You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Torture’ tag.

Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing. Grieving mothers, charred human remains, sun sets, women giving birth, children playing with toy guns, cock fights, bull fights, Havana street scenes, reflections in puddles, reflections in windows, football posts in unlikely locations, swaddled babies, portraits taken through mosquito nets, needles in junkies’ arms, derelict toilets, Palestinian boys throwing stones, contorted Chinese gymnasts, Karl Lagerfeld, models preparing for fashion shows backstage, painted faces, bodies covered in mud, monks smoking cigarettes, pigeons silhouetted against the sky, Indian Sardus, children leaping into rivers, pigs being slaughtered.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
‘Unconcerned but not Indifferent’ Foto8 (March 2008)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Timmy (center), with Peter (left) and Frederick, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

Dion, 41, General in the 28s describing his imaginary uniform, Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, South Africa (c-type print, 12" x 16", 2003)

If two ends of the spectrum were identified this week during the debate about race and how it is (mis)treated by photographic practice we could see them as the moronic fashion world practitioners and then everybody else – “everybody else” being social documentarians, new-media image-makers, old-school bang-bang-club photographers and fine art practitioners. This second larger group is where most thoughtful folk place their energies.

Bizarrely there are a couple of guys who run the length of this spectrum. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin used to be the creative directors of Benetton’s controversial Colors Magazine AND they travel through Africa and Central America taking photographs of people in institutions.

Broomberg and Chanarin have also pissed a lot of people off. They are that good.

We all remember Steven Mayes’s departure speech from the World Press Photo, but Broomberg and Chanarin beat him to his oft-repeated remarks that photographers repeat motifs and collectively thicken the pen around photojournalism’s self-drawn caricature.

A full year prior to Mayes’ rallying call for new imagery (genuine, everyday Black culture; affluent drug use and users; and real sex), Broomberg and Chanarin were throwing punches low and hard at photojournalism’s conceit. They quoted Brecht; ‘The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about conditions in this world. On the contrary photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth.’

In turn, Broomberg and Chanarin relied on Sontag and Barthes;

‘Since its inception photojournalism has traded in images of human suffering. If one of its motivations for representing tragedy has been to change the world then it has been unsuccessful. Instead the profession has turned us into voyeurs, passively consuming these images, sharing in the moment without feeling implicated or responsible for what we are seeing. Roland Barthes summed up the analgesic effect of looking at images of horror when he wrote “someone has shuddered for us; reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence”.’

They provide a pat description of the “obscene feeling” jury process in which there is no text, caption or context. Judgement is dependent only on the aesthetics of the image: “We are asked to judge whether, for example, a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize.” After this Broomberg and Chanarin explain the means by which the panel narrowed down the 81,000 images to five winners, suggesting with some contempt that Hetherington’s Exhausted Soldier was a predictable result.

Before I go any further, I should say that Tim Hetherington voiced a stirring rebuttal to Broomberg and Chanarin’s derision.

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

Self-Portrait by Mario, Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba. (c-type print 12" x 16", 2033)

So what? They’re a grumpy duo with a pocket full of common critical theory? Yes … and no. They go further. To my observations they apply what they preach. I have coined the term Slow Photography for this piece because they lug about a 4×5 camera and as well as standing over the top of their medium format to hold a conversation, they’ll usually stick around for a week or three.

There is a sense that Broomberg and Chanarin arrive ‘either too early or too late’ and not within the usual media-driven time scale at a site of social crisis.

They’ve described the relationships they build with their subjects as very important. Lucky for them they have the leisure to hang around you are saying?! Fair point, but they use their time well.

With Ghetto, they went to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in South Africa and made portraits of male, female and transgendered inmates. They went to Ren Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Cuba also. In total they went to twelve rare communities, methodically photographing and asking the same questions: “Who is in power here? Where do you go to be alone, to make love, to be with friends? What are your hopes and dreams?”

I love that question, “Who’s in power here?”

Broomberg and Chanarin simultaneously reference old slower photo-processes and question the sped-up practices of 21st century photojournalism. Charlotte Cotton, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, has observed, “The sense of activity being slowed for the camera references nineteenth century photography both in terms of process and style. It also serves to detach their photographs from the conventions of photojournalism.”

And if we needed any more proof that these two geezers are on top of their game, lets look how they dealt with the two major conflicts of the beginning of the 21st century.

They got quiet with wartime scratches and scrawls, but have received none of the plaudits Peter Van Agtmael, Tim Hetherington, Roger Ballen or bubble chamber photography have.

The Red House documented the prison and torture center run by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Sulaymaniyah, Iraki Kurdistan, 330 kilometres from Baghdad.

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

The Red House

And, then when they were “privileged” enough to merit an embedded assignment with the British military in Afghanistan they thumbed their noses at any notion of photojournalism. Instead they took 70 metres of photo sensitive paper and unrolled sections to expose it to light and that became the record of each day and their time in conflict.

Each roll was given its title based on the occurrence of an event, death or absence of death during that day. Below is the work from the day of a prison escape.

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

The Jail Break, June 13th 2008. 76.2 x 600cm, c-type

I have just watched Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, an HBO documentary made in 2007 by director Rory Kennedy.

It interviewed all the military police involved and prosecuted for the abuses, with the exception of Specialist Graner who remains in prison. It also features John Yoo, law and military scholars and Mark Danner.

It provides a voice to the military police who were portrayed as “bad apples” on the Abu Ghraib night-shift. It does not allow the military leadership off the hook.

The close of the film concentrates on the fact that no investigation followed the chain of command to the Pentagon, from where Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense had signed off on the most brutal interrogation techniques in US history.

In the first round of Pentagon memos, Rumsfeld questioned why the standing stress position would be limited to ONLY four hours!


Rumsfeld is a worm and you can quote me on that.

If I ever have kids I’ll read them Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine at bedtime. I’ll use Klein’s words as proxy for my own in imparting the necessary cautions of governments and guns in our f*#ked up world.

(Hold up, there’s reason enough why not to have kids.)

Chapters two and three deal with the growth of Chicago School economics and its pernicious experiments and infiltration into the ‘Southern Cone’.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, the US & the CIA facilitated right-wing opposition movements, juntas, military coups and consequent torture programs in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

During this time between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared’. Estimates are wide and varied because the murders were out of control, accountability suspended and the terror doled out faster than it could be monitored.

During the Dirty War in Argentina, the terror of each night repeated the previous; a seven-year state-sanctioned massacre that bled into every neighbourhood under the cover of darkness.

The inhumanity is incomprehensible, but Klein attempts to describe the various methods used at times by different forces in each of the countries. Uruguay had a particular penchant for isolation;

Prisoners in Uruguay’s Libertad Prison were sent to la isla, the island: tiny windowless cells in which one bare light bulb was illuminated at all times. High value prisoners were kept in absolute isolation for more than a decade.

“We were beginning to think we were dead, that our cells weren’t cells but rather graves, that the outside world didn’t exist, that the sun was a myth,” one of these prisoners, Mauricio Rosencof, recalled. He saw the sun for a total of eight hours over eleven and a half years. So deprived were his senses during this time that he “forgot colors – there were no colors.”

(Page 93)

In a foot-note Klein remarks:
‘The prison administration at Libertad worked closely with behavioral psychologists to design torture techniques tailored to each individual’s psychological profile – a method now used at Guantanamo Bay.’

A few things emerging today to which I’d like to doff my cap.


Aline Smithson at Lenscratch, rumoured to be in Santa Fe (Good Luck, Aline), celebrated all Lori Waselchuk’s documentary work; Waterlines, one project of many projects wrapped up in Louisiana, and Grace Before Dying community portrait of the Prison Hospice at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola).

Lock Down Visit. Lori Waselchuk

Lock Down Visit. Lori Waselchuk

Lori, a member of the New Orleans Photo Alliance, launched her project Grace Before Dying April 3rd at the Louisiana State Prison Museum in conjunction with the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), the Louisiana State Prison Museum, and helped along with a Distribution Grant from the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute and Moonshine Studio.

The issues of age and health in prisons – together and in isolation – have been reasonably well covered. But, Waselchuk succeeds where so many others fail (with the exception of Edmund Clark) in really communicating the infirmity and vulnerability of the inmates

Fraction offered a good summary, as does Waselchuk’s Alma Mater. Critical Mass has the best gallery of Grace Before Dying

Bint PhotoBooks on Internet

Bint PhotoBooks on Internet got to grips with Martin RoemersRelics of the Cold War which includes a Valencia orange room within a Stasi Prison. Roemers goes tête-à-tête with the Fuchs brothers in the communist-archaeology-photo genre.

Germany, East Berlin. Visitor-room in former Stasi prison Hohenschoenhausen. Political prisoners were held in this prison. Martin Roemers

Germany, East Berlin. Visitor-room in former Stasi prison Hohenschoenhausen. Political prisoners were held in this prison. Martin Roemers

Unrelated to prisons, I am also a fan of Roemers’ Lourdes Pilgrims series.


Subjectify grapples with the latent appropriation of images since the 2004 release of Abu Ghraib photographs.

much has been written about the ways in which war photography often echoes iconic religious imagery.  but i have been wondering how, in turn, the iconography of the new war and torture photography is also influencing fine art photographers today?

Subjectify offers Jessica Somer‘s work ‘Origin’ from the Bend So Not to Break series as a case in point. I drew some interest along with disbelief and derision when I skirted the issue regarding Ballen and the torture aesthetic.

Origin. Jessica Somers

Origin. Jessica Somers

I believe artists biggest problem is to work away from viewers natural tendency to superimpose meaning so easily. I think Somers is safe. She’s got a style that stands on its own – it doesn’t get drowned out by media noise or green gloves.

AN Other

Yusuf Sayman‘s work on individuals going through Re-entry programs after long term prison sentences presented itself in the Independent‘s bizarre and confused “Britain’s Best Crime Photography” competition.

Starlene from the Free Again: Starlene series. Yusuf Sayman

Starlene from the Free Again: Starlene series. Yusuf Sayman

Starlene Patterson is one of three former prisoners, Sayman has collaborated with after prison release for the Free Again series. Starlene is at college to qualify as a Social worker. “People need help.”

Starlene has written a book, Up Against the Wall. She says, “My book has a message. There’s a lot of young people who need guidance and they my not have that. If my book can help one [of those children] than I’ve achieved.”

Non-prison related I like Sayman’s Henry’s World series.

Obama’s decision to quash the release of Iraqi prison torture photographs has welled across the journo networks today. It began as a rumour and then confirmed by the Huffington Post, New York Times and other major news outlets.

Last month, I blogged about ACLUs legal victory and announcement of images release on May 28th. I told you to keep the date in mind as the images were sure to be a thwack on the retina – of course,  not half as bad as some of the thwacks of twisted acts meted out by American rank and file under America military order.

I even went as far to say that Obama – with seeming little control – would possibly suffer at the fate of an early leak. Well, Obama’s done his u-turn and it looks like he might stop their release. He gets some support from Tomasky at the Guardian, but I can’t buy this argument. Obviously, Obama’s worried about the safety of his troops but the rest of us are worried about Cheney et al. getting off scott-free. The official line is that the Abu Ghraib abuses have been investigated fully, but in truth 25 low ranking officers were hung out to dry. There was no accountability further up the chain.

We should bear in mind that these are new images to the public and media, but not to politicians and internal investigators, and this is not the first time images have been suppressed and challenged.

The military’s mood was one of relative calm last month, with army investigators going on record that “these images are not as near as bad as Abu Ghraib”, but some are recalling long forgotten testimonies from 2004, namely by Seymour Hersh, here, here and here.

Hersh alleged that the children of female prisoners were sodomized in front of their mothers. These assertions were made on two occasions in 2004 – during a speech at the University of Chicago and at an ACLU conference.

There were audio files of these speeches online, but they do not seem to be operating. ACLU will have this on file nonetheless. And, in any case, Information Clearing House has a transcript of Hersh’s statements, from which I quote below:

Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. OK? Videos. There are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at [Abu Ghraib], which is about 30 miles from Baghdad — 30 kilometers, maybe, just 20 miles, I’m not sure whether it’s — anyway. The women were passing messages out saying please come and kill me because of what’s happened. And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has, and they’re in total terror it’s going to come out. It’s impossible  to say to yourself, how did we get there, who are we, who are these people that sent us there.

When I did My Lai, I was very troubled, like anybody in his right mind would be about what happened, and I ended up in something I wrote saying, in the end, I said, the people that did the killing were as much victims as the people they killed, because of the scars they had.

I can tell you some of the personal stories of some of the people who were in these units who witnessed this. I can also tell you written complaints were made to the highest officers. And so we’re dealing with an enormous, massive amount of criminal wrong-doing that was covered up at the highest command out there and higher. And we have to get to it, and we will. And we will, I mean, you know, there’s enough out there, they can’t.

And finally, if you thought you’d experienced the depravity of Abu Ghraib via the pictures – and if you thought you understood the extent to the crimes – you’d be wrong. This Guardian article, quoting Washington Post relays the testimony of a detainee witness to juvenile rape.

Detainee, Kasim Hilas, describes the rape of an Iraqi boy by a man in uniform, whose name has been blacked out of the statement, but who appears to be a translator working for the army.

“I saw [name blacked out] fucking a kid, his age would be about 15-18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard the screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn’t covered and I saw [blacked out], who was wearing the military uniform putting his dick in the little kid’s ass,” Mr Hilas told military investigators. “I couldn’t see the face of the kid because his face wasn’t in front of the door. And the female soldier was taking pictures.”

It is not clear from the testimony whether the rapist described by Mr Hilas was working for a private contractor or was a US soldier. A private contractor was arrested after the Taguba investigation was completed, but was freed when it was discovered the army had no jurisdiction over him under military or Iraqi law.


Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source:

Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source:

Author’s Note: I am taking my lead from Michael Tomasky for this blog post tying Obama’s call for a block on the release of images to the worst case scenario (sexual torture). Bear in mind that the buzz has been over 44 images – why, I don’t know – but over 2,000 were/are set to be released on May 28th. Also bear in mind that the images are said to be predominantly from facilities other than Abu Ghraib. There are a lot of unknowns in this matter. Nevertheless, I am sure of two things: 1) there is more visual evidence of abuse in existence and 2) Obama is obstructing the release of the latest evidence. Time will tell how these two variables cross or diverge.

First image by photographer Christopher V. Smith whose work can be found on his Flickr profile.

Second image by Steve Reed, whose work is on his Flickr profile and blog Shadows & Light.


A couple of months ago, I wrote about the prison convict ship Success and its repurposing as a museum ship in the early 19th century. At that time, I featured a couple of images of the ship docked in Seattle and Tacoma. To continue from that visual anchor (pun intended), I’d like to share these few close up images of this unique and long-gone “Museum Ship of Colonial Horrors” (as I like to refer to it).


3029429307_4c6c2ec7d1The accoutrements of abuse on display are chilling. The international seafaring exhibit was an old British and latterly Australian ship used for deportation of ‘criminals’ during Victorian times and for non-human commodities thereafter.

I wonder what sort of museological interpretation of Success was given to American audiences? Would this have been kept in a separate narrative to the slavery ships of the Atlantic or would all histories be foisted into one macabre reductive appreciation of the ‘Other’?


3029428449_3f46a11ca91When I saw the iron jacket I was terrified, but then I read Wystan‘s description of the Wooden Maiden:

If you were very naughty, you might be asked to remove your clothing and climb inside this vertical coffin, where of course it was pitch dark, there was no water, and fresh air was scarce. Then the box (which was clad in sheet iron) would stand in the hot sun until you got nice and warm. But you wouldn’t want to slump or faint, because then your bare flesh might get snagged on the ends of the long nails that had been pounded into it from random directions . . .


All images from the Library of Congress on Flickr,

and searched out through Flickr Commons.

On Thursday, 28th May, photographs of prison conditions and detainee custody from six facilities other than Abu Ghraib will be released to the public.

Reports over the weekend suggested a figure of 44, but the Guardian has stated over 2,000 photographs are to be made public. Images of Bagram Air base in Afghanistan are included in the cache. Critics will surely scan for similarities in detention/torture methods used in Afghanistan as in Iraq to argue against the ‘few bad apples’ logic that railroaded earlier attempts to bring military and government commanding authorities to full-accountability.


ACLU’s advocacy deserves international acclaim. Not only have they forced the release of photographic evidence they won a ruling to prevent the destruction of audio tapes that record torture scenarios.

This is an interesting counterpoint. I presume we all assume we’ll see the images in the printed press. Would we expect the tapes to play on our televisions and radios? That scenario makes me uncomfortable.

Continuing with issues of format, it will be interesting to see how the media presents the-soon-to-be-released photographic documents in contrast to the recent torture memo’s. WoWoWoW set the bar low with the tabloid inquiry “How Bad Will They Be?” and the Los Angeles Times allays fears with a dead-pan assessment, “examined by Air Force and Army criminal investigators, are apparently not as shocking as those taken at Abu Ghraib.

No doubt these images will be contested and a ‘Meaning-War’ over the images will ensue, but I think people for and against the Bush administration’s interrogation policies are not going to change their position now – whatever the evidence.”

But, I guess it depends who’s looking.


Lefties want more weaponry in the push for prosecution of Bush and his cronies for war crimes. The right is debilitated and otherwise occupied by the economy, stocking guns before the “Obama-ban” and the latest Meghan McCain slur.

Politicians from both parties seem to want this to go away, snarking on about how the release of yet more Un-American activities will only fuel the burning hate toward the US. This position is an insult.

Did Bush care what Iraqi’s would think when he bombed them out of house and home? Did Bush care to think how American’s would react in the face of diminished civil liberties? Yet here, politicians of both parties are scrambling to avoid the negative reactions of entrenched, fundamental opponents INSTEAD of anticipating the beneficial good-will and return to mutual trust provided by honest disclosures of a transparent and constitutional government. Why cover-up a cover-up?

Maybe, the Democrats are shy to see these documents because they may implicate their top brass?


One concern I will air, is that all this could move toward some bizarre show-trial scenario, where lawyers bargain, Bush is spared, the American public settle for a conviction of Cheney, and careers and reputations lie in waste on both sides of the aisle!?!

I certainly didn’t expect the incriminating documents to flood as they have in recent weeks. I have no idea how all this is going to shake down. Obama doesn’t seem to have control of this. That doesn’t bother me. No-one can hold back the truth.

So, as wise at it’d be to remember the date, 28th May, you should bear in mind the photographs of abuse could well leak earlier…


First Image lifted from Gerry May.

Cartoon courtesy of the Nation.

Final Image by Takomabibelot.

Cut Loose. Roger Ballen, 2005

Cut Loose. Roger Ballen, 2005

In critiques of Roger Ballen‘s photography I haven’t seen more than mere passing references to Abu Ghraib. New York Art Beat coyly described Ballen’s prints as “Reminiscent of the images from Abu Ghraib” and continued, “Untitled (1069) shows a gaunt man clad only in sweatpants. His head hangs down, toes curled and fingers scraping the wall.”

Culture Vulture afforded Ballen just one sentence in its review of the After Nature group exhibition, “Roger Ballen’s b/w photos draw on our deep visual memories of Abu Ghraib, without truly recording any torture.”

7_41 4_19

4_14 1_15

In real time and the real world Ballen’s work has absolutely nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. But my charge is to speculate on the meandering visual cultures and cross overs that wash over us daily.

Let me start by saying that Ballen has not in any way been influenced by Abu Ghraib. He began his Shadow Chamber work in 2001 and continued for 6 more years. His visual vocabulary was drawn from his own portfolio and observations from as early as the 70s when he photographed in homes of the poor with exposed wires, smears and semi-feral mammals.

Prowling. Roger Ballen, 2001

Prowling. Roger Ballen, 2001

New York Photo Festival will have to be special in 2009 if it is to eclipse Ballen’s show-stealing lecture of last years inaugural show. Just as Ballen had quietly plied his craft for decades without much commercial interest, so he quietly took to the stage for the unrockstar 11am slot on the first morning. Many concluded at midday that they may as well go home there and then. Ballen was it; “So if you missed it sorry the festival might just be all down hill after this.”

Why? Apart from being unexpected, Ballen took the viewer deep into a closely controlled isolated world and into the psychological uncertainties of his vision. Ballen is the perfect foil to typologies, minimalist cliche, first-project enthusiasm and the manicured fine art of contemporary photography.

Effigy and Prowling are disconcerting, bizarre, staged and lit with hard flash – in other words they hold the same characteristics as the Abu Ghraib images.

abu-ghraib8 ballenfour


It seems the comparison is so glaring no-one has wanted to state it! Is it with guilt we accept Ballen’s work into an art aesthetic, and then stand with repulsed incertitude before the Abu Ghraib images? Much has been made of Ballen’s hypnotic work and his vortex of image and dis-logic. I wouldn’t suggest he is a mystic seer, but if some sort of visual, global Zeitgeist exists, I would suggest that Ballen tapped it. Few commentators have readily acknowledged this visual convergence. Why? Strange forces.

We have argued the ethics and presence of torture in non-photographic media, but have we failed to satisfactorily take up issues surrounding the aesthetics of torture in photography?

Maybe all the visual culture theorists were worn out and distracted after the publication of the Abu Ghraib images; maybe I am writing this a year or two too late; maybe visual similarities aren’t enough for a water tight hypothesis? But, you must admit the smudging and blurring of faces is further provocation toward comparison and spinal shudders.


There are some amazing resources online for Roger Ballen. The indubitable Lens Culture has a 25 image gallery and 18 minute audio interview.

Heather Morton compares his Ballen’s with Ralph Meatyard, Joel Peter-Witkin and Tim Roda.

Colin Pantall does the best blogosphere survey of Ballen’s aphorisms, antics and work.

Hot Shoe has a solid review of the Shadow Chamber book.

The V&A offers three very short audio snippets by Ballen.

And, these are the best of the articles provided by Ballen’s own website – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,


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