I think that the four assignments we had this week – the three readings and radio show – interact in very interesting ways. Due to our class discussion and focus on photography, gazes and framing in the past couple of weeks, it is impossible not to approach the topic of torture without our established “viewing” framework in mind.
Though none of the texts lay this out explicitly except maybe the Sontag article, torture is a form of objectification and the creation/performance of symbolism (as photography inevitably is as well) beyond the mere means to an end. Sontag went in depth into comparisons that highlight this fact, for example the thematic crossover between torture images and pornography. Although the example both she and Brody use, Abu Grahib, was captured on film, I think it is important to understand the symbolism and humiliation that would have been present even without a camera there to snap the picture.
I would take issue with one of the claims Sontag makes in her article in particular: she suggests that whereas photographs used to be collected as “trophies” to be stored, now they are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.” I think that though she may be right about the difference in the impact of photographs, that “in our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away,” these images were still taken as trophies. And it is the very fact that such actions were considered by soldiers on the ground to be trophy-worthy that suggests the structural realities of the military (discussed in Phillips) that would lead soldiers to conduct and defend such practices.
Phillips’ argument leads us to understand that our lens of analysis is too narrow when attempting to understand the experiences and actions of American soldiers on the ground. He even mentions Abu Grahib in his introduction, saying that we hone in on this isolated incident and on the level of the individual soldier without adequately scrutinizing the system. This tendency, literally and figuratively, takes the government structure and the military higher-ups out of the chain of blame – it takes them out of our frame of analysis, shielding them as the eye of the camera and the public turns us elsewhere. Brody argues a similar claim, saying that “true accountability requires that those at higher levels who approved or tolerated crimes against detainees also be brought to justice.”
I think that our tendency to focus on the individual rather than the system is not one that emerged with photography, just as the collection of obscene trophies did not stop or start due to advancements in photography and the idea of justice in war cannot end with a “war on terror.” These ideas are all longer-standing, more permanent, but are molded in the present day based on the media we have access to. Perhaps this does nothing concrete to further my claim, but I found it fascinating how drawn inI was to the first chapter of Phillips and to “This American Life.” I found them interesting because they were the stories of individuals, they were relatable but distant from my being. Structures, systems and hierarchies, on the other hand, work largely invisibly but affect us all daily. This is a harder place to look, where the lens never falls. I’m just wondering, is there a way to get at this bigger picture through a lens pointed at the individual?