Abu Ghraib photos are in exhibits

September 17, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Thousands of miles from Iraq, in a dark gray midtown gallery, spotlights shed light on 20 of the images that exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal last spring.

The hooded Iraqi prisoner forced to stand on a box with wires attached to his fingers. A soldier's smile and thumbs up as he poses with a dead body. An Army dog eyeing a petrified prisoner. Repeatedly transmitted over the Internet and shown in the media, they're all familiar by now.

But displayed unframed and fastened to the gallery wall with push pins as an exhibition called Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs and Abu Ghraib at the International Center of Photography, these amateur digital images downloaded from the Internet, acquire a cultural significance that reaches beyond their initial shock value, one of the show's curators says.

Mounted concurrently in New York and at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Inconvenient Evidence, which opens today in both cities, is a recognition of the radical role digital technology and the Internet play in breaking and disseminating the news, says Brian Wallis, chief curator at the International Center of Photography. "These pictures completely circumvented conventional news organizations."

Taken in part to humiliate the prisoners, the photos are themselves a means of torture and thus "raise troubling moral questions about the role of photographs in our culture," Wallis contends in a written introduction.

He sets up a tense photographic dialogue by including four images of citizens in the Middle East reacting to the Abu Ghraib photos. In one, a couple in Tehran walk past an unidentified artist's mural that re-creates the prison photographs of Lynddie England's leashed hold of a prisoner and the hooded man. In another photograph, a Pakistani girl holds the thumbs-up photo during a protest in Islamabad.

Wallis wants the show to prompt discussions about photography's evolving role. "What do they say about the way we produce and circulate photos today?"

"It's really not worth discussing," says Joseph Dugan, president of the Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum & Memorial in Pittsburgh. "They were acts of stupidity by junior ranked people who lacked the proper supervision," says Dugan, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and Desert Storm.

"In reality, they're taking material off the Internet, that has been used in the tabloids, the newspapers, Time, Newsweek, and trying to present it as `art,' which to me is totally ridiculous," Dugan says. "All it does is prove to me that there is a political undercurrent behind it" to discredit the soldiers as well as the war in Iraq.

Although many of the images displayed in the two museums will be the same, they will appear in different contexts.

In New York, Inconvenient Evidence is coincidentally running alongside Looking at Life, an exhibition of prints from Life magazine, including images from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam that remind visitors that Abu Ghraib is hardly the first example of what war can do to a soldier.

Color stills from the Zapruder tape of John F. Kennedy's assassination in the Life exhibit also presage the thousands of amateur photographs and videos taken after the 9/11 attacks, as well as those from Abu Ghraib. The 2001 terrorist attacks represent the "paradigmatic case," in which amateur photographers outnumbered professionals "taking pictures of breaking news," Wallis says.

At the Warhol museum, the Abu Ghraib photos are displayed in the permanent exhibition gallery, interspersed with some of Warhol's paintings of camouflage, an electric chair print and a print from his "race riot series," says museum director Tom Sokolowski. Borrowed from vernacular material reflective of American life, these Warhol works resemble the Abu Ghraib images, he says.

The exhibit is in keeping with previous shows at the museum, Sokolowski says. "We have had a number of shows that have dealt in different ways with contextualized social issues," notably an installation with the video of Rodney King's beating and a show of photographs taken at lynchings throughout the South.

The Abu Ghraib photos are just a handful of thousands, perhaps millions of pictures taken by soldiers and civilians and reporters on all sides of the war on terror. In a sense, the war's progress can be tracked by observing which images are broadcast around the world and by whom.

Stills from beheadings, covertly taken shots of flag-draped coffins, mutilated contract workers in Fallujah, action shots by embedded photojournalists, snapshots by Iraqi citizens now on display at New York University - all help to chronicle an enormously complex cataclysm.

"Some people have said, why not show images of the other side," such as the decapitations, Wallis says. "We try to make decisions about what seems to us to be interesting."

His choice to focus on Abu Ghraib was "an editorial decision." Without question, Wallis says, the "images of Abu Ghraib are the strongest pictures with the greatest impact [on] the war so far."

"Inconvenient Evidence" continues at the International Center of Photography in New York (icp.org) and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (warhol.org) through Nov. 28.

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