recent news//


TORTURE: ARTIST STATEMENT

In April 2004, a story broke that would change the perception of America by both Americans and the rest of the world. The Abu Ghraib images jolted us, momentarily, into a realization that morality is a relative construct, and that in a world defined by such simplistic contrivances as good and evil, it is what humans are capable of doing to one another that affirms, despite our intellect, that at our core we are animals, primal and base.

In an interview for her just-released book, American Protest Literature, author and Harvard lecturer, Zoe Trodd asked me whether I thought the Abu Ghraib images had a lesser effect on public opinion than Vietnam war images because (a) they emphasized humiliation rather than physical violence, and (b) their aesthetic quality was not high - so grainy and undetailed, just snapshots, no texture or focus.

In the context of torture, I imagine that in many ways, the simulation of violence is just as bad, for the victim, as actual violence. The person around whom electric wires were tied probably did not know that there was no actual electricity (unless he had been living in post-Shock and Awe Iraq, and knew better!)

Whether you're running naked screaming with napalm covering your body, being forced to stand with your arms outstretched, forced to climb atop a human pyramid of naked prisoners, forced to crawl through urine and feces, or be subject to a growling dog snarling inches from your face, all represent violence, albeit in varying degrees.

The Silicon Valley printing company Zazzle characterized the iconic hooded Iraqi with outstretched arms dangling electric wired, positioned as stars on an American flag as "excessively violent," in my 2004 piece, "Like Apple Fucking Pie" before destroying it. Yet the same company did not regard a man, hands and feet bleeding and nailed to a wooden cross, as excessively violent. Somehow, the image of a crucifixion is not considered as violent imagery, because we, as a society, have accepted the attachment of some spiritual significance. How many people who have a crucifix above the mantle would frame Nicole Brown Simpson's autopsy photos?

The sexual dimension that seemed to be glaringly obvious in the Abu Ghraib imagery but clearly under the general "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy applied to all things sexual in the military, is noticeably absent from much of the debate. The images that were released by 60 Minutes II in April 2004, and subsequently reproduced by publications the globe over, included a pyramid of bare-assed detainees. Every image I have ever sourced, then and since, showed the assholes and genitals blurred. It struck me that obscenity laws, including those governing the transmission of images over the Internet - the very provision I challenged, but which remains in effect relating to obscenity - precluded the image from being transmitted unless those areas were blurred out. Yet, to me, the obscenity constituted the grinning servicemembers, PFC Lynndie England and Specialist Charles Graner, giving the thumbs up.

The revulsion and outrage voiced by politicians and Pentagon officials alike failed to mention that the abuse at Abu Ghraib went well beyond torturing the detainees to humiliate them, but revealed a sexual dysfunction far deeper, related to the captors.

Our society, and particularly a pseudo, hyper-masculine military culture, can't imagine anything worse than a straight guy being forced to engage in gay sex against his will any more than the Muslims can, but if the pyramid was of female detainees in the identical position, in how many college lockers might the image be pinned up, and what kind of fodder might it offer for teens yet exposed to pornography?

These are things no one wants to talk about, even in earnest examinations of the Abu Ghraib scandal. And yet for all its pious revulsion, the United States military and media dub Abu Ghraib as a scandalous, abusive, disgraceful, an abomination, a violation, degrading, debase - anything under the sun but the reality -- torture.

Although the Abu Ghraib images are low-resolution, I don't believe it's the only reason they don't seem to have the same impact that My Lai images and others had. (Photographs of the My Lai massacre provoked world outrage and made it an international scandal.) Nick Ut's 1972 photograph of Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack, or Eddie Adams' 1968 picture of police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem, on a Saigon street during the opening stages of the Tet Offensive.

In an interview with Time magazine, Adams stated;
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?'
I believe a combination of communications that allow instant gratification, collective attention deficit disorder, information glut and an unwillingness to introspect and confront who we are in those grainy photos; all combine to defuse the impact of the images from Abu Ghraib.

What if the images weren't diffuse and grainy? What if they were restaged and presented in a format that today's over-saturated media and information glut demands to capture attention? It was in the raising of these questions, this show was conceived.

The execution of the photographs for this exhibition presented unique challenges and raised unexpected questions. From communicating my intentions to the models so that they understood what I was doing and why, to physically handcuffing, tying and placing sandbags over their heads, I came as close as I ever wanted to the mindset of those who executed the actual deeds at Abu Ghraib.

As exhausting and uncomfortable as it was for the models, there was something inexplicably erotic and sexaully charged in choreographing the scenes, which in turn, allowed me to understand a little more of the pathology of the torturers.

The biggest realization came quite unexpectedly after one of the models had been required to stand in an excruciatingly uncomfortable position for longer than expected as I shot him from different angles, his arms wrapped around his knees, doubled over, and a sandbag over his head. After the shot was done, the model, before even removing the sandbag, stood exhausted with his hands resting on his thighs, before even taking the sandbag off his head. I carried on shooting, because in that moment, it became clear to me that most of the images we had witnessed from Abu Ghraib were also staged. What the Abu Ghraib images represented were indeed trophy shots, much like the proud, smiling faces of those responsible for lynching standing boastfully alongside their handiwork.

The post-torture-simulation exhaustion was the most disturbing of anything I had seen or photographed until then.

The torture debate is fraught with euphemisms and obfuscation.

John Yoo of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel referred to measures traditionally defined as torture as "individual liberty infringements." Terms like "extraordinary rendition," which essentially defines the outsourcing of torture to countries unimpeded by treaties, conventions or scrutiny, to "ghost detainees," the practice of hiding certain detainees or enemy combatants without registering them (in violation of international law) obscure the horror of what they actually represent. "Black sites," are classified facilities or secret prisons officially denied by the US government. The summer-fun sounding "waterboarding," a technique Dick Cheney has admitted is practiced in US interrogations and considers necessary is a form of torture that simulates the experience of drowning.

According to John Yoo, the Schlesinger report -- another on Abu Ghraib prison -- found that the abuses there "resulted not from orders out of Washington, but from flagrant disregard of interrogation and detention rules by the guards." Similarly, in the immediate aftermath of the release of the images, the Administration tried to paint the servicemembers indulging in the torture as anomalies -- "bad apples".

On October 17, 2006, President Bush signed The United States Military Commissions Act, which was passed by congress and which not only eviscerates habeus corpus or unlawful imprisonment to begin with, but removes the few checks against mistreatment of prisoners. Its wording makes possible the permanent detention and torture (as defined by the Geneva Conventions) of anyone - including American citizens - based solely on the decision of the President, presumably when sober.

The law provides a retroactive immunity to U.S. officials who authorized, ordered, or committed potential acts of abuse on detainees, incorporating the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 asserting it shall be a defense that such officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent did not know that the practices were unlawful and a person of ordinary sense and understanding would not know the practices were unlawful. So much for a few "bad apples." Seems like it's the seeds, the orchards and the farmers too.

America's approach to torture under this administration is beyond shameful. The images in this exhibit serve as nothing more than a stark reminder of who we are.




Special thanks to the following people, without whose encouragement, support, generosity, confidence, expectations, kindness and commitment, this body of work would not have been possible. Zoe Trodd, Patrick Stull, Gilbert Solano, Paul Burkley, Marc Salomon, Ken Breniman, Daniel Fernandez, Antoine Alsayah, Michael Wolford, Andre Luis, Juan Garcia, Arthur Allione, Trace Cohen, Grant Steinfeld, Robert Dobrow, Hanna Regev, Hero Nakatani, Roger Bass, Kate Ginsberg, Kate Bednarski, Matthew Picton, John Gilmore, Steve Sirota, Steven Campbell, David Ferguson, Peter Selz, Nancy Toomey, Stephen Tourell, Todd Bennett, Andrew Soernsen, Gary van Wyk, Lisa Brittan, my friends and family, and most importantly, Satar Jabar and the other nameless, faceless Iraqis from Abu Ghraib prison who were tortured in our name, and for whose suffering and humiliation I dedicate this body of work in the remotest of possible hope that we see it clearly enough to demand from ourselves, and those we elect to represent us, that it never happen again.