In this response to Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority I’d like to discuss two pictures – the first, Interview room, Abu Ghraib prison (“hard site”), Abu Ghraib, Iraq and the second, the Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq.
There is rich discussion to be had with Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority. Political footings jockey with ethical inertia, jockey with instructional histories, jockey with considerations of the soul. Readings thick and fast. No less, these meta-narratives are deformed by one’s own emotional interruptions. One recollects perhaps passages and interrogations through border controls, transport hubs, reception rooms and state corridors. One recalls school, streets and flaking paint.
Random knowledge bombards the equation, – Raves at Ansthruther’s decommissioned nuclear command centre during university days; A deliberate detour made during honeymoon to locate Pelican Bay maximum security prison; An introduction at San Francisco International.
My good friend, and Hesitating co-conspirator, Keith Axline recently featured Richard Ross in a Wired gallery. Keith explained to me that it is Ross’ ability to rattle shutter and catch the necessary shot every time that impressed him most. Ross’ manipulations are in spite of the unpredictable (and sometimes unexpected) access to the different sites. Ross prevails with perseverance; “No never really means no;” and aggressive networking (Ross’ chances of accessing Abu Ghraib depending largely on the trust and recommendations of military personnel he liaised with for his Guantanamo work).
Ross gets the shot he needs, even when he has only a limited number of exposures, and a limited amount of time. More surprising, Ross achieves this with almost perfect tonal harmony throughout the collection of prints. This said, Ross’ technical prowess is not my concern here, rather the gaps and routes between the images he has assembled. Ross consistently presents isolation, the viewer consistently seeks human incidence.
One is compelled when looking at Richard Ross’ starkly depicted environments to search out the signs of life. On a few occasions one is rewarded, a curious tourist looks back at us from atop Syria’s Craq de Chevalier Crusader Fort; a heart shaped paperweight and polystyrene cup sit on the judge’s bench in Santa Barbara’s superior court; an open bag, that will travel home with its owner, sits at the foot of a movie executive’s desk. The loose blanket left in the cell at Hillingdon Road Jail presses us to fleetingly wonder if the person who unfolded and used the blanket in the cell earlier, will be back in the cell later, possibly to use the blanket once more.
The praying figure in Istanbul’s Blue mosque is representative of the building’s purpose. He is a motif of religious expression. The security guard at Topkapi is frozen rigid behind the glass, which serves to separate him from the viewer and present him as a part of the larger observing machinery. How different the shot would be if the guard stared straight down the camera lens? I imagine Ross made a few exposures in which the man did face the camera, but Ross prefers to keep attention on the environment. It is temperate and logical for Ross to choose an image in which the guard looks like a wax model – like a construction.
The austerity of The Architecture of Authority as a collection is hard to deal with. The geographical and institutional reach of the project is impressive. Inconceivably, across this wide subject matter Ross seems to have control in all the locations. Ross distills the form of each site and presents that bare form as the key to understanding the sites function.
To my mind, Ross has control in all the locations bar two. The old Abu Ghraib “Hardsite” and the new Abu Ghraib prison. In both forms, Abu Ghraib was a site of photographic desperation for Ross – he was forced briefly to compromise the overall tonality of his project.
The interrogation room is disordered. This room was not designed for interrogation purposes by the American military. It has inconvenient features such as two windows (one barred and boarded), an electrical box, a dusty fire extinguisher, exposed wires, a fallen map, makeshift furniture and used soda cans. There is also a plugged-in laptop, unidentified hold-all bags and what appear to be loose wire on the floor. There is a can or tub of something half-concealed behind the nearest chair. It seems to get more ridiculous the closer you look. There are two camp beds, one folded against the wall with a bag of belongings at the foot. What filled the bookcase? Why did Ross’ guides show him here? Is this an interrogation room? It looks like a sparse room for visiting guests. Is every room at the old Abu Ghraib, de facto, an interrogation room?
There has been much made of the juxtapositions between photos presented in the Architecture of Authority book and exhibitions; between schools and prisons; between barracks and mental asylums. It is Ross’ right and responsibility to guide his audience in ways of seeing. But there is enough information, memory and rituals of communication embedded in any of Ross’ individual images to warrant singular assessment.
Humans in Ross’ pictures never threatens to steal attention for very long. The narrative of the building or structure dominates the narrative of the individual. There are moments when Ross’ photographs effortlessly adopt the surveillance philosophies of each object – bank, London tube station, hotel phone booths, or the confessional. This is part the photographers skill but also the unavoidable disclosure upon sight of the modes of each disciplining, single-purpose site.
Some sites are more difficult to read than others. Ross was in new Abu Ghraib as a guest, he had a guide. The fact he included a second image counter to his over all vision reveals, not unsurprisingly, that Ross would take what he could get from his tour of new Abu Ghraib, also.
Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq is a fierce image. It is at first glance still and linear but under a paper-thin surface it is simmering with tension. There are four detainees in this image. In Ross’ depopulated world, that is akin to a cacophonous arena crowd. The two clearly visible men are curiously peering at Ross’ activities and make a mockery of Ross’ attempt to mimic the prison’s personless eye of surveillance. A third man sits in the shade to the right of the image reading and otherwise oblivious. A fourth man sits on the left side of the image obscured by a water tank.
The sheepish glance of one detainee and the craned neck of the other come to dominate this image the longer one looks at it. The man at the door of the tent has no shoes on. Has he just emerged in response to the photographer’s presence? These two men brilliantly illuminate the unnatural and inflexible relationships that exist across and through chain link and barbed wire. They are merely curious at this point and do not gesture or ask anything of Ross, at least not in this exposure. They have been briefly distracted from house-keeping routines by another human that is as foreign to them as any other. Proximity means nothing here for Ross and his inadvertent subjects.
The most remarkable thing about Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq is not the clarity with which Ross communicates the apparatus of power, but rather how that drains human interaction of meaning or purpose. Does this mean I’d like to see more people in Ross’ photography? Absolutely not, there are plenty of documentary photographers who are trying to convey the spectrum of human existence, and it is not Ross’ charge. It just means that upon the appearance of non-typical images the audience’s attention is gripped. The two anomalous images from Abu Ghraib draw to attention Ross’ otherwise effortless manipulation of his audience. Ross shapes and prepares his viewer for a cold interaction. His manipulation of the audience’s eye is fitting for a project that studies dominance over subjects and imposed order of authorities.