Abu Ghraib violations

Above: Ali Shallal al-Qaisi being Tortured. Credit: Often attributed to Private Ivan Frederick.

Ali Shallal al-Qaisi being Tortured

A well-known amateur snapshot of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi being tortured and abused at Abu Ghraib, in 2003, is one photo which conforms to J.G. Ballard's definition of a super-memorable still photo-image, i.e., one that is "worth a thousand words" because "it resonates with a richness of meanings that transcends the single image and the moment of time it records." Every student of photography should be required to write a thousand words about this particular snapshot. Part of what makes the photo so horrifying is that it is loaded-up (unconsciously; improbably) with symbolism, reference, and allusions. For example, the victim's pose recalls Christ as depicted in many High Renaissance paintings illustrating the Stations of the Cross. This pose also recalls Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Equally, the raised-arm position, with palms outstretched, is often used in non-verbal communication as a gesture asserting openness and honesty: I have integrity, I have nothing to hide. Then too, the arms also recall the pose of Lady Justice as seen atop the British court building the Old Bailey, and the act of balancing more generally. The same pose recalls the second position in classical ballet--an aestheticized and stylized gesture.

Then there is the symbolism of the victim's attire. Commenting on the website Reddit, user Limited-lets-hang-out said: "It's a horrible image, of a horrendous and unacceptable situation. But, strangely, it [has] always struck [me] as having a very 'occult' feel too--the symbolism, the robe, black, triangular hood, stand out, in a come-all-ye-children prince-of-peace type manner ..." As Limited-lets-hang-out observed, the outfit puts the viewer immediately in mind of secret rituals. The hood is definitely styled as a capirote: an intensely historically-laden-down headwear, known particularly as the intimidating and bizarre headwear of the secret racist organization the KKK. A tall conical hat was also worn by suspects of the Spanish Inquisition, and is otherwise known generally as a "dunce's hat." So too, the poncho worn is a garment associated with many peoples of South America and in fact the Native American. But this garment also recalls the abaya cloak traditionally popular with women in the Muslim World.

The photo does not seem to be anything like a casual snapshot at all. (Its being loaded-up with classical references seems more in keeping with a constructed and set-up photo by, say, Gary Hill or Jeff Wall.) The overall effect of all these references (mostly inadvertently incorporated by chance it seems) is an over-determined image that flickers with myriad incongruous, and contradictory references--an effect that plays a part in the photo's being so unbearably memorable.

(25 June 2018)