The Image and the Imagined: On Why We’re not Allowed to see Detainee Abuse

By Aisha Ghani

Abu Ghraib painting by Fernando BoteroBy Aisha Ghani


On Monday, November 30th the Supreme Court overturned a Second Circuit Court of Appeals order to release photographs of U.S. soldier abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a statement by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, disclosing these photographs “would pose a clear and grave risk of inciting violence and riots against American troops and coalition forces.”

The contestation over the release of these photographs began four years ago, when a trials court judge claimed that the Bush administration was evading obligations imposed on it by the Freedom of Information Act in withholding the images. Although earlier this year the Obama administration argued in favor of releasing the photographs in an effort to encourage ‘transparency’, the decision was later reversed. While the Supreme Court has historically challenged the state’s assertions in cases concerning the rights of detainees, this time they sided with the  Obama Administration, permitting the Pentagon to block the release of these photographs and others like them.

Are we to believe that concern for the safety of U.S. soldiers and civilians lies at the heart of this decision, or can we sense a certain disingenuity when we think about how the state endangers both soldiers and civilians everyday by subjecting them to war?  Insincerity, as George Orwell tells us, is “the gap between one’s real and declared aims.”

What is it about the nature of the image in general and, more specifically, about the ‘possible’ content of these images in particular that is creating a palpable gap between the state and judiciary’s real and declared aims?

The power of the image, as Roland Barthes reveals, lies in its capacity to produce the feeling of “having been there”. Of embedding the observer in its context, and through this movement, enlivening the world contained within it. The image, according to these sentiments, is capable of stretching our imaginations so that the people, places or objects we encounter through them begin to matter to us.  Taking this further, one might say that it is not simply what is contained within the frame – that is, the content visible to us – but also the world that we cannot see, a world that extends outside of that frame, that comes to life.

The aesthetic experience of the image is possible precisely because its content can be animated. When we talk about aesthetics however, we must bear in mind that — contra to popular belief — aesthetic experience is not always pleasant.   For G.W.F. Hegel, aesthetics is a science of feeling, not beauty. When we are faced with less pleasant images like those, for example, that provide evidence of historical events like slavery, or the Holocaust, or Japanese Internment, the aesthetic experience and potential of those images exists in their capacity to wound us.

The crucial difference between these ‘historical’ representations and the images that are being kept from us by the state and judiciary today exist in the fact that while we have relegated photographs of slavery and the Holocaust (and thus the very origins of their wounds) to an event located in the past, the potential injury of images of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan has implications for us today.  They contain the possibility of creating not only new wounds, but of refreshing existing wounds that have not yet healed from Abu Ghraib.

The issue is not simply that these photographs pose a danger to the safety of existing soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or the 30,000 soon to be deployed, but that they present more evidence that questions the legitimacy of what we now know will be an ongoing war; and this threat to the state’s legitimacy exists both internationally and domestically. The bottom line is that these images will challenge our perception of ourselves, of our national identity, and will exacerbate the anxieties of an administration already struggling to gain public approval.

What do we know about the images that we cannot see? In a Justice Department brief, two of the 44 images in question include a photograph of soldiers posing beside detainees who are handcuffed to bars with sandbags over their heads while one soldier positions a broom in the direction of one detainee’s rectum, and in a second image a soldier appears to strike an Iraqi detainee with the butt of his rifle.

What we do not know is whether these descriptions represent the worst or best of the images in that collection. Considering the images from Abu Ghraib, perhaps we do not need to stretch our minds very far in order to imagine the possible nature of pictures whose description and thus corporeality, are being hidden from us.

If released, these images will make plain what many of us already knew to be true: that the previous administration’s claim that the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident carried out by ‘a few bad apples’ was a lie. Although the lie will be in reference to events that took place four years ago, the questions that it will provoke will concern the circumstances today, and we will seek answers for these questions from the new administration.

You see, the experience of the image becomes a ‘relationship’ because reflection is fundamentally a two-way street. Whether one is reflecting on one’s own image, or on an image of something or someone else, what we see and feel in relation to it is as much about the observer as it is about the observed.  Accordingly, the administration appears to not be in favor of a self–reflexive citizenry, at least not right now. What it needs from us in place of questions — given the limitation being imposed upon our visibility — is literally blind faith.

It is not without good reason that when we encounter an image we find ourselves invoking that old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The Bush administration then, and the Obama administration now, have feared the implications of precisely this adage. They know that these images will not only be worth a thousand words, but that they will require a thousand more.  There will be words used to explain how those images came to be, and then more used to mitigate our fears and convince us that the behavior displayed in them is not in fact real, or taking place even today.

While the Obama administration continues to (or at least attempts to appear to) struggle with how to reduce war expenditure, they’ve figured out how to reduce the expenditure of words. The logic is actually astoundingly simple: if we see no evil, then there will be no evil.

What we learn from the images at Abu Ghraib is that their effect was produced as much through what we saw, as it was by the unseen that we began to wonder about — that world of torture that we now know existed beyond the boundaries of the image. In the aftermath of the events at Abu Ghraib, the sentiment on many people’s minds was, “if this is what we can see has happened, then imagine what we cannot see!”

If curiosity about the unseen was produced through what was seen in Abu Ghraib, then the administration and the judiciary have decided to kill that cat by showing us absolutely nothing. In the absence of vision, we’ll have to rely on some of our other senses to figure out why the decision to withhold these photographs accosts us, both sounding insidious and tasting unpalatable.

Aisha Ghani is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.

5 thoughts on “The Image and the Imagined: On Why We’re not Allowed to see Detainee Abuse”

  1. Very well written article. We must all question the use of violence in any circumstance whether it be the Talibans abuse against the people of Afghanistan or that of Nato (inclusive of US forces) in their fight against the Taliban. To truly understand the mindset of the Taliban, which i wil agree is outrageous, one must also understand that the supposed war against terrorism is infact creating more fanatical behavior, whereby innocent people are watching as their children are being blown up by supposed miscalculations from Nato. Stories of torture are spreading amongst the tribes and families and angering even more moderate people. Every nation requires its own due time to develop, we must not forgot that it was only a few decades ago that America was at teh center of contraversy regarding its treatment of african americans. Tiem must be given to nations like Afghanistan to set their own path, this cannot be forced, otherwise we will create a bigger mess then we have even now.

  2. This war cannot be won… We are causing more problems for ourselves especially when news like this comes out. Torture can never solve long term problems as the ppl will remember as they did when the soviets attacked Afghanistan, and the US supported the Mujahideen by providing them with weapons and support until the war was won. Then the US forgot about the Mujahideen and the Taliban formed for the broken Mujahideen. We must learn that their are consequences to our actions, and these consequences affect the whole world

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