Susan Crile This Fragile Body: Susan Crile’s “Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power”
This Fragile Body: Susan Crile’s “Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power”

University of Washington Press
Julia A. Ireland
read full PDF

essay included in "Torture: Power, Democracy, and the Human Body"
Edited by Shampa Biswas and Zahi Zalloua

When the Abu Ghraib torture photographs first became public in April 2004 they met with an array of mostly predictable responses. These responses ranged in tone from the vehemence of moral outrage, to the defeated confirmation that ‘this is to be expected within the context of an illegitimate war,’ to the strategies of dismissal that acknowledged evidence of torture only to casually deflect it onto some version of human nature, thereby demonstrating a willingness to confuse behaving badly with acting immorally and even criminally.

Yet it is by no means clear what the Abu Ghraib photographs themselves are. They are certainly not documentary photography in the normal sense in which we understand documentary to neutrally and transparently provide factual evidence.[1] Some of the photographs were purportedly taken to extort confessions from prisoners and their family members by showing detainees naked and in sexually compromising positions––a strangely misguided innovation in the public structure of humiliation for its willingness to conflate the exposure of a consensual act with one coerced for the camera. The intention to humiliate makes this particular subset of photographs not only inseparable from the acts of torture that they do not just ‘depict,’ but instead actively participate in, the use of the camera to coerce by forcing bodies into view reveals a knowledge of violation that underlies all the Abu Ghraib photographs. And though there is something correct about the comparison of the images with pornography, this arguably has as much to do with the cognitive dissonance generated by what the eye perceives as an amateurish, yet stylized simulation of real events as it does with sexual content, something that gives even non-sexualized photographs a feeling akin to performance art.[2]

Whatever the precise circumstances under which they were taken, the visual and conceptual confusions generated by perpetrators of torture taking pictures of themselves looking at torture inevitably comes to frame the way that torture is seen in the photographs. This gives the photographs the peculiar effect of reading their own interpretive ambiguity back onto the person who views them, who may or may not actually see torture being perpetrated in the photographs, who may or may not actually see the photographs as themselves participating in the act of torture, or their own viewing of the photographs as in any way problematic. (“Tell me what you see in the Abu Ghraib photographs and I will tell you who you are.”)

As such, the photographs not only beg certain questions about the relationship between representation and reality already familiar from postmodern criticism, the use of photography to torture seems to almost willfully collapse the distinction between the infliction of pain and its representation. Bodily suffering isn’t so much being ‘captured’ in the photographs as approached from the vantage of its being posed as though for the camera. This remains the case even in those photographs that show prisoners in legally authorized “stress positions,” where the on-goingness of their suffering so clearly extends beyond the instant the photo was taken.

The feeling that the torture being shown in the photographs has somehow been posed has the effect of undercutting the immediacy through which pain is made visually manifest in the photographs by those undergoing it and is confirmed by the visceral, which is to say, spontaneous and bodily response of the person looking at the photographs. The entire visual orientation of the photographs thus serves to preempt the experience of sympathy evinced at the sight of suffering that Susan Sontag identifies as the distinguishing feature of war or “shock” photography and what gives it its ethical potential.[3] Yet this is not because we have been made insensitive as a culture through an excessive exposure to images of violence, but because the Abu Ghraib photographs are direct about their own enactment of a complicit seeing: The photographs put the intentional coercion of pain and suffering on view in order to be seen to be substituting an appropriately affective response for the act of taking a picture.[4] Such self-reflexive awareness is certainly not only an aspect of how the camera is transformed into an instrument of torture at that moment the photographs were taken, the photographs frame––frame in order to freeze and reiterate through the photographs themselves––the act of perception through which we become capable of actually seeing and being moved by the suffering of bodies.[5]

This makes viewing the Abu Ghraib photographs far more complicated than it at first appears. For if what the photographs show is perpetrators of torture regarding the intentional infliction of pain in order to be seen not to be seeing it as pain, the question becomes how we can look at the photographs without reiterating the perceptual and affective disposition that the photographs themselves compel. How can we recuperate a sympathetic response to the immediate suffering of the bodies in the photographs against the photographs’ own structuring of a complicit seeing? Still further, what sense of ethical and political responsibility might such a response open up in considering the effects of the United States’ policy on torture under the Bush administration?

These are the questions posed by American artist Susan Crile, whose highly unusual project, “Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power,” seeks to recuperate the possibility of the viewer’s experience of sympathy for the prisoners being tortured by drawing the photographs.[6] As Crile writes in her artist’s statement to the Italian exhibition catalogue that accompanied the collection, “The Abu Ghraib photographs are particularly disturbing since they were taken with the intent not to have an empathic connection to the suffering of the prisoners––to ‘the horror of it all’––but are meant to show his weakness in the face of might.…By recasting now familiar signs of power and ideology in the Abu Ghraib photos, by exposing them as markers of brutality and viciousness, and by turning those abused objects of degradation and contempt back into human beings, I have tried to elicit the viewer’s empathy.”[7] Quite unexpectedly, then, it is art––and in particular, Crile’s intuition about the nature of drawing in relation to the fragile outline of the body and the viewer’s own sense of touch––that restores the immediate and affective connection between the individual bodies of those suffering in the photographs and the viewer’s own body.[8]

Crile is unique in this regard. For where the artists Richard Serra in “Stop Bush” (2004) and Gerald Laing in “American Gothic” (2004) have capitalized on the iconic feel of individual Abu Ghraib photographs to brand the Bush administration’s policy on torture, and Fernando Botero has allegorized the photographs in his series of paintings “Botero Abu Ghraib,” Crile straightforwardly bases each of her drawings on the original photographs.[9] She thus assumes the viewer’s having seen the photographs in order to challenge and expose their underlying framing––and this includes the viewer’s own first encounter with the photographs, what they saw and didn’t see––by making the violated bodies of the prisoners the very site for the restoration of their humanity. This radical, if not also obvious, shift in visual orientation allows the viewer of the drawings to make a critical self-reflexive turn with respect to the way seeing is being framed in the torture photographs that is neither ironic nor generalized, but that instead takes place through the viewer’s sympathetic response to the suffering of bodies.

In this paper I first lay out in greater detail how the Abu Ghraib photographs enact a complicit seeing by developing their consistent comparison with lynching photographs taken in the United States during the 1920s and 30s. My intent in developing this comparison is to contextualize Crile’s specific artistic decisions by juxtaposing this analysis to her drawing “Crouching in Terror” (2005), which presents the viewer with a choice concerning the position from which they see the drawing––prisoner or guard––that directly implicates their own spectatorship. I next turn to the two drawings “Panties as Hood” (2005) and “Erotic Humiliation” (2005) to make a series of points about Crile’s use of white chalk to communicate the fragility of bodies and the various ways that she seeks to evoke the viewer’s sense of touch. Finally, I offer an interpretation of Crile’s drawing of the infamous (and also interpretively overdetermined) photograph showing Pfc. Lynddie England with a prisoner on a leash, suggesting that Crile’s sensitivity to the intimate relation between bodies offers a different way to understand the logic of torture.

The publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs was accompanied by the almost immediate impulse on the part of writers, journalists, and intellectuals to contextualize their visual uncanniness by searching for precedents.[10] Individual torture photographs have been compared to iconographic representations of Christ’s crucifixion in great works of art, to the Statue of Liberty, to the sportsman’s souvenir trophy shot, and, less imaginatively, to sadomasochistic and gay porn. Where these comparisons have operated primarily on the level of visual composition, the unusualness of including perpetrators of torture as also spectators of torture has led a number of commentators––Luc Sante first and Susan Sontag most famously––to compare the Abu Ghraib photographs to lynching postcards that were taken in the United States during the 1920s and 30s.[11] While later critics have gone on to stress the very different racial, social and power dynamics under which the pictures were taken, there is something importantly correct about this comparison in going beyond similarities in composition to the manner in which both sets of photographs enact a complicit seeing.[12] And in both cases the important clue proves to be the ways those in photographs are shown to look for the camera.

Inevitably, the first thing the viewer sees in looking at the two photographs are the eyes and smiles of those in the photographs looking out beyond the frame of the picture and directly at the camera, which is where the action of the photographs is taking place in apparent disconnection with the violence being done to the bodies in the photographs. The viewer is also quite blatantly being shown how to interpret this gaze through the use of hands (the accusatory index finger, the congratulatory thumbs-up), which direct the viewer’s eye toward the bodies being tortured not in order to make them the focus of attention, but to make visible its own way of seeing through the self-disclosive gesture of a pointing finger. By contrast, Crile in her rendering of the Abu Ghraib photographs tends either to crop out the sightline of the torturers or to obscure the directness of their gaze so that hands are made to refer to bodies––they nearly always suggest a menacing touch––and not to the act of seeing.

This direct eye contact made by those in the photographs collapses the distance between the viewer and the photographer, and has the peculiar visual effect of placing the viewer at the scene of the photographs in looking at it from behind the camera so that the viewer’s seeing becomes the actual foreground of the photographs.[13] As British photographer and documentary filmmaker David Modell implies in referring to a “triangle of communication,” there is a strange kind of interpolation of gazes that takes place between those looking at the camera, the photographer, and the viewer, as the viewer does not simply meet the gaze of those in the photographs, but is anticipated by it in a manner that compels the consent and reciprocation of how seeing is being staged within the photographs, yet within the photographs as for the camera.[14]

There are two important and internally connected points to be made here. First, the immediate reciprocation of direct eye contact compels the viewer to look past the violence being done to bodies as the viewer’s gaze is directed through the eyes and hand gestures of those in the photographs back to the viewer’s own seeing, which is made indistinguishable in the photographs from that of the camera. This is what gives so many of the Abu Ghraib photographs their distinctive three-dimensional or holographic quality. In direct violation, then, of Sontag’s insistence that photography is a way of seeing, the collapsing of the viewer into the photographer allows the photographs to present themselves as though what they are, in fact, capturing is “seeing itself.”[15] For it is in appearing to reflect back to the viewer the viewer’s own seeing through the eyes of those in the photographs that the photographs actually impose this seeing onto the viewer as though it were the viewer’s own––they impose this seeing onto the viewer in order to in the same instant confirm this seeing through the very act of the viewer’s looking at the photographs. This means that the photographs not only enact a complicit seeing, they are directly coercive; the photographs attempt to construct the viewer’s seeing by reiterating through their very framing the perceptual and affective disposition that the photographs themselves compel.

This leads to the next point: The transformation of the viewer’s seeing into the foreground of the photographs has the visual effect of making the bodies of those being tortured curiously withdraw to the position of incidental background within the frame of the photographs. In what is no doubt their most cognitively dissonant aspect, both the lynching and the Abu Ghraib photograph are seen to force the intentional infliction of pain into view in order to show those in the photographs looking away from it not in horror or moral repugnance, but to smilingly pose their seeing for the camera. This self-reflexive awareness thus not only comes to substitute for the immediacy of a sympathetic response, its further effect on the viewer is to actively obscure their being able to see the bodies in the photographs as suffering bodies. Quite tellingly, Luc Sante describes first looking at this particular Abu Ghraib photograph and thinking it was a montage, the relationship between Specialist Graner and Pfc. England’s thumbs-up appears so utterly disconnected from the almost sculptural staticness of the naked pile of bodies.[16] (Gerald Laing’s “American Gothic” actually does turn this photograph into a montage, pasting the pile of bodies on top of his ironic rendering of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”) Although both lynching and the Abu Ghraib photograph are necessarily, and even irreducibly about the violence being done to bodies, the true object of the photographs––and what the photographs themselves are––is this being seen not to be seeing, which regards the intentional infliction of pain from the position of banal spectacle. This point is, of course, made sadly vivid by the lynching photograph, which was reproduced by the thousands as a postcard.[17]

Let me now turn from this analysis to how Crile initiates the viewer’s making a different kind of self-reflexive turn in her drawing of a photograph showing a prisoner being menaced by a dog.

In comparing the drawing to the original photograph, the first thing the viewer notices is Crile’s decision to place the prisoner at the center of the viewer’s visual field, which requires her to crop out the guard with the dog, whose body is reduced to a forearm, gloved hand, and the barest suggestion of a toe. This not only shortens up the entire perspective of the camera shot (the photograph’s landscape view is made into a square), it reorients the entire visual framing of the original photograph by eliminating the sightline of the photographer, who in standing at the right hand corner of the scene is physically aligned with the guard along the wall, but visually aligned with the guard restraining the dog. This oblique orientation generates an odd and perceptually confusing double-perspective as the photographer looks at the guard with the dog menacing the prisoner, who looks back at him in obvious terror. At the same time, however, the photographer’s physical positioning places him on the side of the guard along the wall with whom he looks on in also assuming the position of casual spectator. From both perspectives simultaneously, then, the viewer of the photograph is compelled to regard the prisoner’s terror from the position of the two guards––from the one who is the source of that terror, and from the other, who in direct contrast to the photographer himself, is being shown within the photograph to casually disregard that source.

Crile’s elimination of the direct sightline of the photographer changes where the visual action within the drawing originates, even as the viewer will be left to contend with the looking on of the guard along the wall. With its large, 34” x 33” format, the viewer encountering the drawing in a gallery setting is roughly placed at eye-level with the crouching prisoner. This means that the viewer is put into the position of starting from the prisoner’s gaze and outstretched hand in order to visually trace out what, from the prisoner’s perspective, he is attempting to so forcefully and to so vulnerably STOP.

In contrast to the original photograph, whose vanishing point creates the illusion of the prisoner’s receding into the withdrawing corridor of the cell block, the prisoner’s eyes and hands direct––if not push––the viewer’s gaze away from his body, back into the foreground of the visual field, and even out beyond the drawing’s own left edge. And it is in its being pushed away from the prisoner’s body that the viewer’s gaze is directed along the prisoner’s sightline towards the gloved hand and lunging dog, whose menace and black mass are emphasized in seeming to come from out of nowhere––a nowhere that the viewer is now made to understand that they share with the torturers. Crile is explicit about what she hopes to achieve in this. She writes, “Tertiary or grayed-out colored papers increase the institutional barrenness of the space––the chill of the cement prison floor. The frame of the empty page is like the cell or the cage. The figures brush against its limit––the edge. This is the space of torture and abuse.”[18] The sensuous impact of this in “Crouching in Terror” is decidedly dramatic, as the original photograph’s oblique perspective is accentuated and rendered uncanny in making the drawing appear to come at (and even over) the viewer in including them under the glare and drab relentlessness of its own decontextualized space.

This reframing of the viewer’s visual orientation is essential for understanding the contrast between the structure of complicit seeing enacted by the original photograph and what Crile is attempting in this particular drawing, as both the photograph and the drawing are about the viewer’s seeing seeing. Where the original photograph compels the viewer to adopt the perspective of the two guards simultaneously, collapsing them into one another in placing the viewer into the position of the photographer, Crile’s cropping out of the guard with the dog enables her to expose the photograph’s own confused double-perspective by putting into its place a different double-perspective. In starting with the prisoner’s body and moving to the dog’s coming from out of nowhere, the viewer of the drawing is viscerally made to feel the terror and vulnerability of the prisoner’s STOP. Yet in keeping with the original perspective of the photograph, the viewer remains ever so slightly aligned with the guard along the wall, who precisely does not stop the prisoner from being terrorized, but is instead shown to look on from the position of casual spectator. This is key: The side-by-side juxtaposition of these two perspectives puts the viewer of the drawing’s seeing in tension with itself by initiating the possibility of their making a critical self-reflexive turn with regard to their own spectatorship. While this turn necessarily originates with the prisoner’s body, it is in the viewer’s next seeing the guard’s looking on that the viewer is called to reflect on the relationship between their own seeing and the guard’s seeing. Is their seeing the same as the guard’s seeing? Are they looking at the terrorized prisoner from the position of casual spectator? What would distinguish their looking on the drawing from the guard’s looking on?

In direct contrast to the self-reflexive awareness of the camera operative in complicit seeing, the critical self-reflexive turn initiated in Crile’s drawing offers the viewer a choice by presenting them with two possible ways of seeing, each alongside the other and each holding the other in suspense. It is in the tension generated by these two ways of seeing that the drawing critically exposes how the original photograph attempts to both coerce and construct the act of perception in presenting itself as capturing “seeing itself.” Even more important, however, the viewer of the drawing’s seeing the structure of complicity directly and explicitly implicates their own seeing without thereby determining what comes next­­––without thereby determining whether and how they follow out on the immediate claim being placed on them by the prisoner’s terrified STOP. In ethical terms, the structure of implication initiated by this critical turn would be the beginning of responsibility, as the viewer’s experience of sympathy would, to adopt Sontag’s language, “spark” the next step of action. In political terms, it would be the occasion for the viewer to reflect on the nature of their still deeper complicity with the United States’ formal policy on legalized torture.

Beyond making the prisoners her visual focus, the effectiveness of Crile’s drawings in eliciting sympathy lies in the way that she marks the presence of the body in calling forth a full range of sensuous experience. This includes not only the bodies of the prisoners, but the bodies of the guards, and, very importantly, the body of the viewer. While I will go on to address Crile’s use of white chalk in my analysis of the next two drawings, the insubstantiality and powerlessness of the prisoner in “Crouching in Terror” is made apparent not only in his ghostlike, floating presence, but in his diminutive size. And his diminutive size accentuates, and is accentuated by, his impossibly large hand. Though this appears exaggerated in the drawing, in looking at the original photograph, the prisoner’s outstretched hand does, indeed, appear that large––as large as the prisoner’s head, which is being pulled down into his body in a desperate effort to protect himself by folding his body back onto itself. It is clear that in her rendering of the prisoner’s hand that Crile is calling attention not just to its large size, but also to its specifically human distinctness as it gestures STOP. For although the body of the guard with the dog has been mostly cropped out, his physical presence is nonetheless retained in his being reduced to a black gloved hand, whose indistinctness calls forward the act of torture in being made to appear simply as an extension of the black dog. This is the inverse of the marked physical presence of the guard along the wall, whose casual spectatorship is in part indicated by his having his hands in his pockets, which in Crile’s drawing curiously makes him appear to have no hands.

Interestingly, the only exposed flesh of the guards that is visible is the ear of the guard standing along the wall, whose curve seems to vaguely echo the posture of the crouching prisoner. Crile remarks in her artist’s statement that the dominant sense in prison is not sight, but sound. Yet in evoking the viewer’s hearing, this ear does not call attention to what is heard in the prison, so much as it reminds the viewer of the absence of the prisoner’s voice––his no doubt also screaming in terror, as well as his inability to directly testify to his experience and be heard––confronting the viewer with the terrible responsibility of hearing the silence that engulfs the entire drawing.

The vulnerability of the prisoner in “Crouching in Terror” is in part achieved through Crile’s use of white chalk, which is the dominant visual element that connects the drawings throughout her collection. As Crile describes in her artist’s statement, it is intended to communicate the fragility and insubstantiality of the bodies of the tortured prisoners while at the same time calling to mind a set of visual resonances that suggest the bodily, human imprint left at scenes of violent devastation:

In the photos from Abu Ghraib, the prisoners have no weight; like Raggedy Ann dolls or balloons they lack balance or gravity. When the body is subjected to torture, the protection of the skin dissolves and the self no longer has a safe container; it is afloat and defenseless. I use white chalk to designate the fragility of the victims, who are like the ash-covered figures fleeing the World Trade Center, the body shells from Pompeii or the chalk outlines that mark the place of dead bodies at crime scenes. It takes me days to get the white chalk line to show the particular sense of humiliation of a particular man, to reveal the exact sense of his terrible pain.[19]

While Crile’s filling in of the body of the prisoner in “Crouching in Terror” gives him a ghostlike, floating presence, some of her most affecting drawings depict the bodies of prisoners in pure outline form. Of these, the most disturbingly beautiful is “Panties as Hood,” which shows a prisoner in a legally sanctioned stress position.

What is so immediately arresting about this particular drawing is the way that its beauty calls forward––and thus highlights––the intentional degradation of the prisoner precisely in the use of “panties as hood.” To achieve this effect, Crile edits out both the bed frame and the bars of the prison cell, which together create a jumbled and distracting network of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines. This allows her to bring forward the unnatural gracefulness of the body’s outward arc, as the prisoner’s single arm is rigidly pulled back and outside the field of the drawing. Though the viewer cannot actually see that the prisoner is bound (this is also true of the original photograph), the sense that the prisoner has been forced into this position is poignantly suggested by the flap of skin at the level of the prisoner’s shoulder blade, which interrupts the body’s curve. While the original photograph appears to be shot from above, as though the photographer were standing on the lower bed rack looking down, Crile emphasizes the feeling of horizontal movement generated by the body’s arc by turning the original photograph’s portrait view into an asymmetrically executed horizontal framing. The drawing measures a wide 27.5” x 39,” and the expanse of blank space on its right hand side contributes to the effect of the prisoner’s being stretched, as the experience of his pain is shown to extend beyond the boundary of his body in order to continue on into an empty and, perhaps even infinite, space.

Where “Crouching in Terror” exposes the structure of complicit seeing by creating the possibility of the viewer’s making a critical self-reflexive turn, “Panties as Hood” is by far a more challenging drawing. Its arresting and fragile beauty positively invites the viewer’s gazing. And, indeed, this is Crile’s intent. While the original photograph was momentarily snapped, Crile’s effort to capture the “exact pain” of particular bodies calls on the viewer to visually trace out with their eye the white chalk outline of the prisoner’s body. This not only serves to restore something of the temporality of the prisoner’s pain in a stress position, the act of visually tracing out the movement of a line has the further––and unexpected––effect of evoking the viewer’s own sense of touch, which is the sense originally violated in the act of torture. Crile, whose artistic background includes work in textiles, is deeply aware of this connection: “Drawing, the use of chalk and charcoal, the texture of the paper speaks to our sense of touch. Touch slows down the hungry and impatient appetite of the eye and allows the body––our body––to respond empathetically.”[20] The connection between drawing and touch is essential for understanding the insight that underlies the entire collection as what Crile also titles “Works On Paper.” The materiality of drawing as a medium allows the viewer’s body to respond sympathetically because the elements specific to drawing are uniquely able to capture the fragility of the human body as subject violation: The tactility of the paper reveals the prisoner’s naked and exposed skin as the pure surface of impressionable flesh; the white chalk outline contains the body at the same time it calls attention to it in its fragility as permeable boundary.

Yet there is a still further point to be made here that reveals Crile’s greatest risk as an artist. For the viewer’s act of tracing the outline of the prisoner’s body has the effect of returning to it its violated integrity––the literal sense in which it is self-contained, individual, and whole––by granting to the prisoner the dignity of his pain precisely within the context of its intentional degradation. This is accomplished through the viewer’s responsive touch, which gestures towards the undoing of the original perversion of touch that underlies the act of torture. It would, of course, be easy to regard this gesture as salvific or even invasive, which perhaps says something about how far removed we are from the vocabulary of dignity and the unique sense of self-contained and bodily beauty through which it is communicated. In contrast to the relative impoverishment of those discourses that emphasize the inevitable “orientalization” of any Western gaze, or the inevitable traumatic reenactment of any serious attempt to depict the Abu Ghraib photographs, Crile’s drawings show that it is this experience of being responsively touched by the prisoner’s violated dignity that alone reveals the irreducible vulnerability of the body as the site of a common humanity. And it is exactly this common humanity that the torture being shown in the photograph not only denies, but also exploits in order to falsify by treating the prisoner first as an Iraqi, an Arab, an enemy, a terrorist, etc.––anything but a human being subject to pain and wounding.

Crile’s sensitivity to the outline of the body is used to quite different effect in the drawing “Erotic Humiliation.” Where the focus of the original photograph is clearly the coerced staging of mock fellatio in which the prisoner standing along the wall just happens to be included, Crile’s effort to capture the bodily postures of the prisoners in a single white line creates a series of visual resonances that not only incorporate him into the formal composition of the drawing, but make him its key in appearing to comment on the scene of staged humiliation that he is nonetheless unable to see.

In first looking at the drawing, the viewer starts with the hooded and downward cast head of the prisoner standing at its center in order to then trace the outline of the curved back of the prisoner being forced to kneel between his legs, continuing this line through the curve of the back of the prisoner standing along the wall, who completes the visual circuit of the drawing in being shown to hold his head between his hands. Where the viewer of the photograph takes in the strange disconnectedness of this tableau all at once, Crile’s slowing of the viewer’s eye in tracing the continuous outline of the prisoners’ bodies incorporates the prisoner standing along the wall by calling attention to the way that his bodily posture echoes aspects of the postures of the other two prisoners simultaneously: His verticality, together with the positioning of his feet, make him appear to be less an independent figure than an exteriorized projection of the interior experience of humiliation of the prisoner standing at the center of the drawing, who is precisely denied the gesture of holding his head between his hands in being forced to hold the head of the other prisoner between his legs. Similarly, the curving back of the prisoner along the wall brings forward the curve of the back of the prisoner kneeling, whose posture does not so much embody the self-withdrawal of humiliation, but has slumped well beyond it to a place of utter passivity and dejection.

While the bodily posture of the prisoner along the wall makes it appear as though he is responding to the scene taking place in front of him, the black hood makes the viewer aware that––in contrast to the viewer themselves––he cannot actually see what is being staged in front of his eyes. Crile uses this fact to recast the way that hoods operate within the drawing, and it has the effect of not only underscoring the disconnected interiority of each of the prisoners in relationship to one another, it reveals the true perversity of this posed scene of mock fellatio. If the experience of humiliation implies the coerced exposure of self before the eyes of an Other, as well the capacity to positively withdraw from that exposure into a protective interior by being seen to avert one’s eyes, then an aspect of the torture in this photograph is the denial of the prisoners’ ability to show themselves as withdrawing from view, which would be to retract the conditions of their exposure. (Indeed, this is the significance of what it means for the prisoner along the wall to put his head in his hands.) Still further, the original photograph in its extreme psychic violence puts on display for a digital eternity this inability to withdraw from view by constantly reenacting the exposure of the prisoners to the gaze of others through the medium of the photograph itself. Where “Crouching in Terror” stages the possibility of a critical self-reflexive turn, here the viewer’s looking at the prisoner along the wall’s averting his eyes from a scene that he cannot see invites the viewer to consider what is implied in the scene that they can see, and to do what the photograph itself does not: Protect the prisoners from humiliation by looking away––in shame.

Crile’s use of the neutral, empty space of the paper to communicate the decontextualization of the bodies being tortured takes on a markedly different inflection in her rendering of Pfc. Lynddie England with a prisoner on a leash, which is no doubt the most interpretively overdetermined of all the Abu Ghraib photographs. This photograph, which England claims that she was told to pose for by her superiors, has become emblematic of the United States’ abuse of power. And it was able to become emblematic because the posing of the photograph reveals not just an awareness of the relative hierarchical positions that define power (guard/prisoner, male/female), it dramatizes that awareness in a manner that is at once assertive and parodic.

Within the staging of this photograph, the conspicuously theatrical inversion of the power relationship between male and female through the use of the leash is being borrowed on to positively assert the power of guard over prisoner. What within the highly stylized context of sadomasochistic play is transgressive, and even liberatory, in subverting the dominant hierarchical relationship between male/female becomes within the context of the prisoner/guard relationship license for the sheer domination of transgressive violence.

The visual––and also visually interpretive––effect of this framing in the original photograph is twofold. First, the tortured prisoner’s compelled submission is being both highlighted and masked in so far as a dimension of his torture is his being forcibly posed for the camera to play at submission. Though this does not show up well in the photograph, the prisoner is, in fact, leashed to himself. The violent realization of what is being passed off as a fantasy of transgression creates––and must create, if its purpose is to humiliate––the illusion of agency.[21] (This, of course, was also an aspect of the scene depicted in “Erotic Humiliation.”) The man’s seemingly willing surrender to domination by a woman thus serves to cover over the actual domination of a prisoner by a guard, which is rendered ambiguous in appearing to be just part of an act that reveals itself to be well aware of the dynamics of both power and transgression. Second, the posing of the photograph makes it inevitably about England’s gender, which is not simply being ‘lent’ to this scene in order to compound the tortured prisoner’s humiliation, but is instead being performed as violently dominating. According to certain feminist interpretations, the body that shows up as being originally violated is hers, which should be incapable of torture on either biologically essentialist grounds, or as the result of a heightened social awareness generated by her own reductive exploitation as a body.[22]

Crile’s simple attention to the spatial relationship between bodies radically recontextualizes how power relations can be seen to operate in the original photograph. Similar to “Crouching in Terror,” Crile crops out most of England’s body in order to bring forward the body of the tortured prisoner. (Interestingly, the original photograph was already cropped by Specialist Graner, who was also the photographer, to edit out the presence of another female guard shown to be watching this scene.[23]) This removes both the distraction of England’s gender––what is most noticeable about “her” is the living fleshiness of a naked arm––and the domination of her downward gaze, which takes its orientation not from the body of the prisoner attached to the end of her leash, but from the camera. Though the viewer of the drawing is clearly aware that what is being shown here is a scene of violation, Crile’s emphasis on space creates a feeling of both quiet and passivity. This not only has the effect of exposing the gratuitousness of the act of staged domination, but its uncomfortable intimacy. And it is this intimacy that makes this overly familiar image surprising.

The elimination of England’s sightline, together with the absence of lines indicating the physical setting of a room, once again have the effect of giving the drawing a peculiar dimensionality. Where the black diagonal line created by the leash seems to confirm its initial appearance as flatly two-dimensional, Crile’s inclusion of the outline of England’s boot toe moves her back within the unmarked spatial field of the drawing. This both gives England a verticality that towers upward in its solid mass at the same time that it makes the body of the prisoner seem to float forward and toward the viewer as it threatens to float outside the right-hand frame of the drawing. (One thinks of Crile’s comparison of the weightless bodies of the prisoners to “balloons.”) The sense that the prisoner is floating toward the viewer interrupts the way that the viewer would naturally ‘read’ the drawing (right to left, up to down) by making the viewer engage with what appears to be visually closest to them––namely, the prisoner’s outstretched arm––in order to move backwards: The viewer’s gaze starts with the prisoner’s arm, travels upward through the black diagonal created by the leash to England’s arm, and then travels back down to this time extend through the white tether that attaches the prisoner’s wrist to his own body.

It is in tracing the diagonal movement of the leash backward and then forward that Crile calls attention to the symmetries between arms and the tethers that connect bodies to bodies, offering the viewer a different way to understand power relations in the original photograph. In following out the strong diagonal that cuts through the entire drawing, the viewer becomes aware that what England is, in fact, being shown to hold in holding her leash is the power to bind the body of the prisoner to himself through the coerced experience of pain and humiliation. Here Crile can be seen to be using the visual logic of the drawing to bring forward a deeper insight into the logic of torture. For the way that torture dominates is to make the prisoner subject to his own body through the intentional infliction of pain, which undoes the prisoner as a human being in order to turn him into something that he never is on his own––just a body. Yet this emphasis on the photograph’s underlying symmetries has the effect of exposing its organizing asymmetry, which is the contrast between open and closed circuits within a space of willed disconnection. This, of course, is not only evident in the difference between the leash (which demarcates open spaces within the field of the drawing) and the tether (which reveals the body as a closed circuit of pain), but in the small space of skin that separates the black leash from the black watchband that encloses England’s wrist. Thus where England holds the connection that binds the prisoner’s body to itself, he does not hold a connection to her; the tethers that connect bodies to bodies in the drawing would seem to move in one direction only.

It is at this juncture that Crile does something unexpected, and that goes beyond what she would have been able to actually see in the original photograph. Where she is careful to show the break of skin between England’s holding the black leash and her black watchband, she in fact continues the visual line of the leash through her faint, dark tracing of the veins in England’s arm. In so doing, Crile brings forward the presence of England’s physical body in relation to the act of torture, suggesting that England’s arm is an extension––if not the actual source––of the leash. Yet in showing what is just beneath the surface of England’s skin, Crile succeeds in simultaneously communicating the vulnerability of England’s body, bringing forward the intimacy of her bodily connection to the prisoner even within the space of her willed disconnection from him. It is finally this shared vulnerability that connects him to her even in the face of her power to deny it.

The affective power of Crile’s drawings in lies in her attention to the prisoners’ bodies, making the viewer aware of the extent to which their individual suffering has been left out of the discussion of the Abu Ghraib photographs in particular, and the United States’ policy on torture in general. This, of course, begs what is perhaps the only pertinent question here: Could we torture if we really saw the fragility of the body as a shared human condition, where really seeing implied undergoing the immediate claim to sympathy itself evoked by the insight into the vulnerability of all bodies as subject to pain?

Understood from this perspective, Crile’s effort to “recast” and “expose” the dynamics of power underlying the original torture photographs is certainly a political act. She concludes her artist’s statement by expressing her hope that “accountability does not lag far behind empathy.”[24] Yet her sensitivity to the individual suffering of particular bodies enables her to avoid the didacticism of art intended to morally or politically instruct––a didacticism that she nonetheless risks with each artistic choice that she makes in her rendering of the original photographs. This shows us something about Crile’s deeper sensitivity to the fragility of bodies and the sense of restraint that a vigilantly responsive attention to particularity imposes. For the restoration of the viewer’s sense of touch that is the beginning of sympathy starts with Crile’s eye and the relationship between that eye and the hand that holds the white chalk as she labors “to show the particular sense of humiliation of a particular man, to reveal the exact sense of his terrible pain [my emphasis].” Though this certainly does not undo the experience of torture for the prisoners who suffered it, Crile’s attention to particularity restores for the viewer the perverted sense of connection––eye, hand, implement, touch––that becomes disconnected, instrumentalized, rationalized, and made into something finally inhuman through the act of torture. Art cannot save us from ourselves. One hopes, however, that in tracing Crile’s fragile outlines that we remain vulnerable to letting it restore.


Allen, James. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2003.

Apel, Dora. “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib.” Art Journal Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2005): 88-100.


Brison, Susan J. “The Torture Connection: When photographs from Abu Ghraib can’t be distinguished from ‘good old American pornography,’ it’s not just the torture we should be questioning.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 25, 2004.

Butler, Judith. Frames of War. London: Verso, 2009.

––“Photography, War, Outrage.” PMLA: Theories and Methodologies (2005) 822-7.

Cavarero,  Adriana. “Female Torturers Grinning at the Camera.” In Horrorism: Naming

Contemporary Violence. Translated by William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Crile, Susan. Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power. Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007.

Ebony, David. “Botero Abu Ghraib.” Botero Abu Ghraib, Munich: Prestal Verlag, 2006.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “The Uterus is No Substitute for a Conscience.” Arts and Opinion Vol. 4, No. 1 (2005).

Eisenman, Stephen F. The Abu Ghraib Effect. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Gourevitch, Philip and Morris, Errol. “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker Magazine, March 24, 2008.

Gurstein, Rochelle. “The Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination.” Arts and Opinion, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2008).

Henderson, Schuyler W. “Disregarding the Suffering of Others: Narrative, Comedy, and Torture.” Literature and Medicine 24, no. 2 (Fall 2005) 181-208.

Hesford, Wendy S. “Staging Terror.” TDR: The Drama Review 50:3 (Fall 2006) 29-31.

Kaufman-Osborne, Timothy. “Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?,” Politics and Gender 1 (2005) 597-619.

Mitchell, Andrew. Torture and Photography: Abu Ghraib. Unpublished monograph.

Modell, David. “Viewpoint: The Power of Abuse Pictures.” BBC News. May 13, 2004.

Morris, Errol. “Standard Operating Procedure: An Errol Morris Film. Sony Pictures Classic and Participant Media, 2008.

Sante, Luc. “Tourists and Torturers.” New York Times, May 11, 2004, Opinion secton.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Scott, Andrea K. “Susan Crile––Abuse of Power.” New York Times, October 13, 2006, Art in Review.

Sontag, Susan. At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

–– On Photography. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1977.

–– Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003

  I want to thank my colleagues Tom Davis and Alberto Galindo for the benefit of their conversation when this article was in the idea stage; Aaron Bobrow-Strain for his helpful comments on an early draft of the paper; and Shampa Biswas and Zahi Zalloua for their encouragement and patience in helping me to see it through to its completion. I especially want to thank Susan Crile for the provocation of her work, and for the generosity she has shown me as I’ve struggled to find the language to respond.

[1] Though problematic in combining interviews with dramatic reenactments and overdone scene-setting, Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” is nonetheless helpful in clarifying basic facts surrounding both the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as well as the specific circumstances under which particular photographs were taken. Of the three guards taking photographs in express violation of signs forbidding photography within the prison, Sabrina Harman alone understood herself to be documenting evidence of torture. (The phrase she returns to during the interview with Morris is that she wanted to “just show what was going on, what was allowed to be done.”) With the exception of pictures showing the dead prisoner wrapped and iced in a body bag, the photographs that Harman took of prisoners in stress positions were found by investigators to be “standard operating procedure” rather than torture. At the same time, however, that Harman was documenting these legal acts of torture, she was also consenting to pose with prisoners who had been arranged in sexually humiliating positions. For more about how Harman understood her role as photographer see the article by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib,” in the March 24, 2008 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

[2] The connection made between the Abu Ghraib photographs and pornography was immediate and, in some instances, distracting in imposing a reductively reactive feminist agenda in the interpretation of the photographs at the expense of being able to attend to the bodies of the prisoners. For two different perspectives on the relationship between the Abu Ghraib photographs and pornography see Susan J. Brison’s, “The Torture Connection: When photographs from Abu Ghraib can’t be distinguished from ‘good old American pornography,’ it’s not just the torture we should be questioning” in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 25, 2004, and Rochelle Gurstein’s “The Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination” in Arts and Opinion, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2008). Adriana Cavarero interestingly challenges these feminist readings by calling attention to the photographs’ feeling of simulation. See the chapter entitled, “Female Torturers Grinning at the Camera” in Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, translated by William McCuaig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) 106-115.

[3] Sontag lays out how war or “shock” photography affects the viewer in both On Photography (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others. She is clear, however, that on its own the feeling of sympathy is not a sufficient response to the pain and suffering of others. As she writes in Regarding the Pain of Others: “Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent––if not an inappropriate––response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may––in ways we might prefer not to imagine––be linked to their suffering as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only a spark” (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003) 102-3. For a critical engagement of Sontag’s approach, see Judith Butler’s chapter “Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag” in Frames of War (London: Verso, 2009) 63-100.

[4] Certainly, one of the more remarkable moments in Errol Morris’ documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” is a video showing Sabrina Harman looking down at the “view finder” of her camera photographing a pile of naked detainees as she herself is being videotaped.

[5] In her analyses of the Abu Ghraib photographs, Judith Butler calls particular attention to the way that the photographs “frame” the act of perception, challenging, among other things, Sontag’s understanding of photography as documentary rather than already interpretive. While my own understanding of framing is indebted to Martin Heidegger’s elaboration of the “as”-structure in Being and Time and the “Origin of the Work of Art,” Butler’s recent work on the precariousness of life has been important for clarifying my approach to Crile’s drawings, even if I do not engage Butler directly in this piece. For Butler’s interpretation of the Abu Ghraib photographs see “Photography, War, Outrage,” PMLA: Theories and Methodologies (2005) 822-7, which she then went on to expand in the chapter entitled “Torture and the Ethics of Photography: Thinking with Sontag,” in Frames of War (London: Verso, 2009) 63-100.

[6] At the point of the composition of this article, Crile’s “Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power” includes twenty-three works on paper, with possible plans to continue with more drawings as other photographs are released. All of the drawings are executed in chalk, charcoal, pastel and conte. Crile’s most recent work includes drawings of prisoners held in “black sites,” and is based off of the available written testimony contained in American Red Cross depositions. Susan Crile, e-mail message to author, April 6, 2009.

[7] Susan Crile, Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007) 29.

[8] Where Crile uses the word “empathy” to describe the affective response to bodies, I use the word “sympathy.” In this I follow thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, and Arendt, who––though they remain sensitive to affect––nonetheless want to avoid the collapsing of self into other through the identification with the other’s pain as though it were one’s own pain. Sympathy allows identification through the insight into a shared vulnerability to pain as a dimension of the human condition, at the same time that it acknowledges and respects the other’s pain as uniquely their own.

[9] David Ebony’s introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Botero Abu Ghraib, is useful for cataloguing a variety of artistic responses to the Abu Ghraib photographs. While the Botero paintings are compelling (the series does include some drawings), they tend to be composites rather than referring to specific photographs. As Ebony writes, “Botero based his Abu Ghraib compositions on written testimony as much as on the photographic material” Botero Abu Ghraib (Munich: Prestal Verlag, 2006) 15. There is something important about the specificity of the individual bodies in the photographs that is lost in this approach.

[10] In his thoughtful, informative, and well-written book, The Abu Ghraib Effect, Stephen F. Eisenman lays out the connection between the viewer’s experience of the photographs’ visual uncanniness and Freud’s theory of the uncanny, writing: “On seeing the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, many critics, art historians and others experienced the disorientation of the uncanny because they say in the hierarchic disposition of bodies, the mock-erotic scenarios, and the expressions of triumphant glee on the faces of the captors, something that was disturbing and intensely familiar, but could not be named or full recalled to consciousness. What they recognized but quickly forgot…is in fact a key element of the classical tradition in art …That feature of the Western classical tradition is specifically the motif of tortured people…who appear to sanction their own abuse” (London: Reaktion Books, 2007) 16.

[11] See Sante’s “Tourists and Torturers,” New York Times, May 11, 2004, Opinion section. Sontag makes this connection in “Regarding the Torture of Others,” pointing out that “snapshots in which executioners placed themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare.” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), 132. Sontag had already briefly addressed the lynching photographs in Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003), 91-93. For a full discussion and complete collection of the lynching postcards see James Allen’s authoritative, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2003). This collection is further supplemented by the superb website,

[12] Dora Apel lays out the important differences between the lynching and Abu Ghraib photographs in her article “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib,” Art Journal Vol. 64, No. 2 (Summer 2005): 88-100.

[13] It is worth calling attention to the fact that only the lynching photograph with its inclusion of a white border denoting day and place makes this relationship between frame and the viewer’s seeing visible and thus interpretively available. The digital medium of the Abu Ghraib photograph is, by contrast, effectively limitless, filling in so as to absorb any outer edge, and punctually unlocateable as even capturing a real event unfolding in real time.

[14] As Modell eloquently writes in his posting for the BBC News, “Viewpoint: The Power of Abuse Pictures”: “The pictures from Abu Ghraib are fundamentally different [from documentary]. They are not snatched, clandestine images taken to uncover the truth and disseminate it. In the almost perfect compositions it is obvious that they were taken in a perversely relaxed atmosphere––emphasized by the demeanor of the troops. And this reveals an appalling reality––that the photographs are a deliberate part of the torture. The taking of the pictures was supposed to compound the humiliation and sense of powerlessness of the victims. The photographer was the abuser. When we view the pictures, we are forced to play our part in this triangle of communication. The photographs were taken to abuse, by exposing the victim at their most vulnerable. By looking at the images we become complicit in the abuse itself. It is what makes them intolerable for the viewer and why they are so destructive to a war effort built on the spin of ‘liberation.’” BBC News, May 13, 2004,

[15] In many of her writings on photography, Sontag stresses that photography is a way of seeing. She makes this the first principle of her short piece, “Photography: A Little Summa,” writing: “1. Photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself.” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), 124.

[16] Sante, who was one of the first critics to comment on the Abu Ghraib photographs in the New York Times article “Tourists and Torturers,” writes: “The first shot I saw, of specialist Charles A. Graner and Pfc. Lynddie R. England flashing a thumbs up behind a pile of their naked victims, was so jarring that for a few seconds I took it for a montage.” May 11, 2004, Opinion section.

[17] James Allen details the specific circumstances under which the particular photograph was taken in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2003) 175-6. He writes: “Lawrence Beitler, a studio photographer, took this photo. For ten days and nights he printed thousands of copies, which sold for fifty cents apiece” 176.

[18] Susan Crile, Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007) 27.

[19] Susan Crile, Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007) 27.

[20] Susan Crile, Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007) 28.

[21] Eisenman addresses this structure in the chapter “Pathos Formula” in The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion Books, 2007) 60-72.

[22] For two different perspectives on this issue see Barbara Ehrenreich’s “The Uterus is No Substitute for a Conscience,” in Arts and Opinion Vol. 4, No. 1 (2005) and Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborne’s “Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?” in Politics and Gender 1 (2005) 597-619.

[23] This fact comes out in Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure.”

[24] Susan Crile, Abu Ghraib: Abuse of Power (Rome: Gangemi Editore, 2007) 29.

read full PDF