PRINT Summer 2004


Abigail Solomon-Godeau on the image wars

LIKE A MINIATURE GUILLOTINE, a camera shutter slices an image from the world into which it may or may not be subsequently launched. But if it is launched—printed, transmitted, broadcast, or reproduced—it may function as an event in its own right. This has occurred over the past several months, as issues of representation have themselves become a topic in the mass media—nowhere more evident than in recent cases of censorship, whether self- or officially imposed. On February 1, Janet Jackson’s ornamented nipple was digitally effaced in news broadcasts after its initial exposure during the Super Bowl, its primal scene, so to speak. Thirteen of the photos depicting the killing of four American contractors in Fallujah on March 31, posted on the CNN website, were quickly removed. In certain newspapers and newscasts, footage of this event was digitally altered to obscure its more gruesome elements. And while these examples attest to censorship après coup, the photographs of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers, previously withheld from the public, have recently appeared in the nation’s newspapers, explicitly attesting to their prior censorship.

The withdrawal of what was previously offered to sight suggests the intractability of what is so often subject to censorship. In these cases, censorship mechanisms pivoted on the lawless exhibition of the female body and the sight of burned and mutilated American corpses. Thematically, the exposure of the sexualized female body and the desecrated corpse are both instances of venerable taboos marking the contingent boundaries between what should or should not be seen in public. Historically speaking, censorship and bodily exposure have long been linked, although it must be said that sexualized female bodies are everywhere to be seen on network television (albeit with nipples well concealed). As for slaughtered bodies, the media tends to represent enemy casualties far more frequently than our own. In any case, discretion is the rule in news journalism, even in the tabloids. This is because the serving up of the (visually) horrific—blood, gore, mutilation, and so forth—is the task of the entertainment industry, not the news media. In reality, however, taboos about the body or about the dead both belong to that segregated domain designated as obscene—etymologically defined as what is, or should be, off-scene.

As my examples indicate, the image is by definition always considered more volatile, dangerous, and uncontrollable than written or verbal descriptions, even detailed ones, and so it has always been. In most of these recent cases of visual transgression someone or something—an event or a sight—was released and disseminated, and then quickly withdrawn from view. The eruption of “unlicensed” images into the virtual space of the “news,” coupled with the attendant apparatuses of censorship, raises interesting questions about the nature and terms of transgressive imagery and its relationship to actuality.

To think about image wars in the age of digital and analog representation is not only to consider the vicissitudes of censorship, whether post-event or prior (the coffins), but also to reflect on the staging of images. Consider, for example, the Hollywoodian dimensions of the photograph of a flak-jacketed President Bush, pilot’s helmet under his arm, strutting the deck of the USS Lincoln, a much-reproduced image from a year ago. Staging and posing here is so blatant as to border on the comic (despite its presentation by the media as “news,” the category in which photo ops are routinely inserted and framed). But this choreographed—and very expensive—photo op may yet generate new meanings hardly anticipated by the White House and its imagemakers. For like the draped caskets, photographed with pious intention by the hapless Tami Silicio (promptly fired, along with her husband, by the military contractor for which they worked), the image can and does have a life of its own. What work does this picture of a coffin assembly line do in the world into which it was released? Just as the picture of the bodies on the Fallujah bridge signifies different things to occupiers and occupied, to those supporting or opposing the war, the meanings of images may escape the control of the parties and institutions that deploy them.

In certain cases, pictures that may be described as traumatic have effects that exceed the partisan or the political, striking us in ways that language can hardly encompass. For example, a great many men and women fell or jumped from the World Trade towers on September 11. Even as this happened, the decision was made to forbid their reproduction. Although one may agree with the decision, as I do, it was still an act of censorship, arguably consensual but censorship nonetheless. One reason for the interdiction was the recognizability of the bodies; another was the respect accorded to the survivors and the bereaved. Outside of eschatological concerns, however, arguments for visual censorship often turn on “standards” of taste and decorum, especially in television coverage. But as Susan Sontag briskly observes in her recent Regarding the Pain of Others, “Television news, with its much larger audience and therefore greater responsiveness to pressures from advertisers, operates under even stricter, for the most part self-policed constraints. . . . This novel insistence on good taste in a culture saturated with commercial incentives to lower standards of taste may be puzzling.” But as she goes on to elaborate, “It makes sense if understood as obscuring a host of concerns and anxieties about public order and public morale that cannot be named. . . . What can be shown, what should not be shown—few issues arouse more public clamor.”

The story of one photograph of a man falling to his death was eloquently told by Tom Junod in Esquire last September. The photograph, taken by AP photojournalist Richard Drew and reproduced inside the September 12 New York Times, uncannily records an instant in which an unidentified falling man is perfectly aligned with the vertical beams of the towers. Each fall lasted approximately ten seconds, and it is literally those instants between life and death that the image depicts. According to Junod, after the picture was initially reproduced in the national press, it disappeared. The picture became, Junod writes, “at once iconic and impermissible.” “In a nation of voyeurs,” he continues, “the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers’ experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.”

This particular picture, however, is anything but a sideshow. It is one of those exceptional photographs that can justly be characterized as traumatic. Insofar as psychic trauma is what by definition cannot be mastered, possessed, managed, it is an example whereby the arrest of the catastrophic, calamitous instant is fully matched by the arrest of the viewer; a photograph that once seen is unlikely to be forgotten. This catastrophe, which in the image is both explicitly individual and implicitly collective, will not tell us anything about terrorism or geopolitics or why the Trade towers were attacked. Indeed, it is difficult to describe what kind of message or meaning might be gleaned from it. Perhaps that is ultimately why it is a traumatic image, incapable of resolution or catharsis, taken on the cusp of life and death. But more important, the photo gives the lie to the belief in the morally deadening properties of photography. It reminds us that the image—immaterial in itself, especially when digitally registered—is nonetheless emitted into the real (not virtual) world, where it will be encountered by real, not virtual, subjectivities. And it is there, in the eyes and minds of those who view the image and individually produce its meanings, that it takes on in its second active life.

Nowhere has the volatility of this process been more apparent than in the discussion surrounding the torture pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Appalling and politically devastating as they are to the White House and the military, their authenticity is unquestioned. The belated release of these pictures has yielded what seems the unimpeachable truth (photography’s original PR claim) that American soldiers have sexually humiliated and tortured their Iraqi captives. The existence of the pictures and the debates about their reproduction have themselves—self-reflexively—become the stuff of “news,” not just the torture itself.

Initially, the images of naked Iraqi men piled up in human pyramids were pixelated in the New York Times and on news broadcasts, so that buttocks, genitals, and other body parts were fogged. Such interventions ironically indicate that the sight of the exposed body can cause even more offense than the revelation of torture. Still, there is more than enough to see. Worse, we can’t know what kinds of pictures we have not seen, what tortures were not photographed. Moreover, like the celebrating lynch mobs Sontag recalls in her book or the jubilant boys on the bridge in Fallujah, it is the grinning young American soldiers that heighten the horror. That some of the participants are young women produces its own shock effect, interjecting the atmosphere of a frat party into a Sadean orgy of violence and abjection.

In the days since the pictures have circulated in the print, broadcast, and electronic media, controversies have developed as to how much should be shown. As more and more of these images are released, editors and network producers make decisions about their reproduction in which notions of public acceptability, privacy, and decency are inextricable from what are essentially political motivations and determinations. In justifying his decision to release the photos, John Banner, executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight, said, “This is visual evidence on a major story. . . . We are certainly going to not let images with nudity or gore or violence go on the air. But we have a responsibility to our audience to inform them of wrongdoing.” Col Allan, editor in chief of the New York Post, remarked, “I think that the relentless stream of images, the vast number of these things, will wear out public patience. Clearly, the images are serving the political agenda of many newspapers.” And Bill Shine, executive producer of Fox News, stated, “Day by day, we are dialing back on their use and attempting to put them in context.”

There is, however, no “dialing back” of images, any more than one can unsee an image once seen. And notwithstanding Col Allan’s assumption of public-image fatigue, there is no indication that the public does not want to see, or know, the extent of these crimes. Approximately one year after Bush’s triumphant strut under the banner “Mission Accomplished!” the pictures of torture are released into our now, our present. Conforming to what Roland Barthes described as the specificity of photographic imagery, its evidence of the event or object “having-been-there,” it would seem that there are instances when photography, like a lightning bolt, illumines past and present, makes vivid and unforgettable what might otherwise be managed or domesticated. Had there been no pictures, it is unlikely that the torture of Iraqis would have had such profound repercussions. Despite the advent of digitization, the possibility of trumperies, the image’s polysemy, despite what critics such as Sontag identify as the narrative poverty of the photographic image, it is still better to have the photographic evidence than not. Like most wars, the one over images is waged on multiple fronts.

Abigail Solomon-Godeau is professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.