Atrocity photographs provoke questions about action in two directions: the action of what happens in the scene and the potentially repairing action of whoever contemplates the image; it is posed as the duality between what is shown and the blind spot in which the traumatic character of this type of photography is enclosed. An analogy is established with the use of language in which two types of sentences are identified: performative and declarative. If in the former, the sentence is equivalent to action, in the latter, the sentence states an event from the past or announces a future one. In relation to images of atrocities, their performative function is clearly identified.

Such a performative function, however, supposes a kind of paradox in relation to the relationship between photography and time (past and future) that Barthes reasoned about in his book The Camera Lucida. In a portrait taken of a person, a moment of his past is recorded, it is seen in the present, but the stillness of the image also contains a latent (and repressed) premonition of his future death. If the photograph is seen after the death of the subject, the anticipation of death is replaced by a past future. In relation to the linguistic analogy established above, the function of photography is declarative. However, in photographs of atrocities, this contemplative (and affective) attitude is replaced by the urgency of the present time – a present time in crisis – and the need for some kind of action proper to the declarative position.
However, the repeated vision of one of these images creates a narrative that triggers a past: “I have already seen this and I have survived”; transforming the performative character into declarative (this explains the comment that the continuous vision of misfortunes and atrocities immunizes us against the suffering of others).

The photographs of Abu Ghraib’s tortures have resisted any kind of narrative and psychological assimilation and retain their performative function. The actions they provoke depend on the reading context (gallery, West, East, artists, ordinary people), but the different attitudes move between disavowal and justification. To contemplate this type of images is also a mode of violence, and in the West they have been received with more concern for us than for interest in the suffering of others. In this sense, these images represent a failure in the act of seeing the other and reveal a new blind spot. Adorned with a multitude of critical essays that argue and justify from different ideological perspectives, but in essence these images are pornography of war and what they speak of is: ideology, sadism, violence, racism and ethics.

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10:55 p.m., Nov. 29, 2003. Unknown detainee standing on MRE boxes. The detainee is wearing what appear to be women’s panties. All caption information is taken directly from CID materials. U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID). Seized by the U.S. Government.

In the Abu Ghraib images the prisoners are shown with their faces covered, which provokes a desubjetivation of the individual, provoking a fissure between the body and the identity, of the same nature as death. As Didi-Huberman suggests, the visible is the physical manifestation of the real, but the visual designates “the irregular network of events-symptoms that reach the visible as traces of “something” not completely described. The paradox or dissolution of visual logic reaches the tortured subject himself who cannot witness his own suffering.

By eliminating the identity of the subject, an abstract vision of torture is created, failing any attempt to manifest the uniqueness of each individual or each body. The most iconic of these photographs, “Gilligan on a box” shows a hooded prisoner, arms raised and cables connected to his hands and penis under the threat of electrocution if he moves. The dramatization of the scene and the invisibility of the subject’s identity makes it difficult to “properly” read this image: We see more than a man on a box, but we also see that we cannot see who the man on the box is.

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Gilligan on a box. November 4, 2003

Below I include the extended quote from Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch on this image:

…the power of an image does not necessarily lie in what it depicts. A photograph of a mangled cadaver, or of a naked man trussed in torment, can shock and outrage, provoke protest and investigation, but it leaves little to the imagination. It may be rich in practical information, while being devoid of any broader meaning. To the extent that it represents any circumstances or conditions beyond itself, it does so generically. Such photographs are repellent, in large part because they have a terrible, reductive sameness. Except from a forensic point of view, they are unambiguous, and have the quality of pornography. They are what they show, nothing more. They communicate no vision and, shorn of context, they offer little, if anything, to think about, no occasion for wonder. They have no value as symbols…

The image of Gilligan achieves its power from the fact that it does not show the human form laid bare and reduced to raw matter but creates instead an original image of inhumanity that admits no immediately self-evident reading. Its fascination resides, in large part, in its mystery and inscrutability—in all that is concealed by all that it reveals. It is an image of carnival weirdness: this upright body shrouded from head to foot; those wires; that pose; and the peaked hood that carries so many vague and ghoulish associations. The pose is obviously contrived and theatrical, a deliberate invention that appears to belong to some dark ritual, a primal scene of martyrdom. The picture transfixes us because it looks like the truth, but, looking at it, we can only imagine what that truth is: torture, execution, a scene staged for the camera? So we seize on the figure of Gilligan as a symbol that stands for all that we know was wrong at Abu Ghraib and all that we cannot—or do not want to—understand about how it came to this.

Gourevitch/Morris

The performative force of some atrocity photographs reveals the depth of many of our blind spots. Some viewers respond to such points with violence, others with the will to know more, and others shrug their shoulders with indifference.