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Visual Ambiguity and Human Rights

It’s not the royal wedding or Obama’s birth certificate, but the recent disclosure of The Guantanamo Files obtained by the New York Times is important news nonetheless.  In a better world, the release of classified documents detailing the detentions in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay would not have to compete for attention with fluff and idiocy, but we don’t live in that world.  For a mainline journalist, this distortion of values might seem both demeaning and surreal.  Perhaps that sense of things helped put this photograph front page above the fold as the leading image for the story.

It certainly caught my eye, and also was strangely disturbing.  Perhaps it suggests that the experience of being detained in the prison is both demeaning and surreal.  It’s easy to imagine such disorientation in any prison and certainly for prisoners moved there from half a world away.  But I don’t think that is what still bothers me about the photo.

This blog periodically features photographs that are cropped to feature only hands or feet.  John and I believe that this is a generally unnoticed and increasingly prevalent technique in contemporary photojournalism.  We have discussed its use across a range of topics–war, protests, leadership, etc.  We have suggested how it has been used productively to focus attention, evoke empathy, provoke critical thought, and otherwise do the work that photojournalism should do.  We even have suggested an explanation in terms of an “elocutionary function” that visual imagery can bring to print discourse.  And generally we have not been critical of the technique.  But now I’m not so sure about that.

A standard criticism of photojournalism is that it fragments representation–the image is a discrete slice of reality without obvious narration or argument to maintain a larger conception of the whole.  That fragmentation then allows inventive recombination, as Photoshop has made all too obvious; Susan Sontag went to far as to accuse photography of fostering a pervasive surrealism.  Sontag perfected the art of being simultaneously right and wrong, and the claim about surrealism is no exception, but she might be helpful in understanding the use of this particular image.

The problem is not the image itself but its relation to context: specifically, the Times coverage of the incarceration practices at the prison, which have for the most part been violations of law and decency.  Had the Times, when breaking the story, been paying as much attention to the hundreds of mistaken detentions as to the few prisoners who very likely are dangerous enemies of the US, then the photograph would be suitably representative: The image suggests someone could be a security risk, but who also could be an ordinary person wearing flip-flops.  The one foot idly pulled out of the sandal suggests someone who is both habituated and bored, killing time in his pajamas while having been there long enough for anyone to have built a case against him if there is a case to be made.  And shackles and chains exemplify the excessive security measures that are the essence of the whole sorry Guantanamo story.  Maximum security for an anonymous prisoner who may well not deserve detention–that seems about right, right?

But that wasn’t the context, and the photograph also can reflect precisely the biases, paranoia, and dehumanization that is also at the core of Guantanamo’s role in the war on terror.  The photograph cuts the man off well below the knees–he is incapacitated by the photo as well as the chains.  More to the point, he is not visible as a full person.  Were we to see even his face and upper body, it would be much, much easier to see him as an individual–that is, as a specific person with a history, culture, family, friends, occupation, aspirations, and so forth.  We could readily assume that he might have many possible reasons for being in the world, rather than simply being a terrorist.  Most important, we could see him as a person having human rights.  Instead, we see only his shackled feet, as if he were inherently dangerous and likely to escape at any moment. Worse yet, the shadow under the table darkens his skin. What more do you need to know?

Of course, the photograph is a fragment that doesn’t have a fixed meaning.  The fault, if there is one, lies not in the image but in its use.  In this case, however, I find the ambiguity troubling.  The good news is that the Times coverage has become more balanced over the past few days, as you can see at the link above, and so the photograph (which still is the leading image for the story) need not be damning.  The fact remains, however, that the Guantanamo Bay prison has been part of a larger erosion of the rule of law, a displacement of due process by routinized security procedures that may be relatively humane but stand too close to and, via practices such as rendition, often in collusion with authoritarian regimes.  It then becomes all the more important to hold the line wherever one can, including in conventions of reportage.  It may not be possible to see the whole process of justice, but it certainly is possible to become complicit with moral blindness.

Photograph by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press.

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Visual Ambiguity and Human Rights

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