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13 May, 2004

Power of abuse pictures

Writing at the BBC website, award-winning photographer and documentary filmmaker David Modell explores the particular, destructive power of the pictures of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners, explaining that the photographer was not merely documenting the degradation, but was complicit in the abuse, and actually part of the torture.

Quite apart from his central message (which I don't mean to diminish by quoting the following section in isolation; indeed, please read the article, Modell makes a fascinating general point about the medium of photography and photojournalism.

The language of photography has, again, proved its power.

The person who said that "a picture is worth a thousand words" was wrong - they missed the point. Photography is a language, a form of communication in its own right that doesn't bear comparison with any other. There is no form of words - even if describing the horror these pictures reveal - that could have elicited the kind of response felt when looking at them and the political shift that will follow. A photograph speaks to all of us regardless of culture or spoken language.

There is a synchronicity between the nature of a still image and the way in which we remember events. Memory itself is constructed through frozen moments in time and so a photograph slips serenely into our minds and is retained. Moving images can never be this potent. We cannot retain and carry with us a video-clip in the same way. We cannot have a two-minute news report always available in the top drawer of our minds ready to be glanced at, at any moment.


Unless I'm mistaken, the photographer was always complicit in the abuse - the images were shown to the prisoners to shame and degrade them, it was never about just documenting.

Posted by Cheeks at May 13, 2004 01:41 PM

Slight misunderstanding.
In summarising Modell's article, I'm not talking about 'the photographer' being that specific person at Abu Ghraib, but photographers in general.
In previous conflicts, photography has primarily been used to document abuses, rather than being central to the torture itself. There's more about this in the original article.

The point of my post is that the impact of photography (any photography; Modell was writing about the abuses, but I'm speaking more generally) on the consciousness goes further than merely supplementing a written account - a still image may remain in the memory long after the accompanying text is forgotten.
There's an iconic 1970s photograph of a Vietnamese(?) prisoner about to be shot in the head. I know almost nothing about the image, yet I remember it.

Posted by NRT at May 13, 2004 02:28 PM
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