Abu Ghraib Torture Photos

The set of pictures I have chosen to review are from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They gained media attention in 2003/04 due to shocking conditions and acts of torture committed by American troops. Sabrina Harman, one of the soldiers featured in the pictures, took the majority of questionable photographs as she found it hard to believe what she was seeing.[1] It raises an ethical question of whether the photographer should intervene? Harman and other troops have made reference to knowing what they were doing was wrong yet continued without question.[2] It becomes difficult to say if the photographers were complicit with what occurred or whether they took the photos to try to enact change.

One of the reasons I find the images particularly shocking is how little I had heard of these incidents before researching them. Since Vietnam, pictures taken from battle zones are often greeted with a heavy media backlash and protest in America. This is mainly due to the relationship between media corporations and the nation-state determining how most American viewers encounter military operations.[3] So why did this set of horrific photos not garner the same attention?

Before considering the wider implications of these pictures the form and content need to be examined. There is a wide range of over one thousand different images, some more shocking than others. The first thing that is notable in the majority of images is that the prisoners are naked, a technique of humiliation employed by the guards. This raw nakedness shows vulnerability and helplessness in the subjects. It also presents a perverted sexual imagery. Although not always provocative there is a darker, more sordid sexuality being exploited. The images of torture are interleaved with pornographic images of American soldiers having sex with each other.[4] This plays on the sexualised nature of the images while also providing a link to pornography.

domantrix abu ghraibThe photo of the woman dragging a man by leash relates to classic dominatrix imagery, she is asserting dominance over an unwilling non-compliant subject. A relatively small woman has overpowered the man who was once meant to have been an imposing foreign enemy, now reduced to nothing. Rape also prevalently appears as a theme across the pictures. There is the literal rape of prisoners, degradation of male sexuality, a loss of manhood, but also the rape of a foreign culture. Wendy Kozol describes the soldiers behind the human pyramid as inscribing “a violent heterosexuality onto a queer scenario they themselves staged based in an orientalist fantasy that equates racial difference with sexual deviance.”[5] This supports the pornographic nature of the photos as the actions of the guards can be partially explained as exploiting vulnerable subjects to fulfill sexual fantasy. The sexual nature of the content compliments a voyeuristic feel the images. Although the soldiers are posing, these photos were not intended for public observation. The viewer has gained an insight into something sordid they were not supposed to have seen.human pyramid.png

The soldiers’ poses provide a stark contrast to the prisoners suffering. It is difficult to comprehend how someone could be smiling after committing such heinous acts. It results in the pose appearing even more menacing, as it looks as though they have enjoyed what they have done. Their pose shares similarities with that of the lynching photos we previously reviewed in the course. This type of pose around prisoners and dead bodies occurs repeatedly in visual archives.[6] In lynching photos the participants felt their collective action was perfectly justifiable and the same can be said about the photos in Abu Ghraib.[7] The ‘thumbs up’ pose is one of acknowledgment as if they’ve achieved something whereas the smile shares similarities with that of a holiday photo, creating an impression that these images are souvenirs for the guards as the lynching photos had been put on postcards.Christ like.png

Again it is hard for the average viewer to understand how the guards can think their actions are justifiable. But a common tactic in times of war is to dehumanise the enemy. It is evidently clear that the soldiers have attempted to do this. Although prisoners are naked in the majority of photos they are often hooded to remove their identity. When the prisoners are not wearing a hood they are often facing away from the camera again playing on them being unidentifiable to the viewer. This is supported by nicknames given to prisoners from ‘Swamp Thing’ to ‘Mr. Burns’[8] again dehumanising them. The soldiers’ tourist-like pose and attire adds a relatable humanity to them widening the gap between them and the anonymous prisoners.angel of death.png

I see the photo of a man covered in black as a representation of the angel of death as he’s draped in black cloth and his holding of ‘live’ wire that could result in death. All while enhanced by drab surroundings signifying the absence of hope and isolation. The angel of death could reference either the literal death that occurred within the prison or loss of humanity due to the inhumane actions committed by guards

Another prevalent theme is Orientalism. There is a clear message of western dominance over a foreign enemy. The guards are often stood over the prisoners who are either cowering away or in a forced position. I think the photo of the man covered in excrement stood with arms raised is particularly interesting in this respect. You can see a guard with a nightstick asserting his dominance over his subject. The prisoner is stood in a Christ-like pose at his crucifixion. This plays on the orientalist theme of the West trying to force their Christocentric culture and faith on foreign enemies. It also creates a link to martyrdom and self-sacrifice of the prisoners as the viewer can see what they have been subjected to. But, the condition and nakedness of prisoners in contrast to the neatly dressed troops makes the former appear bestial despite it being the latter who is committing barbaric acts. Animalistic imagery is clearly evident in the dominatrix photo among others.

The orientalist nature in which news from the Iraqi war is presented has been criticised. Therefore orientalism being prevalent in these photos is not much of a surprise. Since the Gulf War in 1991 Western media has presented a deadly enemy with Saddam Hussein being the incarnation of evil as a means to justify the conflict. We can see the presentation of barbaric foreign enemies in recent media with Homeland (2011-), American Sniper (2014) as well as countless others falling guilty of this while remaining immensely popular in the US. This presentation of the enemy may be a reason while Sabrina Harman found it acceptable to have a picture smiling over a recently deceased prisoner.Sabrina Harman.png

This brings me to the biggest issue with these photos and why I feel they are so significant. Since these photos surfaced in late 2003 one would have expected change in US army actions abroad but there is little evidence of change. Shortly after the pictures were released the chief concern of the Bush administration was to limit a public-relations disaster rather than deal with the complex crimes of leadership and policy revealed by the pictures.[9] They responded with how shocked and horrified the president was – as if the fault lay in the images rather than what they depict.[10] To acknowledge Americans torture their prisoners would contradict everything presented about the virtue of American intentions abroad. They avoided using the word torture but it is difficult to find another description for the isolation, humiliation and violence depicted throughout the photos. Their tactic worked as although these photos did gain publicity in 2003 there has not been the legacy that was seen in photos from Vietnam that are still commonly known today.

Although there is little doubt most people in America would’ve been shocked by these photos it is often easier for someone to see these pictures and view them as an anomaly, removing a responsibility they may be feeling. As well as this a recent study has shown that 57% of Americans believe torture is effective.[11] These statistics are worrying as it has been proven that torture is an ineffective means to obtain information. Therefore it’s possible some individuals may have seen the images and felt the atrocities were justified in protecting America, especially as it was during post-9/11 hysteria. Another argument against the memorability of the pictures is that they are commonplace nowadays. This is a point argued by Susan Sontag in On Photography, where she points out that as a society we now need a war to be photographed to seem real but this has led to an oversaturation of these images and we are now calloused to them, a photo from 1900 would not have the same impact anymore.[12] There is an overexposure to these types of images, the shock value quickly fades and they are soon forgotten. A photo of a dead body covered in ice due to bruising should be shocking but something worse could be featured the next day. The major issue is that these photos should have enacted change in American foreign policy but for whatever reason they unfortunately did not.


[1] Philip Gourevitch, ‘Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera’, The New Yorker, March 24th 2008 accessed via. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/03/24/exposure-5 (14/01/16)

[2] ibid,

[3] Wendy Kozol, Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) p. 9

[4] Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, The New York Times Magazine, May 23rd 2004 accessed via http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/regarding-the-torture-of-others.html (15/01/2015)

[5] Wendy Kozol, Distant Wars Visible, p.149

[6] Wendy Kozol, Distant Wars Visible, p.146

[7] Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times Magazine

[8] Philip Gourevitch, ‘Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera’, The New Yorker

[9] Susan Sontag, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times Magazine

[10] ibid,

[11] Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (Broadcast June 14th 2015), HBO

[12] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2005) pp.15-17


 Gourevitch Philip, ‘Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera’, The New Yorker, March 24th 2008 accessed via. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/03/24/exposure-5

Kozol Wendy, Distant Wars Visible: The Ambivalence of Witnessing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (Broadcast June 14th 2015), HBO

Sontag Susan, On Photography (New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2005)

Sontag Susan, ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, The New York Times Magazine, May 23rd 2004 accessed via http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/regarding-the-torture-of-others.html

http://www.antiwar.com/news/?articleid=8560 June 11th 2006


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