- Standard Operating Procedure
Images of human rights abuses, more than mere descriptions, have the power to create instant truths in the public's perception. Human rights reports outlining abuse and torture in prisons and detention centers around the world usually do not lead to international media sensations and public protests or become a central and iconic symbol of one nation's policies. The global media frenzy and international condemnation surrounding the photographs of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison illustrates the power of images, the seeming authority of photographs to reveal to us the whole "truth," or so we think.
The global outrage at the incriminating photos of American soldiers degrading Iraq prisoners was a turning point in President Bush's "War on Terror" and worsened the already critical global opinion of the United States following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The significance of images in the international politics of human rights was also recently magnified by President Obama's reversal on a decision to release more (and likely more graphic) photographs related to detainee abuse due to fear that the images would spark even greater enmity toward the United States and its soldiers abroad. [End Page 240] The irony of the images of Americans abusing and humiliating Iraqis in Saddam Hussein's former prison was not lost on many. Nevertheless, the images made it too easy for the public to believe and the administration to claim that "now we know what happened and who was responsible." President Bush called those who were involved (i.e. those seen in photographs or those taking them) the "few bad apples," condemned the abuse, and reiterated, "we do not torture."
Errol Morris, renowned documentarian and academy-award winner (The Fog of War) returns to his well-known themes of investigation, images, and the re-creation of narratives in Standard Operating Procedure. The film delves into the symbolic meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs, the memory and motivations of the military police (MPs) involved, and how these abuses could have occurred.1 He examines the "spectacle of witnessing," the power of first-hand testimony, and the complicated nature of memory.2 Morris sets up the stage for an investigation of the abuse by circumventing the politics behind the incident and examines instead, the environment, personal backgrounds of those involved, their motivations for abusing the prisoners and photographing the abuse. Who took the photos and why? What do they represent? Do they depict actions that were "standard operating procedure" for the US military in Iraq? He examines the multiple stated and implied purposes of picture-taking at Abu Ghraib: to document the strangeness, to create a lasting memory of horror and fascination, to provide proof to accompany the tales of what went on, and to expose the abuse. Perhaps most shockingly were those instances where abuse was seemingly created for the very purpose of taking a photograph.
Overall, the film offers a unique artistic window into the minutiae of Abu Ghraib, offering some lessons about the psychology, representation, and causes of human rights violations. One of the central notions in all of Morris' work is that photographs are inherently deceptive despite the conventional wisdom that pictures tell the objective truth, that they do not lie, and that re-enactments of the events are actually based on a true coherent story of those events. Thus, in this case, the photographs of the abuse may have led the public erroneously to believe that they were viewing a coherent and true representation of US detention policy in Iraq and beyond. While the photographs were obviously instrumental in exposing the abuse, they can only show what occurred within the limited frame of the photograph. The reality was much more complex than what the image portrayed; in many cases, the image concealed the torture and even murder that happened behind the scenes; in other cases, the pictures told a different, if not harsher, story than the reality.
The most iconic image from Abu Ghraib is that of the prisoner referred to as "Gilligan"—balancing on a box, completely draped in a black poncho...