August 4, 2003, (near) Tikrit, Iraq
© Geert van Kesteren
Courtesy the artist
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Blind Sight

14.07.08 | Julian Stallabrass

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Sean Smith, Iraqi Prisoners

The strange power of this photograph is that it appears to be something out of a fairytale, in which the bound and blindfolded men are stuck to the Golden Goose that leads them. The drama of the light and the clouds beyond reinforce the sinister but also slightly comic effect. It may also appear as an image of victory, of the single hi-tech soldier over his numerous but primitive opponents, their archaic character suggested by their long robes, the strength of their bodies rendered useless by plastic ties.

There are other ways of reading it, and for that you need to know a bit about the war. That many US troops believed what their President had told them—that Iraq had some connection to the 9-11 attacks, and that the invasion meant payback. Another kind of fairytale, then. That, even on the reckoning of the US forces, the vast majority of those imprisoned were innocent of any crime. And that the prisoners were regularly seized with brutality, held without access to legal counsel, without their families being told of their whereabouts, and in unforgiving conditions. The soldier leading the group can see about him; his prisoners, if they can see anything, glimpse only the sand at their feet. Yet with each step they receive an education in the character of those who have chosen to be their enemies.