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Errol Morris has kept us entertained recently in the New York Times.

You should know about Standard Operating Procedure, but given the remarkably well suppressed distribution last year, it might have bypassed your radar.

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Special Emergency Response Teams (SERTs) are commonplace. Less so perhaps are the “sports team” group shots seen here at the end of a good days work out.

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Training Exercise, Team Portrait. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

Personal politics dictates how one feels about these constructed scenarios. To me they just seem unfortunate sad – not because of what they are, but because of what they represent. However, we must accept that tactical training within prisons is conducted with the same professional intent as that of any police authority or force of shock and awe. With caution, I’d say these trainings are a reality of prison management, but insist that they should not be considered an inevitability.

Once you get past the unnerving brevity of the group portrait, it is the second unposed image (below) that arrests the attention. It differs from other official images from within prison walls because of its ambiguity. As an isolated image, it is not clear whether the confrontation shown is genuine or not. Without the referenced source, could this be read as an actual suppression of inmate violence? How many eyes would be keen or informed enough to tell if the prisoner and guard uniforms were those of controlled dress rehearsal?

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

From building arguments of fact concerning the Abu Ghraib photographs, Errol Morris talks about the inherent traps for viewers of images, “You look at a photograph and you think you know all you need to know. That here you have a veridical piece of reality to look at. And, you need look no further. It, of in itself, is enough. You look as these infamous photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib. You look at the photographs of Gilligan, the prisoner on the box with leads, and of Gus, the prisoner on the leash, and you think you know what these are images of. ‘This is despicable, blah, blah, blah’ … You need look no further … and I believe noone looked any further, [they] presumed to know what the images were about and wrote articles accordingly.”

Morris adds to his general point, “We try to figure out the world by looking at things, and nothing we ever create is complete but you try to figure out what our relationship is to reality – to the real world.”

I.M.T.T. 2004

Training Exercise. Photo Credit: I.M.T.T. 2004

In a world of visual bombardment where deliberate disturbances between reality and fantasy are now commonplace have we lost interest in the strength of imagery and its testimonies? Images are mistakenly and willfully misrepresented and misinterpreted. In many ways, this is a fine game – a novel game. But does the game keep people on their toes or does it lead to apathy and disinterest? As Morris asks “What is true and what is false?” Without the proud group portrait to provide context would viewers have cared to question the seeming brutality of the second photograph?

Or am I missing the mark here? Is a lack of visual curiosity and/or sophistication really the problem here? Or, is the real problem the viewers normalisation to images of violence? Do the two issues compound one another? I would argue that many folk are too familiar with images (often involving wire, concrete walls and the ephemera of incarceration) to presume that the attacks meted out are a) unjustified or b) outside of the legal allowances of a prison authority. The issue of ‘Reality’ almost becomes redundant.

Perhaps, even, this worrisome trend of anesthetised reaction to human suffering can even be stretched through the interwoven spectacle of modern society and placed at the door of second rate video games. Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax, as featured recently on BLDGBLOG challenges the gamer to draw the most profit from prison administration; “Grow your facility to SuperMax capabilities, housing the most dangerous and diabolical criminals on earth – all for the bottom line.”

IGN.com

Prison Tycoon 4: Supermax. Screenshot. Source: IGN.com

I have never liked role playing video games that incorporate violence. But I am not an opponent pointing to them as the cause of delinquency among societies youth. I just don’t like them. Prison Tycoon is less gratuitous than Grand Theft Auto and the like. But I don’t know if this is any comfort. To manipulate a virtual prison population with “friendly interaction and fighting between inmates dependent upon mood and gang affiliation” and to rely on “guards [who] will subdue aggressive prisoners, medical staff to treat injuries, chaplains administer to prisoner’s spiritual needs and therapists talk to prisoners to lift their spirits” seems a bit too sinister and calculated for an evening of gaming.

And the ability to use “96 detailed prisoner model variations created to allow for a wide and varied prison population” and use a “unique ‘builder within a builder’ system to open your buildings and place their interior content wherever you like” in addition to the “over 100 different rooms and objects to place within the prison buildings, each one allowing prisoners to interact with them on various levels and each one having different effects on the prisoner’s mood.” seems like a gamer’s invitation to unleash virtual gang violence akin to those most unfortunate of prisoner abuses in real life.

Really, why does this game exist? I suppose it is just completing the loop – the gamer, as a God of Pixels, can create criminals in his other games and then manipulate them in this one.

For more information about High Risk Prisoner Transportation, Corrections Crisis Response, Cell Extraction, Escape Apprehension Training, Suicide Bomber Mitigation Tactics, Tactical Weapon and Explosive Training, Athermal Weapon Sight Usage and Finnish Sniper Training please visit the International Mobile Training Team Website. If all that seems like too much reading then just go to the IMTT promotional video and watch grown men in costume run around with guns to a butt-rock soundtrack.

Note: Ignoring the pink elephant in the room, I have previously avoided talking about Abu Ghraib. What could I add to a topic so exhaustively dissected? However, after listening to Philip Gourevitch speak at a local bookstore I am urged to write.

Mention ‘Prison’ and ‘Photography’ and the collective conscience defaults to the Abu Ghraib pictures. There is no escaping this fact as there is no escaping those images. The Abu Ghraib photographs inform and corrupt key dialogues of our global society – war & power; geopolitics & the psychology of surveillance; Iraq & imperialism; Western & Islamic relations; and military operations & media-constructed otherness. Add to that list, uncomplicated human cruelty.

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Those images have seeped into more spheres of conscious and sub-conscious thought than the most successful of photojournalist essays. This is emergence and pre-eminence of the Abu Ghraib photographs as the most current strongest visual “player”. Former strongest players have included Robert Capa’s images of the Normandy Invasion; or (Nick) Huỳnh Công Út’s photograph of Kim Phuc running from a napalm attack on Trang Bang, Vietnam; or Eddie Adams’ photograph of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner, Nguyễn Văn Lém. As Gourevitch said, “If a photojournalist had taken those [Abu Ghraib] images he or she would have been celebrated and decorated for their public service.”

Those photographs are many things. They are evidence of a corrupted system bereft of accountability. They are the most important images of the War on Iraq. When recollected, they should never be separated from the exacting malevolence of the Rumsfeld Department of Defense. They are already established as the most commonly shared images of global culture. The hooded prisoner is a 21st century icon. Perhaps, partly, this is why Americans rallied to make an immediate icon of Obama; to purge a nation’s collective visual memory, and to replace negative, shameful images with positive, hopeful, primary-coloured pop-motifs.

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Gourevitch talked about the craft of the interview. The Paris Review, which he has edited since 2005, recently released the third of a four volume anthology of interviews with 20th century writers. Gourevitch noted the simplicity of the method and pointed out that in 1953 when the Paris Review was founded, no publications were interviewing writers. Literary criticism had become high brow and, to many, obsolete; it talked about the text but never the artist. The Paris Review was the first legitimate peek into the private lives, motivations and pathologies of poets and authors. Fellow writers could scrutinise every spoken word and omitted detail of their contemporaries. The Paris Review, in its early days, served as the exposé – the gossip column – for the literary world.

For fifty years, until his death in 2003, George Plimpton was editor of the Paris Review. It is fitting that Plimpton’s large shoes should be filled by a writer and journalist who has made an art form of the interview. Gourevitch’s acclaimed book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families was based on information gleaned from an unhurried, matter-of-fact tour of Rwanda where he simply talked to people. Rwandans didn’t have their own journalists clearing the way for testimony in the immediate aftermath of the genocide and Gourevitch found support for his theory that “All people need to talk”. He described Rwandans culturally as the opposite of effusive, but maintained this didn’t mean they were unwilling to share their experiences.

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For Standard Operating Procedure, accompanying the profound Errol Morris movie (which has unsurprisingly suffered stymied distribution in the US), Gourevitch sat in on 100 hours of Morris’ questions (approximately half of Morris’ interviews).

Following Gourevitch’s presentation, I asked him if there were any atypical motivations for the American servicemen and servicewomen agreeing to the interview process. Was there any information they were keen to convey? Gourevitch was quite clear. There was a single shared motivation for Sabrina Harman, Lynndie England and colleagues. The interviews are one long exercise in self-representation. Prior, the soldiers had been silenced, criminalised and later written off as “bad apples” by a military narrative designed to shield the senior accountable authorities. The media was partly complicit and the soldiers “were pissed off”, stated Gourevitch.

From the moment the US military command learnt of the pictures, the soldier/guards of Abu Ghraib were set up for the fall. The military sequestered the reservists away and lined up a raft of charges for each soldier. The US military sat on those charges hoping that if it could retrieve and control the images, it wouldn’t have to bring the matter to public attention through trial. The US military visited homes of the soldiers’ family members back in the US. They demanded computers and deleted files. After some time, it was clearly apparent to the families of the Abu Ghraib soldiers that their sons and daughters were being made scapegoats. An exact single source of the images has never been pinned down, but Gourevitch contends it was a disgruntled family member who finally unleashed the digital photographs to a world swiftly buying into the prevailing Department of Defense narrative.

We Have Seen Their Actions, Let’s Hear Their Words

The Abu Ghraib photographs can and should be understood only in the context of their production, which is to say, by a group of individuals trained as soldiers and ordered to guard prisoners in a decrepit facility; by photographers who were compelled to document precisely because they couldn’t comprehend the atrocities; by a group of soldiers influenced and hardened by one another; by a group of soldiers under no direct or pre-written guidelines; by a group of soldiers with complex thoughts, manipulations and haunted memories. Morris did us a public service with his movie and it is fitting that the accompanying book by Gourevitch features no images.

Of course, what the global community needs now is an equally comprehensive documentary project bringing together the testimonies of all those held and tortured at Abu Ghraib.

Note: I wanted to avoid resorting to the common and most shocking images of Abu Ghraib that we’ve seen so often – box, blanket, hood, wires, scrotum, pyramid, puddles, dogs, blood, shit, thumbs, leash, limbs, body bag – and I don’t exactly know why. Salon put together a responsible collection of all 291 Abu Ghraib images if you need to put those infamous images back into the context of the prison facility.

The Artistic Legacy of Abu Ghraib

Ridiculously, artists that have chosen to reflect the systematic abuses at Abu Ghraib have come under fire.

Clinton Fein’s ingenious reconstructions of the Abu Ghraib crimes drew criticism for many selfish reasons (an unwelcome return to problematic images despite their obvious construction, a project of a sadist, a re-opening of a cultural wound?). The intelligence of Fein’s project was that it challenged our premature numbness to the original Abu Ghraib photographs and forced a renewed pathos toward a subject that we’d never known anyway. Are we supposed to feel something toward Fein’s models?

Colombian painter Fernando Botero gestures front of his new paintings depicting the horrors of U.S. guards' abuse of captives at Iraq's Abu Graib prison, Monday April 11, 2005 in Paris, France. Botero says he became so upset that he felt compelled to produce works showing his trademark chubby characters naked and being blooded by americans. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Colombian painter Fernando Botero gestures front of his new paintings depicting the horrors of U.S. guards’ abuse of captives at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Monday April 11, 2005 in Paris, France. Botero says he became so upset that he felt compelled to produce works showing his trademark chubby characters naked and being blooded by Americans. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Fernando Botero‘s work has won plaudits around the US. I think his work is excellent for many obvious reasons, so don’t call me a cynic when I say Botero’s work is more easily accepted because his Beryl Cook cherub-grotesque style, and the fact he is a Latin American commenting on a war to which Latin America remained external. Put another way, he serves up the shit sandwich with relish, whereas Fein left it in the bowl. Here’s an official presentation, here’s Berkeley enjoying the show and here’s the AP writing about it before it caravanned around America.

And finally, Chris Bartlett (Photographer) and Daniel Heyman (Painter) have teamed up to produce the Detainee Project which creates portraits of individuals illegally detained throughout America’s war on Iraq. George Soros helped Bartlett give detainees dignity and representations beyond hoods, nudity and dogs.

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