Abu Ghraib and
images of abuse and torture

by Julia Lesage

When I first saw the photos from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, showing U.S. military abusing detainees, I was both shocked by them and found them strangely familiar, like travel pictures, trophy photos, and commercial pornography reenacted. It is important to consider these images as social phenomena and as cultural artifacts. In doing research for an essay on these images and their re-interpretation in television prime time fiction, I have searched the web extensively. This search revealed a number of unfamiliar connections to me, and also a large number of progressive Internet sites that are worth bookmarking and visiting regularly. Below are selected links and my annotations of some of the connections. In general, I have tried to list places where the entire article can be read or downloaded without charge. When the link downloads a PDF file to your computer, I have noted that.

The photos themselves came public in a short period of time.   Although thousands of them reputedly exist, they seem to have largely disappeared from the news or even from public distribution on the Internet. The U.S. Congress saw much of this material. For those who have not seen the photos, these are the sites where they are displayed:

A little observed aspect of Internet censorship is that Google “Image” search does not carry or search for images of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse nor of the soldiers accused of committing the abuses. You can try this search right now in Google Images for “Abu Ghraib.” The problem was first noted in blogs, but is ironically commented on by Google’s citing many of these blogs on the first page that comes up if you do a text search on the words, “Abu Ghraib photos.” (If you click, “I’m feeling lucky,” Google takes you directly to the antwar.com site noted above.) Blogs still follow this controversy heatedly.

Overviews of the abuses at Abu Ghraib are located in a number of online information sites and "encyclopedias," including

The attention of the world was drawn to the photos and to the abuses in the prison by the essays of Seymour Hersh. These appeared first in the New Yorker, and most are online.   They are also available, with other essays, in Hersh's book, Chain of Command. In a keynote speech to the ACLU convention, July 2004, Hersh says he has seen video of boys being raped at Abu Ghraib, in front of their imprisoned mothers: "And I can tell you it was much worse, and the government knows it's much worse, than they've even told you. There are worse photos, worse videotapes, worse events. To The New Yorker's credit we decided, not for censorship, but just how much can you, how much can you levy on Arab manhood, in public?"

Other useful overview material can be found in the following discussions:

Major public documents are available, sometimes as PDF files, sometimes in summary form:

Author Mark Danner analyzes much of this material:

A number of Internet sites are primarily links sites, and offer a wide range of links to reportage, analysis, and documents:

Of particular interest to me are the many essays that the photos from Abu Ghraib which consider the political implications of photography itself, especially violent imagery. The context for interpreting the Abu Ghraib photos has been their use of the conventions of commercial pornography, the travel photo, the trophy image, the digital phone and camera, and the sending of pictures over the Internet. At the same time, for those interested in photography, two major documents also shape interpretation of these images: Susan Sontag’s 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, and the 2004 publication of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen, Hilton Als, Congressman John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwak. Sontag has been influenced by her many trips to Kosovo, and during the Abu Ghraib revelations, she wrote a follow-up essay specifically about the Abu Ghraib photos, “Regarding the Torture of Others.” I include links below to discussions of the Sontag book since the material has a direct bearing on how these photos bring up many political issues both about their regressive nature and their potential benefit in creating a demand for social change. Without Sanctuary existed first as a web site, and more recently as a traveling photo exhibition. This exhibition has elicited reviews that discuss the role of violent imagery at the time of the lynchings and today in our historical consciousness. Furthermore, the Abu Ghraib photos have been used in contemporary art works and museum exhibits, which also raise issues about spectatorship and becoming sensitized or desensitized to the sufferings of others.

Without Sanctuary related links include:

Links related to Regarding the Pain of Others include:

The photos circulated publicly from Abu Ghraib elicited a number of significant essays on contemporary image culture and its political implications:

Some writers draw a specific link between the Abu Ghraib photos and pornography:

Art using the images or commenting on them, and critical responses to this kind of art, especially in museums, which elicit a spectatorial gaze:

Reportage on Abu Ghraib often includes witness testimony, especially from released prisoners, some of whom are speaking out from England. In addition, the UK newspaper, the Guardian, keeps a large web archive of Iraq news stories and analysis; it can be searched for specific topics and persons as well. In the United States, a particularly effective and long-running series of articles comes from Leon Worden, editor of the Santa Clara Signal. Some stories from other sources are noted below; the home pages of these sources may also be useful to “bookmark.”

The extensive analyses of the political, historical, and psychological and moral aspects of U.S. intelligence gathering policy at Abu Ghraib have led to a consideration of the brutality underpinning colonialism and contemporary manifestations of imperialism. That brutality can also be seen in U.S. prisons. The photos and subsequent discussions of abusive treatment, turning the abused into the “subhuman,” has also provoked critics to look back at history, especially the history of torture, to understand this new version of aggressive force. Many of the essays below are models of political commentary as they delve into the structural foundations of a contemporary phenomenon. Finally, image analysis and political analysis, as well as recognizing the existential condition of oppression and suffering, cannot be separated out when looking at and thinking about the photos from Abu Ghraib.

Political analysis: imperialism, alternate views

Political analysis: U.S. institutions and culture



Abu Ghraib and U.S. prisons

Moral and psychological analysis