Prison Torture and the Spit-Mask

Pete Brooks highlighted a video that emerged last week of horrific abuse in a Maine Department of Corrections prison. Graphic video is available here.

I don’t have much to add to Pete’s commentary — watching the shorter clip, I can’t help but think of Ted Conover’s account from ‘Newjack’. And even more than the sadistic torture, I wonder about the dynamic between the guards. Unlike Lt. Pike at UC-Davis, we see the militarized figures working as a group under one command. We get a clear view of Captain Welch’s face, but the rest of his staff are masked and armored. Only when he dismisses one of them to clear his mask (of spit? of pepper spray?) are we given the smallest hint of ‘humanity’ or flicker of concern towards human welfare. I’m fascinated watching how Welch turns his back on the scene several times, pacing out of the cell while his armored colleagues work.

And they’re missing the key. Not surprising in a chaotic and elaborate prison episode, but a reminder that these sorts of operations are far from standardized (hence Welch’s use of pepper spray at 6 inches, rather than the minimum suggested operating distance of several feet). Try as we might, we can’t escape our humanness.

I’m also reminded of a section of Philip Zimbardo’s ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil’, where he’s discussing dehumanization and moral disengagement. Zimbardo points to the work of sociologist Ervin Goffman and the way he describes “the process by which those who are disabled are socially discredited. They become not fully human and thus tainted.”

Prisons must operate as dehumanized environments to maintain the balance necessary to keep human beings in suspension. With the torture at Abu Ghraib, prisoners were stripped naked, the final measure amongst already crushing levels of categorial discrimination and demonization of ‘the other.’ Here, it’s the same idea but the exact opposite visual metaphor — the addition of the spit mask is yet another layer grafted onto the already mentally disabled and physically restrained inmate.

Consider that each primary character in this incident was masked except for Welch. It’s proven that, when deindividualized, humans tend to bend more to situational demands — which is why it’s even more fascinating that Welch maintains the autocratic, authoritarian role throughout the entire incident. The inmate, bound and shackled, masked with black gloves covering his eyes, immediately appeals to the captain as another human. “Captain, I was honorably discharged,” he sputters, “if you just uncover my mouth so I can breath, I promise not to…”

And even weirder, most of the guards look at the camera (or past the camera, to their counterparts presumably looking on) numerous times. This is the era of the Internet and of the Internet scandal. The thought of this video being leaked to the public undoubtedly crossed the minds of every single person in that room at one point during those two hours. Whether they thought it really mattered (hell, this is what we do every other week) is up for debate.

But then again, maybe the record of this incident doesn’t immediately equate to guilt or culpability like it does to the average viewer. Again, this may be a routine occurrence in this prison — society is full of prison horror stories.

One final parallel: In his latest book, ‘Every Twelve Seconds: Industrial Slaughter and the Politics of Sight’, Timothy Pachirat explains how the 130 workers employed in an average-sized slaughterhouse all assuage their part in an industrialized killing process by grafting the collective culpability of mass-slaughter on a single man — the knocker, the job title of the guy holding the captive bolt gun — responsible for the perceived fatal shot to the cow. Doesn’t matter that 20 seconds after the bolt stuns the hefer, another worker guts the beast with a huge knife while it’s still breathing. As long as the knocker is the one delivering the deliberate act of violence, the rest sleep well at night.



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A Thesis for Indulgences

I’ve been casually following the ongoing suit following AFP and Getty’s use of Daniel Morel’s images of the Haitian earthquake that were posted on Twitpic immediately after the disaster.

In the latest twist of events, the photo agencies may possibly be liable for $123 million in damages for more than 820 instances of copyright infringement resulting from use of the images.

I often wonder what the stunned subjects of Morel’s photographs will say when they find out that a bunch of American corporations have been fighting for years over pictures recording the worst days of their lives. $123 million is more aid than most independent nations were able to pledge in the days following the disaster.


As photographers, we all deal with the disconnect between our intentions and reality. Endlessly we debate whether compassion fatigue is real, whether spot news photography in 2012 still has importance, whether we’re doing anything more than producing a record of man’s unique and endless ways we continuing hurting ourselves.

In The Cruel Radiance, a treatise about the power of photography in the face of modernity’s political violence, Susie Linfield notes that ethical responsibility lies with both the producers and viewers of photographs.

“Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing,” she notes in her second chapter. “This requires transforming our relationship to photographs from one of passivity and complaint to one of creativity and collaboration.”

When we view images of tragedy, war, death and destruction, we (the West) understand them through the frame of reference given to us by previous images. A burned out building in Kosovo looks the same as a burned out building in Libya, which looks a lot like a burned out building in Detroit. These visual similarities lull us into a sense of understanding—a false knowledge—that we know about what we’re seeing. Our ignorance is collateral in today’s image-soaked society.

But without this build up, where would we be?

“Try to imagine,” Linfield asks, “what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph.”

Now apply this to what she said about our responsibilities as viewers and consumers. We’re responsible for seeing, and for making sure we’re not just gaping passively and ignorantly at the tragedy unfolding before us.

The potential damages of this suit are equal to more than a quarter of the total donations the Red Cross received following the quake. $123 million isn’t a small number. A donation of this amount would shift the relationship viewers have with Morel’s photos from one of passivity to active collaboration.

This could be the first time in decades that photojournalism literally created funding for its subjects.

Wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for photojournalism to redeem itself?

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Ignoring the Obvious: Tragedy Begets Tragedy

Just a quick take on pickup photo coverage in the wake of the American soldier shooting 16 unarmed Afghans.

Placing this image by Ahmad Nadeem (Reuters) at the end of their photo coverage, the NYT clearly saw the visual metaphor present in this otherwise routine news image. Without the context of the tragedy, we recognize again the image we’ve seen for 11 years: camouflaged soldiers, small arms, and a crowd milling about on the scene of mind-numbing (and often groundless) tragedy.

But looking at what this familiar scene represents, do we ignore what’s being depicted visually? The caption couldn’t be simpler: “Afghan soldiers keep watch from inside the American base.” The ANA soldiers’ helmets are beaten and weathered; their uniforms don’t match—starkly contrasting the modern, idealized American military we’re used to seeing. Below them, a crowd of Afghans waits around. No US troops are seen in the photo (not to say they aren’t present, though).

This seems like an easy one.

Violence perpetuates in war, but as this conflict continues to drag through the sand, ever-present collateral damage spreads even further, especially as we focus on homefront politics and what this extended engagement has come to mean for American reality today. History repeats itself, and the visual metaphor here couldn’t be more clear, so one has to wonder: what’s it going to take to read the signs?


We can’t stomach this. Tragedy begets tragedy.


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Why is the New York Times running a censored photo (and why aren’t they telling us this in the caption)?

Late last night, the New York Times published a piece by CJ Chivers about the changing role airpower is playing in America’s combat operations: A Changed Way of War in Afghanistan’s Skies –

The article is illustrated by beautiful photographs by Tyler Hicks, arguably one of the Times’ strongest staff photographers. In a slideshow, we see a number of images made on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier currently in the Gulf of Oman. But if one scrolls through the article, we find an image embedded in the article that didn’t make it to the slideshow. Reproduced below is the photograph in context, and a closer detail shot:

Last image on the left is the photo in question.

The image is also viewable in its original pop-up form. The caption reads as follows:

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Pilots gathered Wednesday morning for a mass briefing. Teams were then assigned to support different units on the ground in Afghanistan.

Look closely at the image, specifically the foreground. The documents being examined by the pilots are blurred. At first it appears as the result of a shallow depth-of-field, but closer examination shows that the censoring is deliberate.

Take a look at the picture that moved on Redux, the agency that handles distribution of the Times’ archive:

In the image description, editors are warned of the censorship – “** EDS.: PHOTO HAS BEEN DIGITALLY MANIPULATED TO OBSCURE CONTENTS OF DOCUMENTS ON TABLE** Military personnel gather during a mass brief for pilots and weapons systems officers on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the North Arabian Sea, Jan. 12, 2012. The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political price the U.S. and NATO allies paid because of heavy civilian casualties in traditional aerial bombings. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)”.


So why hasn’t the Times noted this in their caption? 

Last May, Pete Souza’s image from the White House Situation Room launched a debate about censorship in the public eye and historical record. Days later, censorship again came to the forefront when the White House declined to release visual evidence of Osama bin Laden’s corpse.

In an age saturated with imagery, it’s important to establish why an image has been censored as well as the conditions of the censorship. One could reasonably assume that the censorship was a requirement of the access/embed that Chivers and Hicks were granted by the Navy. If this was the case, what harm is there in openly noting the image manipulation in the caption, just as the Washington Post did this week with their front-page HDR composites?

The digital age requires a special care to the fragile trust continually eroding between the media and the American public. By not clearing pointing out the manipulation of Hicks’ image, the Times risks further narrowing of the margin dividing truth in visual imagery and the created world of the future.

(An interesting aside: The Times’ Michael Kamber’s project on censorship, an action not open imposed consciously by the military but also by editors.)

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“Can you leave them on the ground?”

Link directly to Post-Gazette video

In the 53rd second of a 54-second-long video depicting City of Pittsburgh Police delivering legal papers to protesters camping at Mellon Green, something happens which personifies the OccupyPittsburgh movement in a manner which many have already ascribed to it. 24 hours after the eviction deadline, the encampment is on edge, not sure whether they’ll be met Monday morning with sweeping police actions.

Instead of riot police, two officers show up to serve legal papers. As the video shows, the officers and protesters compete to overwhelm each other in politeness. A respectful (read:civil) discourse occurs. But then the officer ask one final time, “Nobody here wants to accept them?”

A chorus of “no’s” resounds.

The parties seperate. As the video fades to black, a timid voice emerges from the post-conference din.

“Can you leave them on the ground?”

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Ander’s Tethered Field Trip

Image Courtesy VG/Scanpix
Suspect in Norway Reconstructs Killings for Police
Anders Behring Breivik, at left, showed Norwegian police officers on Saturday how he aimed at victims on the island of Utoya last month. He wore a harness and tether to ensure he could not flee.

As last month’s Norwegian massacre begins to fall off Americans’ finite spectrum of world consciousness, last weekend provided the next step in the growing chain of collected and bizarre imagery of Anders Behring Breivik. First the distant, grainy images of white-sheathed victims taken from a boat off the island, then the popped-collar-prep headshot grabbed from Facebook, followed by the Call-of-Duty-esque uniform fetish. We’re still gazing at Anders in wonder, watching him at the same telephoto distance that introduced us to his victims and chaos more than three weeks ago.

And now he’s back — on the island, that is, returning to the scene of the crime to reconstruct his killings (genocide?) for prosecutors. Dressed casually, blond hair neatly combed over, in light-washed denim, Anders leads police around the island in a harness and tether, a system of restraint generously polite for someone who’s admitted to mass murder. A Hannibal Lector mask wouldn’t allow Anders the free-range of motion necessary to whet the public’s appetite. There’s a reason why If I Did It at one point led in sales.

If a lack of media coverage during his attack was his oversight, it is no more. The police camera crew tailing him records footage that would shatter the last bit of distance Anders has from the public. But like the “Osama Bin Laden” tapes, we won’t see it.

The Jersey Shore camera crew behind him would give us the more personal glimpse of Anders, the kind of closeness that lets us call Snookie a guido and the Kardashians hot.

Video from VG, Norway’s most-read red-top, mirrors the photographs shot from a distance. To a non-Norwegian viewer, the report might compare to ESPN2’s Sunday golf coverage – the shots are wide and scenic, the narration monotone, the highlights of the segment unclear. Occasionally, the reporter pauses as ambient sound fades in—at our distance, this is the sound of the press cameras’ motordrives.

As Anders raises his arms to simulate picking off victims with a rifle near the shoreline, the press not-so-subtly fill in the blanks.

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An Eye for an Eye in Libya

We have to understand that the tragedy of conflict is not black and white—there aren’t morals, only choices. The “eye for an eye” proverb breathed by many of the gun doesn’t bring the permanent justice they seek – only the illusion of temporary, selfish reprisal that fails to engage the closure so desperately yearned. There’s a question of true loyalty of those once firmly aligned with the Gaddafi regime, yes—but is death truly the only way to appropriately handle old allegiance?

In the battle for Tripoli at the end of August, TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev photographed the efforts by Gaddafi’s loyalists to “consolidate power” within the capital city . The bleached bones emerging from charred piles of what were once humans served as a literal testament to the unbiased brutality of this conflict—although certainly not the first graphic images moved from Libya, these may be the most graphic we’ve seen published by a major western news organization, short of this week’s proliferation of Gaddafi corpse visuals.

Almost exactly two months after these photographs were shot in Tripoli, the BBC reports that the bodies of 53 Gaddafi loyalists have been found in Sirte, some with “hands bound behind their backs” and “shots in the head”—signs pointing to deliberate execution of prisoners. Human Rights Watch is calling for an immediate investigation, but what justice comes from the outcome of said investigation. What motivates in a time of war?

The phrase “an eye for an eye” stems from the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 19, Verses 16-21:

“If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, 18and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

Society today narrows its scope to the last verses of the passage above, especially the charge to forgo instincts of pity in the name of moral rectitude. But this rectification isn’t found through violence, nor is it dictated by God/Muhammad.

The fact that Libyans have failed to distinguish themselves from the violence of their past existence under Gaddafi is disheartening. The images of this latest massacre demonstrate that war pays no attention to the morals of those who fight, and will continue to yield sad realities. The folks at NoCaptionNeeded say it best:
“One of the challenges civilization faces today is not becoming habituated to the insidious, localized, but persistent and awful ways that human beings are being transformed into waste.”


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USA Today Lives Out Its Name

On a day when more than 70 unarmed protestors have been shot by Yemeni security forces, USA Today leads A1 with a story about airline fees.

Not only does this story lead, the same story (by the same author) also leads the next section, B1.

The headline of the News section’s opening spread? Black-White Marriages Increasing.

Not until 8 pages in do we hear anything about Yemen, a small blurb under the headline Yemeni Protestors Wrest Control of Base. A whole five sentences.


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Yee Old Tired Argument About Guns and Islam

Page A8, The New York Times, September 15, 2011

Moises Saman’s photo from Tripoli appeared in today’s International section of the New York Times above the headline “Islamists’ Growing Sway Raises Questions About Shape of New Libya.

The photo itself is excellent, and the gunman’s gaze engages readers instantly instantly. But the tired rhetoric once again shows its head. We aren’t told who this gunmen is—I suspect Saman has at least a vague idea of who this guy may be—but the answer probably isn’t as exciting as we’d like to think. A security officer, prehaps?

To some readers, this page (headline + photo) reinforces the narrative that Muslims in far-away countries sit, pray and rally against the United States as a primary vocation. When will photo editors and photographers work to consciously kill this misconception?

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Gaddafi’s Blondi Moment?

“Nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Marcus Aurelius

As the tectonic plates of revolution amplify the pressure on Moammar Gaddafi’s regime, they burp out pieces of life—small scraps of personality that unwittingly remind us of the great oppressor’s humanity. These mementos point out our shreds of hypocrisy in the mental-moral complexes we’ve constructed that define how megalomaniacs should exist in the modern world.

A video released September 7th by Reuters reportedly features a home video (circa 2005) filmed inside Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli. According to a US cable unearthed by WikiLeaks, the compound, labelled a nature area and zoo on official maps, afforded the leader a low-profile retreat: “[the] compound has facilities for banquets and other public events, but it is not lavish in any way compared with the ostentation of the Gulf oil state families or Hariri clan.”

The video, a compilation of several clips lastly around four minutes, shows two young children on a couch in an open-air tent in the compound (a billionaire dictator chooses to relax in a tent?). The young boy stirs from his nap as Colonel Gaddafi sits down and begins to laugh and make faces with his granddaughter.

A translation of the dialogue in the video is available, but we don’t need it—kisses blown by a child are universal, even if they’re being blown at a man accused of crimes against humanity.

Initially, our focus narrows to a grandfather’s relationship with his son’s children. If we didn’t know this guy’s name, we wouldn’t care. But by 30 seconds in, our minds begin to invoke reason, moving from an ephemeral response prompted by human nature to a response straining the limits of rationality. In the absence of an easy answer, we permit/validate the Colonel to feel—all humans may inherit pleasure, and Moammar Gaddafi is a human, therefore, he’s allowed to indulge the simple pleasure of family.

In the next cut, we watch as a relative awkwardly hands Colonel Gaddafi his grandson, a boy too large to be held for very long. Qaddafi lifts him under his arms, cradling him for several seconds before setting him down, only to be picked up again by another woman. We again try to quash the lurking feeling of familiarity.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between these videos and the home movies shot by Eva Braun showing Hitler’s softer moments with his beloved dog, Blondi. In these early color clips, Hitler showers affection on Blondi in a bizarrely humane fashion, symbolically revealing an otherwise missing dimension of character. If we didn’t know Hitler’s legacy, these videotapes would be normal. We wouldn’t care.

Both Gaddafi and Hitler made decisions in power (read: committed genocide) that cause viewers to interpret their breakthrough “moments of humanity” in different ways. But unlike Hitler, the morality of Gaddafi’s movies isn’t so cut and dry. Just like the kids present at Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound the night of the raid, dictators have families too.

Three of Gaddafi’s grandchildren were killed in NATO airstrikes in May. Does our interpretation of this slice-of-life change when we’re told that Gaddafi covered the entrance to bunkers underneath his compound with a children’s playset?

Perception is tough, and morality’s even tougher, but neither is black and white.

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