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Words Without Pictures

04.08.08 | Julian Stallabrass

I have been reading two books with lots of material about photographic images but no pictures. One, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story, constructs the events at Abu Ghraib through interviews with the prison guards and other US Army personnel (Morris has produced a film of the same name using the same material). The authors do not reproduce the notorious photographs because they argue that the pictures in and of themselves are misleading, and what mattered most about Abu Ghraib was never photographed. We can’t be sure how misleading the photographs are, for surely we cannot rely upon the word of torturers caught in the act, and some of their explanations strain credibility. The inmates are not heard from.

The other, Picture Perfect by Kiku Adato, a sharp book about the image-management industry, which also considers Abu Ghraib alongside staged military photo-ops, including George Bush’s ‘victory’ landing on the carrier, Abraham Lincoln, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, is also unillustrated. The author does not say why, but I suspect that it’s about the cost of getting permissions to reproduce from news agencies. It may also be a way to separate her analysis from the book’s deepest concern: seduction by the photo-op culture, which implicates media critics who try to undermine it but only end up producing a different concentration on trivialising pictures.

At the very end of the BBC film, War Photography: Reflection on Conflict, Philip Jones Griffiths talks of a visiting a ward in a Vietnamese hospital which had been set aside for those who the doctors had decided, given their very limited resources, were beyond help. He sees a boy with his face half burnt away by napalm, and thinks to himself that he can’t photograph anymore and starts to walk away. But the boy himself tugs at the photographer’s clothes and gestures for him to take a picture, which Griffiths did. It has never been published, he said, but he hoped one day that it would be printed up to hang around Kissinger’s neck at his war crimes trial, though—he adds—things don’t work like that.

Griffiths’ account here, as he tells it, is as powerful as some of his pictures, and what these various episodes raise is the issue of whether it is possible to turn our image culture against itself, or rather whether it should be simply turned away from entirely.