Thursday, 8 July 2010

Pictures & Words

On 23 May 2009, Philip Gourevitch, the author of The Ballad of Abu Ghraib, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times ("The Abu Ghraib We Cannot See"). There he argues that the photos at Abu Ghraib were taken by members of the Military Police. And what for? "Just to show what was going on," Specialist Harman was quoted as saying, and to be able to say, "Look, I have proof, you can't deny it." Gourevitch writes: "Had a journalist taken the photos, there would have been prizes. Instead, the photographs were used by the administration and the military to frame the soldiers who took and appeared in them as rogues acting out of their own individual perversity. In this way, the exposé became the cover-up: the soldiers who revealed our corruption to us were made scapegoats and thrown in prison."

There is indeed no doubt about that. Gourevitch continues: "Just as it was a public service to release the Abu Ghraib photographs five years ago, Mr. Obama is right today to say we don't need more of them." For this Gourevitch offers two reasons: it would endanger U.S. troops (that is very likely indeed) and it wouldn't be telling us anything we do not already know (that however is very unlikely).

As he says himself, Gourevitch has seen "many more pictures than were ever published in the press" and he had also "more than two million words of interviews to work with, and as many words again of government paperwork, and in this way I could show that most of the worst things that happened at Abu Ghraib were never photographed." So he concludes that "in order to tell the story of the pictures most effectively, I decided not to include any of them in the book."

Well, why not, but as much as photos can distract from the story as much they can — together with the accompanying text — make the story more forceful. In short: we need both, pictures and words.

Excerpt from my essay "Fear of Pictures"
in Soundscapes, Groningen, June 2009

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