When the private image is made public

I’ve begun an excavation of sorts.

The ground to be dug is a growing mound of images from family albums, including my own. The work is part of a project with the working title ‘Other Mothers’ in which I’m attempting to…(honour? Declare my love for? ) I’m not quite sure yet, but something, towards those incredible women from my past who stepped in to provide physical and emotional nourishment following my abandonment by my mother.

It’s got me thinking a lot about photographs, their physical presence and their power. To the best of my knowledge, none of the photographs or slides I’ve been tentatively handling this past week were ever intended to be seen beyond their owners’ circles of trust.

Doing what I intend to do, to play with these images into an autobiographical and public work raises some fairly serious ethical considerations. I have permission from some, but not all, of those pictured to repurpose their likeness. For most the perimeter of a private circle of trust has been graciously extended to include my publicly shared work.

Such considerations are from unique.

Speaking this week to the artist Karl Ohiri following a seminar, we touched on the ethical complications that arise from repurposing the likenesses of real people, likely still alive, whose agency over that likeness is made subordinate to expression of an artist.

In Karl’s case he was resurfacing and repurposing his deceased mother’s photographs of her former husband. A physical artefact of his mother’s once broken heart, the ex-partner’s image in these photographs has been violently assaulted by a a ball-point pen, scrawled upon or labelled ‘bastard’.

These photographs are not just pictures of an ex-lover. They are also a direct link between a son and the anger felt by his dead mother. They have become part of Karl’s story and one that only he can tell.

“As long as the use is honest and sensitive,” said Karl. “I think it is okay.”

Adjacent to ethical considerations lies the issue of transformation. The ‘purpose’ of the images discussed so far shifts from preservation (in an album) to communication (by artists).

Susan Sontag claimed back in 2004 that this shift is affecting photographic practice in general; that vernacular photographs are - like their professionally-made counterparts - made to be shared in public rather than kept, or shown in private. Think Facebook, Instagram, Flickr etc. Martin Hand, in Ubiquitous Photography says:

“The notion that digital photography is primarily a form of communication rather than of memory-making is an important yet contested idea.

And that ‘making public’ of what might have been a personal photograph raises still further issue of what a particular image means, who decides that meaning and where the creator’s intention fits in.

Consider, as Martin Hand does, the images created of “torture and degradation taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad” between 2003 and 2004.

These images were made using digital devices both to be shared (privately, with colleagues) and as perverse private mementos of the image-takers’ tour.

Then they were made public by media outlets across the globe.

Roger Silverstone, writing in 2007, tells how:

“Here was the private erupting into public space. Secrets were broken and the underbelly of western imperial power was displayed.”

If indeed these “secrets were broken” then they were not very well kept secrets. And that in itself, I feel, is a key to understanding what these images were, what they meant and what they have come to mean.

First, the scale, which might stun some readers. More than 1,400 images were recovered by investigators.

Second, use. They were not merely, as many might assume, taken and shared between colleagues by digital means, like, perhaps the risqué photo cards of yesteryear. They were, Brian Johnsrud reveals in his excellent study (on which I rely hugely here), emailed, burned to CD Roms and, in at least one instance, used as a screensaver on a staff computer.

They were printed out and then put up along the interior walls of the prison to further humiliate detainees. And the very threat of fresh photographic humiliation was used to extract information - circuiting the torture ‘archive’ and the torture method.

More disturbing still is the fact that many of these acts of torture and degradation appear to be organised for the express purpose of being photographed.

At this point, it is helpful to remind ourselves that the images depict not only the inhumanity of the US service personnel but also the abuse and trauma of Iraqi detainees. In terms of the formation of shared-memory, this is crucial because these images are as much part of Iraq’s memory of the war as that of the US.

The use (both immediate and subsequent) of these pictures tells as almost as much about what happened at Abu Ghraib - and what it came to mean - as what is depicted within the images themselves.

Once made public, the media and the western public responded with understandable disgust. Yet there seemed to be far less interest in the west as to who these (largely) Iraqis were, what became of them after their torture and degradation (and in some cases, deaths) than in how US service personnel could have committed such acts. What interest there was in the “Iraqi view” of the revelations appear anchored to what such a ‘view’ might mean for the US and the UK.

Equally peculiar was how the ‘meaning’ of these images (and their publication) was ‘managed’.

Remember, these crimes occurred on Iraqi soil and the victims were Iraqi. Yet the investigation was American. Control of the evidence was held by the Americans.

The decision as to which of the images were “relevant” (the editing) was an American one. Ultimately, only 280 or so images formed part of the investigation. Official interpretation of that evidence within the sphere of the investigation was American. Deciding what acts were criminal was an American task. The findings and eventual punishment were American.

To date there has been no separate Iraqi investigation into the crimes committed.

There has, however, been some limited repurposing of the Abu Ghraib images by Iraqi artists.

Most visceral amongst these is a sculpture by Iman Shaq, whose work directly features the images, placing one of a man smeared with his own excrement within a medallion frame that subtly references both Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvius Man and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

There are also works that relate to, but with ought direct repurposing, the Abu Ghraib images. Abdel-Karim Khalil’s Detainees are formed from clay and show four contorted figures that reference both the US treatment of detainees but also the continuing dehumanisation what was then a continuing occupation.

Writing in Contemporary Art in the Arab World, Robert Stenberg discusses the Iraqi artistic response to the Abu Ghraib photographs.

“For Iraqis, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib because they trigger a whole series of cultural objections. The methods were not born simply of a cold military utility, but were an all out assault on Islamic culture.

“Thus, for the Iraqi, Abu Ghraib is not representative of the betrayal of Western ideals, nor something that should inspire feelings of self-loathing or responsibility. Instead, Abu Ghraib is a violent assault on everything it means to be Iraqi by a foreign power.”

The two Iraqi artists cited above are unusual in responding so directly to the photographs. The wider Iraqi artistic response has been, Stenberg says, muted.

One wonders whether the transformation of the Abu Ghraib images has performed its own repurposing, needing little if any assistance from artists, Iraqi or not. The horrors and hypocrisy, despite the intense efforts at narrative management by the US military, surfaced themselves.

Leave a comment

References:

www.karlohiri.com. (n.d.). Artist : Karl Ohiri. [online] Available at: https://www.karlohiri.com [Accessed 30 Jan. 2021].

Hand, M. (2012). Ubiquitous photography. Cambridge, U.K. ; Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Silverstone, R. (2013). Media and morality : on the rise of the mediapolis. Cambridge ; Malden: Polity.

Johnsrud, B. (2011). Putting the pieces together again: digital photography and the compulsion to order violence at Abu Ghraib. Visual Studies, 26(2), pp.154–168.

Anon, (n.d.). ABDEL-KARIM KHALIL – Station Museum of Contemporary Art. [online] Available at: https://stationmuseum.com/past-exhibitions/iraqi-artists-in-exile/abdel-karim-khalil/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2021].

Art Against Torture: Abu Ghraib and Artistic Depictions of Suffering. (n.d.). [online] . Available at: https://www.sciencespo.fr/kuwait-program/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/KSP_Paper_Award_Spring_2015_STENBERG_Robert.pdf [Accessed 30 Jan. 2021].