Shoot that Picture
I recently decided that my official description of my dissertation is that it’s a thick description of an image, this image:
But an image is, by nature, a decontextualized fragment, right? So as a Geertzian effort to read history into the safari image of Africa — taking Roosevelt’s African Game Trails as the paradigmatic moment — I’m also trying to demonstrate how his project of image-making was, by nature, an effort to read history out of it, to make certain particular kinds of history unthinkable and unnecessary. And that this is the history safari-goers and American tourists are forgetting about when they do something as strange as take pictures of Africans while on vacation in Kenya. Or something like that?
Anyway, although — or perhaps precisely because — she’s writing about the Abu Ghraib photos, I found this excerpt from Kelly Oliver’s Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media to be strangely a propos:
Judged by the gestures and facial expressions, they are photographs of triumph and victory, all smiles and thumbs-up. In this regard, the photographs are trophies that suggest that within the war of us versus them, we are winning. The trophy-viewing or trophy-seeing inherent in these photographs is just one aspect of pornographic looking. The objects of the photographs are abused, debased, humiliated, naked; and when these trembling and vulnerable bodies are photographed next to triumphant American military personnel, the clear message is that we can do whatever we want to these foreigners, these enemy combatants. We are in the driver’s seat, while they are just along for the ride, in this case apparently a joy-ride at their expense.