The impact of the Abu Ghraib photographs

“If there wasn’t no photographs, there would be no Abu Ghraib. There’d of been no investigation. It’d have been, ‘Oh, okay. Whatever. Everybody go home.’”
  –  Sergeant Javal Davis

I am currently pursing my undergraduate degree in Journalism and I’ve always had an interest in photographs and the impact they can have on audiences around the world. This week’s readings and discussion re-sparked my interest about the photographs that were taken in the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad and the actual impact they had on the American audience. I believe that the visual phenomenon created by photographs has already altered the course of history. Now, we live in an image-driven culture and images are powerful instruments of cultural persuasion.

The Abu Ghraib images drew the nation’s attention because they evoked and helped clarify the already existing critical political discourse of US foreign policy. One statement made by Judith Butler in the chapter “Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect” in Frames of War is: “…those who sought to limit the power of affect, of outrage, knowing full well that it could and would turn public opinion against the war in Iraq, as indeed it did” (p.40). This particular statement definitely resonated with the knowledge I had before I read this piece.

Mark Danner makes the case that the Bush administration employed the photographs to support its ‘political containment effort.’ Officials of the Administration used their power strategically to maximize their control over the framing when the story broke, persuading the audience to focus on the photographs and not the scandal itself. (Danner, Mark. Stripping Bare the Body Politics, Violence, War. New York: Nation, 2009)

Like Butler shows in her chapter, we know that conservative political figures and the Department of Defense justified its decision to prevent the release of these additional photos by claiming that their publication would endanger U.S. troops overseas.
My main point:
Despite the initial shock caused by the photographs, data from the time period of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal shows a quite different and disturbing image of public opinion regarding the scandal. Although the photographs undoubtedly created a sense of shock and disgust among members of the American national community who refused to identify with violent torturers, these reactions failed to translate into a significant shift in public opinion about the war in Iraq or President Bush and his administration.

A study conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in association with Knowledge Networks found that when informed about the series of legal memoranda outlining the Bush Administration’s policy regarding the treatment of prisoners, a mere 37% of participants agreed with statements made by Bush denying the connection between these policies and the violent actions that occurred at Abu Ghraib.

What depresses me:
When the participants were asked, “How do you think the way president Bush has handled the issues of the treatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay will affect the likelihood that you will vote for him in November,” only 37% of the participants polled said they would be less likely to vote for President Bush (“U.S. Public Rejects”). In addition, 22% said they would be more likely to vote for Bush.
Concluding thoughts:
Although the Abu Ghraib photographs undoubtedly created a sense of shock and disgust among members of the American community who refused to identify with the U.S. soldiers, these reactions failed to translate into a significant shift in public opinion about the war in Iraq or President Bush. On the public face, the Bush administration was successful in its ‘political containment effort,’ using the photographs to show the Abu Ghraib scandal as nothing more than a series of sick abuses initiated and performed by those “few bad apples” that appear in the photographs. In this view, the photos have paradoxically functioned to bring the allegations of abuse to public focus, and to deflect attention from the wider political implications of the violations. Even though the photographs seemed to deal a significant blow to the United States’ mission in Iraq, they only caused a small impact on American foreign policy.

Side note:

This is the trailer for the documentary Standard Operating Procedure:

–          Maria Florencia Serra


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