Images of agony end the film.

Images that shape history.

Studium: Graner stitching up a man's head.

Punctum: fresh blood flowing red from the gash.

Stretched to the limits of pain: the image invites a body response.

Video shot with a cell phone.

Needs interpretation: prisoner bitten by dog...

...and Harman learning to do stitches.

Graner recomposes the image to...

...include just England. Probably he also turned up the lights

A touch of femininity.

One of the women sleeping. [click here to see more "domestic" images of MPs' life]

Javal Davis on torture in the shower: "Open the windows. It was forty degrees outside. Watch 'em disappear into themselves. For hours and hours and hours all you would hear screaming, banging, when they were done 8-10 hours later, when they'd bring the guy out they'd be halfway coherent or unconscious, put 'em back in their cell, you know, we'd be back for 'em tomorrow."

OGA refers both to interrorgators and prisoners of "other government agencies."

Ghosts disposing of the corpse.


Reenacted forensic photographs, here of the torn eye.


The uncovered head.


Sabrina framing the image. Cameras taking pictures, and the click of the shutter are often depicted.

Sabrina's forensic photographs. The murderer is known but never charged.

Sabrina tells how a helicopter was shot down overhead just as the company arrived at Abu Ghraib. Morris characteristically uses reenactments to highlight a metonymic detail. [click here for more images of dramatic reenactments]



The Abu Ghraib photographs

Standard Operating Procedure not only interrogates these famous photos in terms of witnesses' reports, it also includes many other images from the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and frames and displays the images in an unique, indeed choreographed, way. In the next few sections, I would like to consider these photos as images as well as historical documents. As images, they are two-dimensional constructs with certain affective parameters, and these parameters depend both upon a viewer's own background and psyche and the social milieu in which s/he lives. Photographs themselves, especially snapshots, are often personal-historical documents that refer to a certain place and moment in the past. Most such images are not saved and their references known only to a few people for a temporally short period of time. (e.g., I know few of the people in my deceased parents' old photo albums). However, we can say of the Abu Ghraib photographs that they have entered and shaped history, although again, their impact may depend on where the viewer is coming from.

Let's be clear about it. U.S. journalists, lawyers, bloggers, and academics would never have investigated U.S. involvement in torture as we have over the last five years if it the Abu Ghraib photos had not been published broadly, especially in mainstream news venues. That we continue to know almost nothing about the many detainees held in Afghanistan is proof of this. The Abu Ghraib photos, almost instantaneously after their appearance on CBS and publication in The New Yorker, opened up a whole new historiographic space. They made history and they've shaped a history yet to come. They not only showed something irrevocably, but they made us as viewers feel something, with each person's spectatorial response varying according to personal background and social milieu. Even now the Abu Ghraib photos shape how a contemporary narrative about torture unfolds in the United States and across the world. We belong to the same political world that the images show. For we've seen no closure to the issues the photos raise, especially since the United States continues many of its same policies about torture, law and war.

However, viewers may not to want to look at those images any more. In fact, many did not seek them out when first published nor would they seek them out in a film devoted to the Abu Ghraib photographs, like Standard Operating Procedure. Some potential viewers find the photographs too grotesque to gaze at voluntarily, too voyeuristic. At the same time, the widespread circulation of the images often ideologically reduces them to a predictable source of representative, summarizable notions about "abuse," "scandal," "prosecutable offenses" or "imperial power." In this way, as Roland Barthes might put it, most of the critical and legal analysis of the photographs has participated in what he would call a studium, a concern with the cultural, political, ideological, and interpretive context of the images. Certainly that is partly what Errol Morris traces in his film, a studium of the photographs explained by those directly involved their production. Such a studium that adheres to photographs was first defined by Barthes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography:

"It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes; for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the settings, the gestures, the actions."[38] [open endnotes in new window]

If we choose to re-view the photographs, many of the Abu Ghraib images never cease to arrest us. Elements in the image strike us in a deeply personal way, with what Barthes calls the photograph's punctum. There's an element of the image, he says, that pierces the viewer like an arrow, wounds, pricks, cuts, leaves a psychic hole.[39] The punctum offered by the Abu Ghraib photos may come from the way many of them push at us naked bodies humiliated and stretched to the limits of pain, in compositions shot by soldiers who seem to have no sense that something is drastically amiss. In an unsettling way the photographs continue to have a capacity to elicit a semi-physical response in us that is at once familiar and repugnant. Viewers might respond to the photographs not only as the documentation of something that happened, as evidence, but as powerful images that use visual conventions that elicit an affective shudder. I would posit that such an affective response partly comes from the ways the photos and those taking them‚ often the same people orchestrating the scenes of torture, draw upon the "scenes" developed by other representational forms that provoke a bodily response, particularly horror—and its subgenres of splatter film and torture porn—and pornography. In addition, the recurrence of sexual humiliation in the images, and in torture itself, needs explanation, if only in a provisional way.

Interrogating and responding to
the Abu Ghraib photographs

In the section that follows, I would like to explore in greater depth how Standard Operating Procedure invites the viewer to interrogate and once again respond emotionally to the Abu Ghraib photographs. Unlike many critics, who repudiate Morris' use of heavily emotional elements such as dramatic reenactments and scored, concert-like music, I find his presentation of both the original images and his enhancement of them suggestive and respectful, perhaps legitimately restoring to the photos their original shock. In the style in which they are presented, the snapshots are demarcated from the rest of the film by a white border. They are usually framed large in the center of the screen, and are show at length, from three to five seconds and up to as long as eight. (Anyone who has edited film or video knows how long that is to hold a static image on screen.) Furthermore, because Morris edits long passages of interviews with individual witnesses via jump cuts, he uses as cutaways some of the snapshot images (and less frequently video shot with a cell phone). Other times these images have no voice-over but are presented in clusters and combined with an extended musical theme. The film's central thematic treatment of the photos, then, shows the worst of the incidents, the building of a "pyramid" of naked men and forcing them into masturbation or simulated fellatio. For me, the cumulative effect of that central incident, combined with witness testimony and music, was the impact of mourning and grief.

In her review of the film, Caetlin Benson-Allott indicates the work the film requires of the viewer:

"Standard Operating Procedure .. positions its viewer to regard the Abu Ghraib photographs as multivalent fragments that occasion multiple stories rather than telling the whole story. … The photographs are insufficient and require interpretation from viewers who may bring external impressions and motivations to the task."[28][open endnotes in new window]

To indicate the kind of processes that such a concerned documentary viewing might entail, I incorporate into the essay here some of my own spectatorial responses to try to indicate lines of questioning or suggestions that the images open up, which partly depends on my knowledge external to the film (as with how I interpreted the witnesses above) and also on the way the film incorporates the images taken by the soldiers, which I call the "snapshots." Not only does my research inflect my viewing but also my experience of teaching both film criticism and video production, both in the United States and abroad. In addition, I have seen the film in the cinema several times and also numerous times on the small screen, including frequently pausing the DVD on my computer to log the witnesses' words, grab images, and make general notes of my own. So my analysis of viewer response must also depend for its effectiveness on the degree to which it resonates with viewers beyond myself.

a. Snapshots of daily life

I am fascinated by how an early cluster of the snapshots gives a glimpse into the MPs' daily life and includes many images not previously seen in films or journalistic publication. In Standard Operating Procedure, accompanying Lynndie England's long speech about her relation with Charles Graner and her life in "a man's army" are images of the small cells in the prison that the guards occupied, with Lynndie supplementing her bunk with a colorful bedspread as a touch of femininity. (I observe myself wanting to think of her as Lynndie and him as Graner. She calls him Graner in her interviews, and he could not give interviews while in jail. Thus all accounts of the Abu-Ghraib photos characterize him as a cardboard, sadistic villain in a flat way.) We see images of the MPs from their first posting at Al Hillah in the first summer of the war, including video of them swimming and of Graner petting a small kitten they'd adopted. The unit's first posting was relatively peaceful, as Philip Gourevitch writes:

"The MPs felt safe walking the streets; they made friends with the Iraqis, played with their kids, shopped in their markets, ate in their outdoor cafes. The company's headquarters, in an abandoned date-processing factory, was minimally fortified, and never attacked."[41]

Later, not only was Abu Ghraib under constant bombardment, living inside the small cells must have been, for the MPs, a claustrophobic, hothouse environment. In that environment, Graner's sexual relations with both Ambuhl and England seems to suggest something of the concentration camp sexuality traced out in fiction film by Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter or Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties, which indicate both an ongoing sexual practice within the camps and its legacy years later. Part of the shock of the Abu Ghraib photographs comes from their sexual representation, however we interpret the sexual connotations of what we see, and our wonderment at the guards' participation in this milieu. In this vein, Anne McClintock describes the Graner-England relation and its visible trace in one of the most iconic, seemingly S/M, photos of a young woman soldier with a naked Iraqi man "on a leash":

"For Graner, persuading England to pose in his depraved theatrics flaunted his power to make her “do things.” In the notorious photo of England holding a prisoner on a tie-down strap, Graner had choreographed the scenario, dragging the prisoner from the cell himself then placing the strap in England’s reluctant hand. Photographing the scene bore double witness: to Graner’s gender power over England and to his racial power over a humiliated, animalized Iraqi prisoner. He e-mailed the photo home: 'Look at what I made Lynndie do.'"[42]

The snapshots of daily life are fascinating because they are on a continuum with the snapshots of abuse. Sometimes they are photos to send home, sometimes male fratboy hijinks, other times memorializing, "this is what it was like." They may have had the future perfect tense of travel photography (a place I'm visiting which we'll talk about later)[43] or serve as a communal contribution to photos routinely shared with peers on base (what we are all going through). We see in the snapshots the routinization of daily life and the guards' participation in grotesque abuse—although grotesqueness is an attribute applied in retrospect. On the base at Abu Ghraib, a circle of people knew Graner's reputation as a photographer, and some came to him for CDs of his travel pictures, others for his trophy pictures, especially the ones that imitated porn. Much of this material is probably similar in content to pictures that circulated during other wars, with the photos of travel and daily life sent to family and photos of corpses and mutilations circulated among a smaller circle of mostly men, who could "take" looking at the stark visual realities of war.[44]

Judith Butler comments on a seemingly banal succession of such images captured by a digital camera at Abu Ghraib. To her, their seriality implies "a certain structure of ordinary life under conditions of violently imposed occupation":

"Some of these digital cameras had files that include pictures of dead Iraqis, Iraqis being killed, murdered, raped, forced into sexual relations, and these are interspersed with photos of the local bazaar, friends smiling and eating, soldiers saluting the flag, views of the street and the neighborhood, Americans making love in apparently consensual terms, a soldier randomly shooting a camel in the head. So, in these instances, it would seem that the photos are a part of a record of everyday life, and that everyday life has to be understood in this context as consisting in a certain sequential interchangeability of such images."[45]

If the snapshots of daily life are new to most viewers of Standard Operating Procedure, they are a necessary counterpoint and accompaniment to the images of abuse and, of course, a counterpoint to the experiences of the prisoners who were held and tortured in cells very like the guards' but whose voices are still largely unheard.

b. The murder of Manadel al-Jamadi

Of great importance to the film is the extended representation of Sabrina Harman and her photographing the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi. She is the one participant in the abuses whom Morris and collaborator Philip Gourevitch go out of their way to exonerate. Not that they want to flatten out her behavior and motives solely to her desire to act as "forensic photographer," but that is one role they assign to her, especially since it used to be one of her career dreams. Within the film, we see close-ups from letters Harman writes to her wife Kelly saying she takes pictures because otherwise no one would believe the "shit" the United States is involved in.

Al-Jamadi was killed, probably by a CIA interrogator and his translator, during an interrogation in a shower; he was hooded and hung by his wrists from a window behind his back. His corpse was wrapped in a body bag and iced down for a day till the officers could decide what to do with him. Finally they rigged an IV to the corpse and carried it out on a gurney, so the sight of a dead prisoner would not cause a riot. Harman went to the shower once with Graner to get a trophy photo, a famous one with her smiling and giving a thumbs-up, but later she went back and took over twenty more close-up images clearly forensic in style.[46] She said she did this to prove the MPs had been lied to, that there was a cover-up, and that al-Jamadi clearly had been murdered. But that thumbs-up photo with the corpse makes it hard to believe her.

To expand upon this incident, Gourevitch and Morris write a profile of Harman in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer writes about the it and the probable murderers, and Harman and her letters home explain it in the film.[47] Yet the punctum of the trophy image taken with Harman and the corpse, her youthful sunny face and her thumbs up in blue latex glove, persists in the minds of the viewers, including Morris himself as he writes a long article about that one trophy snapshot in his blog. This image, more than most others in the film, is one that Morris found to have hidden or bypassed the social reality beyond and behind the frame:

"Photographs don't tell us what was policy, who the real culprits might be. They can give us a glimpse into an unseen world but can also serve as a cover-up, can misdirect us. They can confuse us and they most certainly did in this particular story."[48]

For Morris, Sabrina's letters provide visual and textual evidence crucial to his film. Often close-up segments from the filmed letters will have words highlighted to emphasize something Sabrina is reading aloud. Morris says that having access to these letters is particularly important to him because they are written at the time the photographs are taken. In legal terms, they perhaps have the status of memoranda of record, notes someone writes up, for example, right after a meeting and sends to the other participants, which can function as evidence in court. For Morris, the letters approximate what might have been Sabrina's "original" state of mind. And he and Gourevitch write about the particular use writing letters and picture taking had for Harman while in Iraq:

"…as she described her reactions to the prisoners’ degradation and her part in it—ricocheting from childish mockery to casual swagger to sympathy to cruelty to titillation to self-justification to self-doubt to outrage to identification to despair—she managed to subtract herself from the scenes she sketched. By the end of her outpourings, she had repositioned herself as an outsider at Abu Ghraib, an observer and recorder, shaking her head…. Harman seemed to conceive of memory as an external storage device. By downloading her impressions to a document, she could clear them from her mind and transform reality into an artifact. After all, she said, that was how she experienced the things she did and saw done to prisoners on Tier 1A: 'It seems like stuff like this only happened on TV. It’s not something you really thought was going on. At least I didn’t think it was going on. It’s just something that you watch and that is not real.'"[49]

Because she is the (forensic) photographer of and (morally concerned) writer about al-Jamadi's murder, Harman figures large in Morris' cinematic treatment of this incident. But this incident and a later one, about building the naked "pyramid," are given even more elaborate development in the film, with witness testimony supplemented by dramatic reenactments, sound effects, and a developed musical score, reinforcing emotion in a sustained way.

First comes a dramatic reenactment about OGAs, other government agencies. The camera tracks down a long sepia-tinted corridor toward the vanishing point. Fronting the corridor are cells made out of bare board, presumably interrogation rooms with one-way viewing mirrors, into which ghost figures along walls gaze. We see these shadowy juxtapositions fleetingly in the hallway as well as placards listing agencies that had interrogators there: Central intelligence Agency, Iraq Survey Group, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Foreign Government Services, and Task Force 121. As Javal Davis puts it, both these interrogators and their prisoners were officially ghosts, both often referred to as OGAs; the interrogators often made themselves known by only a first name, clearly fabricated, and did not log in their prisoners. As one of their spectral detainees, Manadel Al-Jamadi was thus not officially there.

Javal Davis narrates the kind of tortures that would be enacted in the shower room, and metonymic images show water streaming down from a showerhead and a face on the floor over which water streams down. Then close-ups from the prison log are shown, in negative with white print:

"OGA in 1B shower not to be used until OGA is moved out."

In this sequence with Davis, and later with Anthony Diaz and Jeffrey Frost, who took the prisoner down (he was hung from a window behind him by his wrists), there are numerous sound effects, as well as music. A common Foley FX "thunder sound" used to be made by striking a sheet of tin with a mallet; such a synth sound occurs frequently on the film's sound track and is heard when we see the notation in the prison log. The dramatic reenactments here also are accompanied by shower sounds, other FX like those in gothic films, and a synth choral tone.

The visual style has echoes of a horror film but here it asks us to imagine real-life horror in a real-life dungeon. Through a translucent screen, we see the hanged body. The image is hard to decipher at first but we can make out other figures who pass by. Later there is an extreme close-up of the hanged man's mouth and chin with blood dripping from it in slow motion. Here and elsewhere in the film Morris exaggerates such gothic-style images by framing them with a skewed angle. And then later, as the MPs describe more about what happened to the body, there is a longer reenacted sequence, with ghost figures moving the body to the shower, icing it down, and shutting and locking the door.

At this point, Morris makes his debt to the gothic and horror conventions explicit. He is famous for using extreme-close-up, detail shots as inserts, often illustrating a word or idea from the sound track. In this case, after Sabrina's long narration commences, we see a dramatic reenactment of very large keys, in a starkly shadowed composition, turning with a click in a lock and then removed. Of course, this is Morris' indication that not only were Harman and Graner curious about the dead body but that she got the key again and returned for further image-making and a more forensic-style documentation. After more of her narration and images of the letters home, the gothic key in lock reenactment returns. Finally Harman concludes the section with these lines:

"They tried to charge me with destruction of government property, which I don’t understand. And then maltreatment, of taking the photos of a dead guy. But he's dead, I don’t know how that's maltreatment. And altering evidence, for taking a bandage from his eye to take a photo of it? And then I placed it back. When he died, they cleaned him all up and then stuck the bandages on. So it's not really altering evidence, they had already done that for me. In order to make the other charges stick, they were going to have to bring in the photos. Which they didn't want—to bring up the dead guy at all, [or] the OGA, because obviously they covered up a murder and that would just make them look bad. So they dropped all the charges pertaining to the OGA and the shower."

No one has been charged with this murder although the perpetrators are known. CIA interrogator Mark Swanner and contract translator "Clint C." in all likelihood were responsible for al-Jamadi's death but Clint C. got immunity from criminal prosecution for his testimony and Swanner has never been charged.[50]

The dramatic reenactments I note here, as well as others used throughout the film, do not depart from an aesthetics of realism. Metonymic details enlarge on some aspect of the photos or some line in the interviews: flaming helicopter parts descending, a live grenade bouncing on the floor, falling playing cards designating high-value Iraqis, swarming ants on a prisoner's skin, blood on the walls, cell bars as framing devices, hooded men, naked men, men crawling on a wet floor, and snarling dogs lunging at the camera with teeth bared. But if the reenactments remain in the realm of metonymy, they are isolated details recast in skewed angles and extreme close-ups, pushed to become authorial commentary and expressive punctuation, conveying emotions of nightmare, fear, power and shame.

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