Seeing and Believing: On Photography and the War on Terror
Writing about a videotape showing an American soldier shooting an Iraqi man in Fallujah in 2004, the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris observed: “For many people, the interpretation of this videotape will devolve into general questions about Iraq. People will interpret this videotape according to their ideological dispositions.” He goes on: “Unhappily, an unerring fact of human nature is that we habitually reject the evidence of our own senses. If we want to believe something, then we often find a way to do so regardless of evidence to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.”1 This commentary strikes me as intuitively correct and is a disturbing and bleak observation about the capacity of the American public for self-deception, more particularly, its incapacity to confront the truth claims it is presented with regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this observation begs questions about the relationship between seeing and believing as a cognitive process dependent on what Morris terms “ideological dispositions.” How are these dispositions shaped or activated by the imagery of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How are particular ways of seeing framed and composed by the visual repertoires of these wars as produced and reproduced by the mainstream media in the United States? And what effect do these representations have on our understanding of and attitudes toward warfare and the broader forms of violence and suffering that shadow the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
These questions are asked in the context of a diffused and ongoing series of conflicts that we are learning to call “perpetual war” — a catchall term for the wars of terror and securitization that have no sense of an ending and no principal enemy. A growing number of commentators are expressing concern that the immanence of this perpetual war is dissolving established borders between foreign and domestic affairs and unsettling assumptions about the relation between friend and enemy and between war and murder.2 In other words, perpetual war is dislocating registers of temporal and spatial distance that structure and promulgate the relationality of domestic and foreign affairs. This sense of distance has long been informed by visual news media, which frame worlds of conflict and violence beyond the United States for domestic publics, thereby shaping the composition of differential norms — such as humanity and otherness — that are crucial to an understanding of ethical and political relations in international affairs. In this article, I am particularly interested in the role that photography (photo journalism more especially) is playing in relation to the emergent visual repertoires of perpetual war.
Witnessing US Foreign Policy
Two recent images illustrate this new visual culture of perpetual warfare. I briefly introduce these, before looking more closely at each as discrete forms of visual document and event.
The first image has rapidly accrued iconic status and is commonly titled “The Situation Room Photograph” (see fig. 1).
It was taken by White House photographer Pete Souza on May 1, 2011, and initially posted on the White House section of Flickr on May 2, 2011, where the caption states, “President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.”3 I want to be precise about this initial framing, as there has been a huge amount of speculation about what this photograph depicts. The first media reports, supported by White House spin, stated that the president and his team were watching live footage of the killing of bin Laden. Under media scrutiny, this story quickly swerved after it was admitted that only a small portion of the video viewed was live at the scene; most was focused on Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief Leon Panetta, who was commenting on what was being communicated to him.
The second photograph, published in the New York Times on May 7, 2011, was taken by Ayman Oghanna and accompanied an article by Times correspondent Tim Arango on the young woman pictured here — her name is Samar Hassan (see fig. 2).
Samar was the focal subject of one of the most striking photojournalistic images to be produced during the Iraq war (see fig. 3), in which she is depicted spattered in blood and screaming, following the killing of her parents by US soldiers at a checkpoint in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2005. The American photojournalist Chris Hondros, who took that earlier image of Samar, was killed in Libya in April 2011, by a mortar attack in the besieged city of Misurata (another distinguished photojournalist, Tim Hetherington, died in the same attack), and there followed many commemorative commentaries on his work in the US and other media. The piece in the New York Times is a form of homage but also something more, for it focuses not on Hondros but on the subject of his photograph, the now twelve-yearold Samar and, more particularly, on her response to Hondros’s images. Arango sought out Samar and presented her with the images. Figure 2 depicts her looking for the first time at these, as Arango indicates in the opening line of the article: “Until the past week, Samar Hassan had never glimpsed the photograph of her that millions had seen, never knew it had become one of the most famous images of the Iraq war.”4
I juxtapose these images to illustrate key features of the visualization of the war on terror within the mainstream US media. The images counterpoint each other in striking ways. Partly, this is a matter of composition, as we note in each instance the framing and focus on subjects as spectators of images on other screens. (We might also note echoes of affective response, most striking in the similar gestures of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Samar.) Both images appear to present us with witnesses to the power and effects of US foreign policy enacted as violent killing, yet in both images the primary scene of violence is displaced, so that we are focused on spectatorship and virtualization. We need to consider what is being witnessed in each instance and what forms of displaced violence are signified by the images.
In the Situation Room image the state is witnessing the execution of its own violent power. This form of state violence is enacted as shock and awe, as high technological interventions in foreign terrains, with the use of drones and other forms of distant, “surgical” killing. In the image of Samar, the victim of state power is witnessing her own victimhood. This form of state violence is enacted as collateral damage, a form of violence that is supplementary and incidental to the sensational violence of shock and awe. I argue that these forms of violence are linked in the visual culture of perpetual war: in different yet closely related ways they signify the naturalization of preemptive violence as the right and might of the state.5 They also assert the powerful sovereignty of the state, for such violence creates its own interpretive conditions and so suspends ethical and legal conventions of response to its enactments. Across mainstream US visual culture, shock and awe and collateral damage are dominant frames in visualizations of the war on terror. They ideologically parse death and suffering by delineating those who count as fully human and those who do not.
I look more closely at these images to consider what they tell us about these forms of violence. In doing so, I also consider the role of the documentary image as a form of visual evidence. As we shall see, the documentary image can and does function as an analogue of the state, but it can also function as a critical mirror of the workings of the state.6
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- Errol Morris, “Not Every Picture Tells a Story,” New York Times, November 20, 2004, nytimes .com/2004/11/20/opinion/20morris.html.
- The concept of perpetual war has been taken up by diverse constituencies. For a range of recent perspectives, see Tariq Ali, “Perpetual War: Grand Strategy after 9/11,” CounterPunch, September 7, 2011, www.counterpunch.org/2011/09/07/perpetual-war; David A. Love, “A State of Perpetual War,” Huffington Post, January 14, 2010, www.huffingtonpost.com/david-a-love/a -state-of-perpetual-war_b_422616.html; Greg Grandin, “Building a Perfect Machine of Perpetual War: The Mexico-to-Colombia Security Corridor Advances,” The Notion (blog), Nation, February 11, 2011, www.thenation.com/blog/158492/building-perfect-machine-perpetual-war -mexico-colombia-security-corridor-advances; and James Joyner, “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology,” Atlantic, May 11, 2011, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/how -perpetual-war-became-us-ideology/238600.
- See photograph P050111PS-0210 in “The White House’s Photostream,” Flickr, posted May 2, 2011, www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/5680724572.
- Tim Arango, “Face That Screamed War’s Pain Looks Back, Six Hard Years Later,” New York Times, May 7, 2011. www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/world/middleeast/07photo.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.
- See Allen Feldman, “The Structuring Enemy and Archival War,” PMLA 124, no. 5 (2009): 1704 – 13, and Feldman, “Securocratic Wars of Public Safety: Globalized Policing as Scopic Regime,” Interventions 6, no. 3 (2004): 330 – 50.
- See Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).