Abu Ghraib and the activation of complicity : deconstructing the frame



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This paper discusses the publication and public consumption of digital photographs made by members of the United States military depicting torture and sexual abuse carried out upon detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad province during the first year of the occupation of Iraq. Departing from the analysis of the content of these images, it positions them within the visual cultural context that determines their meaning for the viewing public. By demonstrating the ways in which the state has used photography as a means by which to control the discourse surrounding its illegal military operations, it posits that a thorough critique of state violence must begin with such images. Understanding the viewing public as living in the "Spectacle," removed from lived reality, it suggests that the repurposing of these images is necessary to establish solidarity with those who experienced the incidents of torture and abuse firsthand. This argument offers that by first activating its own political dependence upon the effects of its military’s exploits and thereby acknowledging its complicity, the viewing public may free itself from the constraints of the Spectacle and use these images to deconstruct the official state framing of war. The theoretical discussion precedes its practical application in the form of a creative element that responds to the digital reproduction of the images. This consists of verbal and visual elements that intend to repurpose the Abu Ghraib images as a critique of their place in domestic media. The first part consists of a series of quotations from politicians, scholars, and artists, as well as from former Abu Ghraib detainees, that represent the public conversation surrounding the publication of the photographs. They are arranged in such a way as to present the dilemmas and questions presented by the images, gradually ceding the discussion to the imperative of one detainee to use the photographs to confirm his account of reality. The second part consists of six manually produced charcoal drawings of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, representing an attempt to break the images and their corresponding reality from the spectacular cycle of digital reproduction and reactivate their revolutionary potential.