We have to consider the moral implications of producing a documentary about a certain horror or pain. Arguably any film seeks to be viewed and consumed, however varied are the reasons. For this end, film narratives are plotted to be appealing, either visually, narratively or targeting the viewer’s (morbid?) interest based on social and cultural assumptions. This is what I think differentiates denunciatory film and photography: on the one hand, photography may have an agenda in showing a certain image of horror, or series of photographs, which can be traced by interpretation or actually demanding the author its purpose. Film, on the other, is predicated on a mise-en-scène, events need to be plotted in order to make sense of them, they become discourse with an inherent ideological background. In this sense, the question of turning horror into entertainment is posed critically when we are talking about film.
This contrast between film and photography becomes relevant in Errol Morris 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure. The film delves into the significance of photographs taken by U.S. military officers in the prison of Abu Ghraib showing abuse and torture of prisoners. The photographs are presented along with interviews of the officers, letters and actual re-enactments of the events. I’d like to address two problems I found with this documentary. First, I thought there was an inconsistency between the photographs and the accounts of them by the officers. Retrospectively, characters like Sabrina, who took most of the photographs, declare to be conscious of being part of something horrible, something that would surely bring trouble and that this was the reason for taking the photographs: as a way to record and prove that it happened. However, it feels as though the sense of guilt the officers may have stems more from the disclosure of their involvement in acts of violence and torture than from the actual pain they inflicted on the prisoners. I personally couldn’t relate to the implicit message of displacing the blame from the officers to unseen culprits in higher ranks of the army, especially when we look at the pictures with these officers smiling and doing a thumbs up beside unconscious, naked, beaten or even dead prisoners.
In The Civil Contract of Photography, Ariella Azoulay has referred to photography as a “social, cultural and political instrument of immense power”. This certainly comes to mind when we think about the clashing of Umwelten that comes when the photographs taken by the officers were interpreted and judged by professional authorities. We are shocked when images of horror (a half naked man standing on a bucket and tied up to a bed) are considered standard operating procedure but then also relieved that the pictures also served for the indictment and even imprisonment of some of these soldiers. Photography in this sense may have transcended its original purpose. In the words of Azoulay: “Their presence cannot be subsumed under the reign of a higher authority. They are independent. The limits of their interpretation are not determined in advance and are always open to negotiation. They are not restricted to the intentions of those who would claim to be their authors or those who participate in their production”.
By Yannick Bautista