Clinton Fein's Tools and the Master's House of Torture
By: ZOE TRODD
Fast-forward four years, to 1972. Nick Ut's image of Kim Phuc fleeing her village after an accidental napalm bombing appeared in every American newspaper on June 9, a day after Ut shot the image. Like Adams' image, Ut's was beautiful, with a full contrast of blacks and whites and a soft focus smoky backdrop. It had elements of Greek tragedy: the face of the young boy on the left of the image is shaped like the mask of Greek tragic drama. And it resonated with familiar Christian iconography as well, for Phuc is stretched out as though crucified.
The image didn't stop American pilots dropping napalm on Iraqi troops during the 2003 advance on Baghdad. But it did shift public opinion on the Vietnam War.
Fast-forward again, to 2004. In April, 60 Minutes II released digital photographs taken by U.S. prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The images were printed on April 30 by the New Yorker. But this time the images quickly faded from the national scene. Unlike the Vietnam images, they were easily swept aside. This difference in impact wasn't due to a difference in intent: Eddie Adams regretted destroying Loan's reputation with his 1968 photograph, explaining in an interview that the image was never meant to do what it did. Adams' image just took on a life of its own within the antiwar movement, beyond the photographer's intention. The Abu Ghraib images, however, failed to find that new life and be taken up as protest material. Squinting at the images in newspapers and online, it was hard not to wonder if this low impact was partly due to their low quality; they were perhaps too grainy, too badly lit, too drained of color, too flattened, too muted. A far cry from the great images of the Vietnam war, these images were simply forgettable.
One last fast-forward, this time to 2007. In January Clinton Fein offered his own versions of the Abu Ghraib images: large-scale, hyper-detailed, dramatically-lit and uncensored recreations of the torture scenes that rival the visual explosions of the Vietnam War. There are, of course, numerous ways to respond to Fein's exhibition. The viewer could feel like it revictimizes the prisoners within a pornography of violence, or that it forces a painful identification with the guards (those white faces staring back like a mirror-image for visitors), or that it offers a mourning ritual and a rummaging through the dark drawers of history's closet-a history that America forgot so quickly in 2004. Perhaps the exhibition does all these things. But it is also an act of patriotic dissent. After all, as Fein once said to me: "dissent is the most powerful tool America has, and ensuring its protection is the most patriotic thing an American can do." And in re-photographing the Abu Ghraib images, Fein entered a tradition of dissent that extends way beyond the Vietnam images-a tradition that, from Tom Paine to Tupac, has asked America to be America.
Making his camera a weapon of torture, Fein again echoes a tradition in the protest tradition: that of imagining words as weapons, pens as swords, cameras as guns. Richard Wright imagined "using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club." Amiri Baraka depicted words as daggers, fists, and poison gas in his poem "Black Art" (1966). James Agee called the camera a gun, Jacob Riis said he photographed the poor like a "war correspondent," and for years Woody Guthrie had a sign on his guitar that read, "This Machine Kills Fascists." In 1970, the Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas told artists to "take up their paints and brushes in one hand and their gun in the other," adding: "all of the Fascist American empire must be blown up in our pictures." Part of this tradition, Fein's appropriation of the master's tools transforms those tools into weapons that violently dismantle the master's house, shock us into questioning the role of the photographer as a witness, and ask us to question our own role as new witnesses to these scenes.
One final aspect of Fein's exhibition that locates him with the protest tradition is his strategy, quite simply, of remembering. In 2007 he remembers the early part of the Iraq War by re-photographing its images. It is an act reminiscent of the late twentieth-century photographers who found and re-photographed Walker Evans' Alabama sharecroppers from the 1930s, and it is in the tradition of all protest artists who revise protest texts and images from an earlier time. To cite just one example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was used as a model by Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair, as a negative spur by James Baldwin and Carl Wittman, and was eventually transformed by Bill T. Jones in a 1990s ballet. It is as though Stowe's novel needed corrective dialogue with other protest artists to make it whole.
In re-photographing Abu Ghraib, then, Fein enters a long tradition of intellectual bricolage. He salvages pieces of America's past, and makes them new and whole. It is as though he takes the rubble of history and builds a theater space for a new performance-becoming a new Angel of History. As Tony Kushner observed in a recent interview, alluding to Walter Benjamin's famous "Angel of History": "you have to be constantly looking back at the rubble of history. The most dangerous thing is to become set upon some notion of the future that isn't rooted in the bleakest, most terrifying idea of what's piled up behind you." Fein stares directly into the rubble, sees what is piled up behind us, decides that art can be made from what America has left, and invites a move from cultural haunting to social action-as though looking back might move America forward.
Zoe Trodd is a member of the Tutorial Board in History and Literature. Harvard University.