Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pictures and Words

At his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama spoke movingly about the "Neda video" of an Iranian young woman dying -- "It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that." He went on to pay homage to "international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression." The indomitable Helen Thomas then broke in to ask him how that could possibly be reconciled with his decision in mid-May to suppress photographs of American military personnel torturing or abusing detainees. (She got cut off, but that was obviously where she was headed.)

It was a great question, even though Obama didn't answer it and the press corps laughed. The "Neda video" has brought home for a lot of people the immense power of images to shape public debate, especially where violence is concerned. When it comes to forms of state violence like killing protesters or torturing detainees, suppressing images is suppressing vital information, information that makes concrete for the public what is actually involved in practices that can otherwise sound clinical and basically harmless. (Here at least, Alicia C. Shepard, NPR's champion of vivid writing and of the avoidance of the word "torture," we can agree: "Show, Don't Tell.") Glenn Greenwald and Alice Ristroph both have posted thoughtful pieces about this.

At the same time, I think it's important to be clear about the limits of what images can do in shaping public debate. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in the NYT last month,

Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation.

I don't agree with Gourevitch's conclusion that therefore Obama made the right decision in opposing the release of the photos. But I do think that he's getting at something very important here. Images of atrocity, all by themselves, can be exceedingly ambiguous. This is true in two different ways. First, if they just show victims' bodies, it can be impossible to even figure out, based solely on the images, who the perpetrator was or what, in political terms, the horrifying pictures can tell us. The images themselves don't tell a whole story -- though they certainly do provide crucial and moving evidence for stories we're already telling or trying to tell. (The "Neda video" essentially fits in this category -- the video is indeed heartbreaking, but in the context of many other sources helping us understand what forces -- in the moment, and in the bigger picture of what's going in in Iran -- are responsible for Neda's death here.)

Second, when images do show torture or execution actually happening, not just victims' bodies afterwards, they encourage us to feel enraged at the people doing it -- but those people are invariably low-level operatives, not policy-makers. And so (as essentially occurred in the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, for example) those powerful decision-makers who are actually responsible for the system of abuse trot off into the sunset while a handful of soldiers or prison guards get labeled "sadistic" or "bad apples" and get thrown in prison. It's just never going to be photos that implicate the people at the highest levels -- that requires different kinds of sources, much less sensational but nevertheless enormously important. There's a reason tireless French anti-torture campaigner Pierre Vidal-Naquet described the entire anti-torture movement during France's Algerian War as boiling down to "a passionate quest for documents."

This isn't to say images aren't exceedingly valuable. They are. As I've said before, cell phone cameras -- and the existence of the Abu Ghraib photographs in particular -- are one huge reason for the differences between the American conversation about torture for the past several years and the French conversation (or, more often, non-conversation) about torture during the Algerian War. I believe that Obama ought to release the photographs. But ultimately photos can only be worth a thousand words when they're framed by lots and lots and lots of...words.

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