total absence. Very few of the photographs include anything by way of explanation, and even those that do are often noticeable for their obscure and non-specific language. As a result these photographs offer frustratingly little sense of the cause of injuries, chronologies, locations, or other information which might actually shed light on the opaque system of detainment and torture which there release was intended to push further into view. In this sense I would say this release of imagery has been masterfully curated, to meet the demands of the courts, without really giving much of anything away.

The release instead only seems to shed a little light on the systems of image creation and management that operate (formally or not) within governments and their constituent agencies like militaries and intelligence organisations. They are examples of the state seeing for the state, and the way that this seeing is adjusted, filtered and censored when the time comes that we ask to see what the state has been seeing (and more importantly doing) on our behalf. They are examples of how the selection and exclusion of certain types of imagery can create meaning even in a set of images as mute as these. The visual language of the released images predominantly use the codes and conventions of crime scene investigation, the inevitable implication of this being that while bad things might have happened, photography has been used here to investigate it, the authorities are on the case, and no further disclosure is required. In this sense these images bare comparison to two less carefully managed precedents for the release of torture imagery. Self-evidently to the release of amateur photographs taken of abuse at Abu Gharib prison in 2003, photographs which have unintentionally gone to become as symbolic of the war on terror as grainy stills of attacks on 9/11, and which offer a sort of coda to that opening salvo of this most unconventional of conflicts. Perhaps less obviously though I also find myself thinking of the photographs leaked by Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who documented the deceased victims of the Syrian government’s torture program as records intended to confirm that those who had been killed were indeed dead. This is not to bluntly equate these different programs of torture and abuse, or the governments that sanctioned them, but only to note the similarities and differences in the closed circulation of imagery, and the importance of the circumstances by which they enter our view and the context they come with for the way we ultimately derive meaning from them about the things they purport to reveal.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

1 comment

  • On a vaguely related theme, consider the way we treat cell phone videos of newsworthy events. I am thinking particularly of cell phone videos of alleged police brutality. Frequently the video is so shaky and blurry as to show absolutely nothing definitive. Always, the video lacks context.

    In all cases the viewers tend to supply vast amounts of detail that is simply not present. The video clearly shows whatever the viewer’s preconception of what happened was. The video, when supplied with the missing context, usually invented out of those same preconceptions, clearly supports those preconceptions, and so on.

    Worse, I think there is frequently not one iota of the disingenuous in these analyses. The amateur video analyst genuinely believes that the video supports his or her point of view, unambiguously.

    On an unrelated note: “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”, while the possessive singular neuter pronoun is “its”. It is a person tic of mine that I twitch every time I see it wrong, so as a loyal reader I’d count it a favor if you’d work these 😉

Writing on photography