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Black Book of Aggressors I 17 THE HEAVY CABLE WIRE. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
“The perpetration of violence takes away an individual’s humanity, abuser and victim are locked in one energy field, that is like sex, they join together with energy, but in [Waldman's] energy field, they are killing and being killed.”
– Susan Noyes Platt (Source)
Selma Waldman (1932-2008) is one of the great American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Unfortunately for the American public, her work has been more widely exhibited in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany.
Just as I insisted when I wrote about Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqis, it’s often worthwhile to look non-photographic work. As with Heyman’s work, I was introduced to Waldman’s work through Susan Noyes Platt’s vital book Art and Politics Now.
One of her final projects, Waldman’s Black Book of Aggressors explores her life long exploration of personal abuse between humans set in the milieu of widespread terror. The work is clearly to be understood within the context of the Abu Ghraib images but Waldman’s use of pastel extends the horror and successfully creates something significantly different and more nuanced. (I point people towards Antonin Kratochvil’s Homage to Abu Ghraib as an example of how photography can fail in it’s response to atrocity.)
Waldman conjures violent sexual depravity that represents any torture scenario, but because of global events, we know she is passing commentary on the U.S. military. It is difficult work … even for the art establishment.
Of Black Book of Aggressors Noyes Platt says:
“No museum will touch her potent work that exposes the intersection of sex, war, and torture. Her most recent series is on black paper with chalk lines in blue, red, yellow. It is a tangle of passionate fury that ensnarls interrogators and victims in a process that has no moral parameters. She declares in the brochure “War is the Crime, Naked/Aggression is the work”
In as much as the artistic process can mimic the mayhem of torture, I think Waldman succeeds and viewers are mired in what she described as “the pornography of power”.
I don’t repeat the phrase “the pornography of power” lightly. Particularly in photography circles there have been recent re-examinations of what it actually means to describe an image as pornographic. See David Campbell’s excellent essay The Problem with Regarding Photography of Suffering as ‘Pornographic’ as an introduction to the topic.
But with Waldman’s work we’re dealing with pastels and not photos.
One of the challenges to the lazy use of the term ‘pornography’ is that it is often applied specifically to photography, and as such infers something innately violating about photography. Susan Sontag is the often quoted name when people want to discuss photography and violation.
To determine what Waldman achieved with her work and also what we experience as viewers, it is worth considering Campbell’s summary of the term ‘pornographic':
As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, ‘pornography’ has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.
Most of these are present in Waldman’s work and yet because she has created a scene and expressed it in pastel, the artworks are essentially invitations to join the artist in protest.
We know that Waldman was not present as the torture and perversions occurred. With photography, on the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that along with the camera there is (usually) the camera operator.
Photography “places us” in the violent space of the original act, whereas painting often puts us in the artist’s imagination. When we engage with a photograph and substitute the camera operator with ourselves, we are repulsed. Often we’ll look away and often we ask, how could they take such a photograph?
Painted art is rarely in the position to be so closely associated with the violence of the act it depicts. When we note Waldman’s violent brushstrokes we celebrate them as conceptually consistent. When we note that a button on a camera was pushed, we may think, “Why didn’t the photographer intervene.” The answers are many and the interventions not as easy as we might hope.
Under the Websters entry for ‘pornography’ the third of three definitions reads:
The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction, i.e. the pornography of violence.
So, the issue is not that depictions of violence shouldn’t be referred to as pornographic, the issue is that too often images – and particularly photographs – of violence are referred to wrongly as pornographic.
Perhaps the most licentious element of pornographic photos is that of voyeurism. As much as people who consider photography like to discuss the contradictions and layers of meaning within photography, it seems to me, in this comparative case at least, that Waldman’s simpler direct pastel-works are a more substantive experience for the audience. They cannot be dismissed as cheap voyeurism.
Think about it. If we are shown photographs of violence then we must automatically denounce the violence. Simultaneously, the presumption is we are also repulsed. Yes, we can be made to look away, but does that mean we never look back?
A photograph holds within it a never-ending capacity for voyeurism. It is a literal depiction and (I might get in trouble for saying this) it is closer to representational truth than any painting is.
Waldman’s pastels truly are the pornography of power; it is an appropriate phrase for her work. It’s a pornography we can look at and possibly learn from. Waldman depicts the perversions of imperial power without implicating our perversions. Her artwork severs the view of the aggressor from our own view.
In Black Book of Aggressors, you don’t find the voyeuristic tension that exists in photography. It’s powerful, relevant and persistent art.
Black Book of Aggressors, NAKED/AGGRESSION. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors I. CHAINS OF COMMAND. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 35 WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of aggresors IV WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 39 WATERBOARDING PROFESSIONAL. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
GITMO JACK, NAKED AGGRESSION. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Last week, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, the first suspect transferred from Guantanamo military prison to stand a civilian trial was found guilty of only 1 of the 285 charges brought against him – a charge relating to involvement in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prosecutors branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist, but the defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes. Ghailani was convicted of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property. He faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.
Only one charge was successfully prosecuted because civil courts don’t look kindly upon the involvement of torture in extracting testimony for evidence.
From the New York Times:
Many observers attributed any weakness in the prosecution’s case to the fact that the Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of United States District Court in Manhattan, who presided over the trial, refused to allow prosecutors to introduce testimony from an important witness, who was discovered after interrogators used coercive techniques on Mr. Ghailani.
If this trial is a precedent for other trials of Gitmo detainees to follow, prosecutions are going to have a tough time of it.
The extent of torture used by American powers across the globe is picked apart in the ACLU’s ‘Torture Report’.
Experts have dissected govt. documents (released under the Freedom of Information Act) to piece together the practice of enhanced interrogation techniques; practices that have ultimately derailed the prosecution cases against hundreds of GWOT detainees.
Ed’s nuanced work from on Guantanamo began with his documenting the domestic interiors of released British detainees. As Ed progressed he realised he needed to go to the US base on Cuba. The project deliberately jumps between these environments of “residence”, forcing the viewer to consider the personal as opposed media representations we otherwise rely on.
Ed’s work deliberately excludes portraits of detainees, partly because he feels those images are widespread but also due to a belief that audiences react to “images of bearded men” with unavoidable prejudice.
Ed also looks at the leisure spaces on Guantanamo that US military personnel inhabit during down time. The juxtapositions are poignant.
The photographs in the book Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out wrap around letters received by detainee Omar Deghayes during his time in Gitmo. Except they are not letters, they are copies, processed, redacted, re-processed, copied again. If he received a colour copy it was a rare treat. Some of the correspondence is so bizarre, Deghayes wondered if the were genuine or if they were props to the mind games played by his captors.
My family has been urging me for years to talk more quickly, and having heard myself here I get their point. The only excuse I have is that it was early in the morning here on the Pacific Coast when we sat down for the webinar.
Ed, on the other hand, talks wonderfully about the images and their situation in our shared GWOT visual landscape.
PHOTOGRAPHS AS IMPLEMENTS OF TORTURE
Al-Qahtani was repeatedly shown photographs of scantily dressed women, along with images of 9/11, particularly pictures of children who had died that day, had the pictures taped to his body, and to ensure that he had paid them close attention, he was induced to answer questions about them.
This is a practice of interrogation of which I was not aware and is obviously troubling; a deliberate use of imagery to vex and agitate and an example of the power of photography as applied in an abusive context.
Thanks to OPEN-i coordinator Paul Lowe for inviting me back once again. It’s an honour to speak with a photographer at the top of his game. OPEN-i is a global network hosting monthly live discussions on critical issues relevant to documentary photography and visual storytelling.
Edmund Clark is winner of the 2010 International Photography Awards (The Lucies), 2009 British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, and the 2008 Terry O’Neill/IPG Award for Contemporary British Photography for his book ‘Still Life Killing Time’. His work is in several collections including The National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
GITMO – OTHER READINGS
Prison Photography archive of posts referring to Guantanamo.
The Prison Photography Guantanamo: Directory of Photographic and Visual Resources (May 2009)
I greatly admire Broomberg and Chanarin‘s work and I’ve followed Massive Attack since their debut album Blue Lines. So, I was stoked to see them pair up and meditate on the tortuous capacity of sound, mix in an interview with former Gitmo prisoner and UK citizen Ruhal Ahmed, and then get Damon Albarn in on the act too.
Saturday Comes Slow was recorded at Cambridge University’s anechoic chamber (designed to create total silence). It is neither film, photography nor journalism; the video is part activism, probably art and definitely a call to thought.
Sometimes the name of this weblog-journal means that I simply cannot overlook certain stories or acts of publishing.
In the past couple of hours, the Guardian website ran a nine image Guantanamo photo-gallery. The gallery launches from the largest and most prominent rectangle of the new Guardian redesign, i.e. it is the top story on the home page.
I can only assume that this is an editorial decision to keep Guantanamo in people’s minds? After all. we’ve been distracted by healthcare reform in the US, the chancellor’s TV debate in the UK, Israeli obstinacy in the Middle East and a new guise of terrorism in Russia for which our numbed minds must recalibrate.
I can only assume this is the Guardian’s decision because the essay is totally non-descriptive – in that it is nothing new. We know there are Uighurs, Chinese separatists, who shouldn’t be there; we know they play soccer in cages, we know there are well-cushioned shackles bolted to pristine concrete floors; and we know detainees on hunger strike are force-fed Ensure by tube.
All I want to say is that you should look elsewhere for Guantanamo imagery. My Guantanamo: Directory of Photographic and Visual Resources is a good place to start.
I’ve also provided the previous insights which go beyond Dirven’s nine illustrative images:
Suicide at Guantanamo?
Justice Denied: Voices of Guantanamo
Bruce Gilden once went to Guantanamo
Interview: “Jane Smith” Former Gitmo Guard
Paula Bronstein: Guantanamo Detainees Young and Old
“There is a lot of long lens imagery of Guantanamo prisoners in their orange boiler suits, but I don’t know what that’s telling me.”
A Dozen Visits to Guantanamo
‘Guantanamo’ by Paolo Pellegrin
Guantanamo Photo Essay
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None of this reflects on Tim Dirven. Dirven is a good photographer and photojournalist (check out his work on Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia).
It’s simply impossible to produce a novel photo-essay when the Joint Task Force of Guantanamo walks you around the camp … and they do it every week … with different journalists.
The US military’s media detail is as well-drilled as any other detail at Guantanamo. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the media-liaisons are, at this point, the most critical employees on the base.
“I am trying to see through the eyes of these men to look for images in their surroundings in Guantanamo and their post-prison homes … which explore themes of imprisonment or entrapment, and which contrast the humanity of domestic life with the demonised representations of them that were used to justify their treatment.”
“The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again … [and] to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.”
© Edmund Clark. Ex-Prisoner Home: Censored letter from daughter brought back from Guantanamo.
Salman Rushdie made a statement yesterday attacking Amnesty International‘s decision to partner with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, Begg’s advocacy group for Guantanamo prisoners.
“Amnesty International has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns.”
Gita Sahgal was the former Head of Amnesty Internationals Gender Unit. Sahgal had described Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban” and contended the partnership severely brought into question AI’s ethics. Rushdie is a long time friend of Sahgal and supports her position.
From the Times:
Amnesty’s work with Cageprisoners took it to Downing Street last month to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Begg has also embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees. This is despite concerns about former inmates returning to terrorism.
Of course, one’s thoughts on this affair depends on whether or not you think Begg is seditious as his critics state.
If we are looking for impartial perspectives then Fahad Ansari, spokesperson for Cageprisoners is probably not the best source (although he states important facts about Begg’s past). I prefer to rely on British journalist Andy Worthington who has devoted his past eight years to researching and writing responsibly on Guantanamo.
Worthington looks at every angle, but states at the outset that Sahgal and the Rupert Murdoch owned Times may have been pursuant of an “editorial policy”:
That Sahgal also chose to air her complaints in the Sunday Times, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is also significant, particularly because the Times first attempted to smear Begg and Cageprisoners a month ago, in connection with the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in an article by the normally reliable Sean O’Neill, entitled, “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group.” To me, this suggests that Sahgal may have been used as part of an ongoing attempt to vilify Begg that was part of a specific editorial policy.
The danger here is that people will dig in their heels on previously staked ground; that legitimate criticism of the illegal Guantanamo will be eclipsed by accusation and counter-assertion about the character of Begg.
One to watch ….
Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”
Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.
I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?
Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …
I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.
I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.
The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.
I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.
More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.
All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.
Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ‘em up” mentality comes from.
Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.
Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.
In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?