Do the Photos Tell it All? Representing Torture in the Images from Abu Ghraib

Katrin Dauenhauer

On April 28, 2004 the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes first broadcast photographs of what took place in the now infamous Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib between October and December of 2003. These images taken by U.S. military personnel gave not only Americans but people worldwide an impression of the Iraq War as being very different to earlier imagery suggesting a clean, clear-cut and controlled operation in the Middle Eastern country. Pictures of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad on April 9, 2003, for instance, symbolically portray the fall of a dictator. Some of these images capture cheerful crowds of Iraqis while the statue is brought down, thereby supporting the earlier war rhetoric of the Bush administration that the U.S.-led forces would serve as liberators. Similarly, the photograph of George W. Bush’s landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, stages the president as a heroic, masculine and dynamic commander-in-chief, determined to win the ‘global war on terror.’

Contrary to these pictures, the images from Abu Ghraib show a rawer and more graphic image of the war in Iraq. The poor-quality photographs depicting piled-up naked prisoners, guard dogs menacing naked inmates and detainees wearing women’s underwear, stand in stark contrast to the high resolution images of the toppling of Saddam’s statue or President Bush’s landing on the aircraft carrier.  

Yet even if the pictures taken by the military personnel have not been made with the purpose to be distributed on TV, the Internet or published on the front page of The New York Times, they have clearly been staged for the camera. The pictures from Abu Ghraib are—similarly to the imagery from the early phases of the invasion—“actively involved in the perspective of the war” (Butler, “Photography, War, Outrage” 822). In addition, they are “elaborating that perspective and even giving it further validity” (Butler, “Photography, War, Outrage” 822). The performative quality1 of the photographs—reminiscent of performance art as some scholars have argued2—is in fact an important characteristic to be kept in mind when trying to make sense of them.

It is crucial to understand that (ironically) the military and the media needed the photographs to address the problem and to cover the events. In fact, a United States Army-commissioned investigation reporting of “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees” (Taguba 416) in Iraq carried out by United States mercenary and military forces existed as early as February and March of 2004 (Niman 18). The Taguba Report, requested by the senior officer in Iraq Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez on January 19, 2004, and based on the Ryder report, an earlier inquiry into reports on abuse by American troops in Iraq, already listed some of the wrongdoings, among them:

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; […] [t]hreatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol; […] [p]ouring cold water on naked detainees; […] [b]eating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; […] [t]hreatening male detainees with rape.   (417)

Moreover, investigations by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) listed several violations, including “[p]hysical or psychological coercion during interrogation to secure information” and “[p]rolonged solitary confinement in cells devoid of daylight” (384). Although these reports were intended to be only released to the authorities, they were leaked to the public. Nevertheless, the scandal only erupted when photographic evidence existed and was distributed.

This paper will examine the role of photography in the Abu Ghraib story. Addressing this question, I will first take a close look at one of the photographs from Abu Ghraib. I will then introduce several theoretical views on photography and the representation of pain and violence and discuss them with regard to the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Susan Sontag’s, Elaine Scarry’s, and Judith Butler’s theoretical works are helpful as they address questions of representation as well as issues of reception. Moreover, these works problematize the understanding that torture is easily represented in the image, and the understanding that photography has the power to affect people. Finally, I will move beyond the analysis of the photograph and its effects and will also reflect on the photographic act and its role in the torture. Overall, a comprehensive approach is needed to make sense of the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

The Hooded Prisoner as an Icon

What is shown in the pictures from Abu Ghraib? A wide array of articles has been published on the pictures’ symbolism and their provision of insights into American culture.3 “These photos are us,” as Susan Sontag poignantly put it in an early response to the released images. Considering that “the nature of policies prosecuted by […] [the Bush] administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts [of torture] more likely,” the broader meaning of these pictures is about the American people, Sontag argues (“Regarding the Torture of Others“). Similarly, Michael C. Milam regarded the pictures as proof of “the failures in […] [the] gap between the ideal and the real.” Therefore, “[p]ublic discourse should […] center on the status of torture in the national character.” Dealing with the connotative meanings of the pictures has been indeed so omnipresent in the discourse on the pictures from Abu Ghraib that a careful look at the photographs themselves seems to have been lost. In fact, it might have been neglected from the beginning. I will therefore first offer a close description of the photograph that by now has turned into an icon of the scandal itself. It is the picture of a person whose sex we cannot determine as his/her body is draped in a piece of cloth which could be anything from a ragged cloak to a simple blanket. The head is covered by a dark bag or hood, the arms outstretched, the palms facing towards the camera with wires extending from the fingertips. Where the wires lead to, we cannot determine. The detainee is standing on a box, close to a wall with heating pipes. While s/he is positioned in the very center of the picture, his/her body—due to the position of the box on which s/he is standing—is slightly turned away from the camera. The person’s shadow is projected against the yellowish wall and adds to the gloomy atmosphere created by the low-resolution quality of the photograph. The prisoner is the main point of reference in the picture. Centrally positioned, the viewer’s gaze is instantly directed towards him/her.

Abu Ghraib prisoner

Fig. 1

Much has been written about the iconographic quality of the image and the reasons for its featuring as the figurehead of the scandal. “The iconography of the hooded-figure-on-a-box image is especially, rampantly polysemous,” David Levi Strauss writes. “It is legible to us because we immediately, unconsciously, recognize its symbolism. […] This one image of the hooded-figure-on-a-box has already become an icon, the image of the American Occupation of Iraq” (98-99). Similarly, Sarah Boxer states that “[o]f all the photographs of American soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, one alone has become the icon of the abuse.” It is the picture of the hooded prisoner standing on a box. “Why this image above all the rest?,” Boxer asks and concludes that it is “easily the most graphic [photograph]. […] [T]he hooded figure in the photograph is on a pedestal. It is already an icon.”

Due to the graphic quality of the picture, it has also become a popular motive for works of art dealing with Abu Ghraib, ranging from sculptor Richard Serra’s crayon painting of the hooded figure with the words “Stop Bush” on top, to a series of “iRaq” posters in the style of Apple iPod commercials. And also in the Arab world, the hooded prisoner has inspired artists in their protest art against the U.S. occupation.4 A mural in Baghdad by the Iraqi artist Salah Edine Sallat showing the Statue of Liberty pulling the switch to electrocute the hooded detainee and the words “That Freedom for Bosh [sic]” next to it is one example thereof.

On the Photographic Representability of Torture

According to The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1984 and to which the United States is a signatory, torture refers to

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.(United Nations 1)

I do not question the violations as described, for instance in the Taguba report mentioned earlier to classify as torture as defined by the United Nation Convention against Torture. Instead, I want to problematize the assumption that the photo shows torture. That is, I question that the photograph of the hooded prisoner fully represents what the interpretations claim, namely torture. In fact, reactions to the publication of the photographs have not been unanimously harsh. Asked about the consequences for the U.S. efforts in Iraq given that American troops seemingly employed the same strategies as Saddam Hussein, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stressed that “this is an exception. The pattern and practice of the Saddam regime was […] to murder and to torture.” A comparison between the behavior of the U.S. and the Saddam regime would therefore constitute “a fundamental misunderstanding of what took place.” Similarly, the use of the word torture would have to be reconsidered. “I’m not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture,” Rumsfeld emphasized (Online NewsHour). Of course, Rumsfeld’s rhetoric serves the purpose of mitigating the legal consequences of the Abu Ghraib incident. More interestingly, however, the possibility to do so points back to the difficulty of depicting torture even though a definition of what constitutes torture exists.

In fact, what is and is not shown in the pictures is heavily disputed among politicians, scholars and journalists alike. Apart from engaging in legalistic rhetoric, Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, saw in the pictures the deeds of a few, yet at the same time attributed an enormous power to these photographs to construct national identity when he argued that “those acts ought not to be allowed to define us” (U.S. Department of Defense). Similarly, journalist Seymour Hersh, who did the reporting on Abu Ghraib for the magazine The New Yorker, stressed the meaningfulness of the images by claiming “[t]he photos tell it all.” In contrast to Rumsfeld, however, he interpreted them to have “enormous consequences: for the imprisoned civilian Iraqis […]; for the integrity of the Army; and for the United States’ reputation in the world.” 

But do the photographs really “tell it all,” as Seymour Hersh suggests? Do the so-called Abu Ghraib torture photographs actually represent torture? Can torture be represented in the photograph or are solely, if at all, the effects of torture representable? Or, to approach the issue from still another angle, is torture representable but is our ability to grasp it limited?

The Discursive Limits of the Body in Pain

The picture of the hooded figure described earlier provides a good example of the difficulty of representing torture. The image has turned into an icon of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, yet it fails to depict the pain of the human underneath the cloak. As an icon it is supposed to “refer […] to something outside of its individual components, something […] that has great symbolic meaning” (Sturken and Cartwright 36), and the interpretations of the image mentioned earlier suggest that the picture has come to equate the arrogance of a superpower, the moral depravity of Western society and the downside of the U.S. liberating mission. The pain, however, which is invoked in this photo, remains invisible to the viewers. While in images depicting blood or bruises the observer can at least recognize bodies marked by physical signs of abuse, one cannot detect a sign that the detainee is about to fall over and consequently is exposed to a jolt of electricity—this, by the way, is only known from textual reporting on the photograph. Yet even if physical signs of abuse were visible, these signs would not be able to truly signify pain, Elaine Scarry argues in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. According to Scarry, the “absolute split between one’s sense of one’s own reality and the reality of other persons” is “itself a sign of pain’s triumph” (4). Pain in part achieves its power through its “unsharability” (4), Scarry argues, and the resistance of its objectification in language opens an insurmountable epistemological gap between the person in pain and others who are not experiencing pain, to the extent that “to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt” (7). This, of course, also accounts for the differences in reactions to the scandal: “The act of misdescribing torture or war, though in some instances intentional and in others unintentional, is in either case partially made possible by the inherent difficulty of accurately describing any event whose central content is bodily pain or injury” (13). Thus, the difficulty of articulating physical pain not only allows for perceptual complications of the most serious kind (Scarry 14) but for representational ones as well.

Susan Sontag’s On Photography and the Deadening of Affect

While Scarry is most interested in the issues of representing and expressing pain, Susan Sontag in her late 1970s work On Photography focuses on the role of the viewer and thus addresses the question I raised earlier on the limits of the viewers’ ability to grasp suffering. Sontag claims that due to the proliferation of images of horror, the shock over what they show wears off (19-20). Looking at photographs of suffering does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate, Sontag argues, and while an “event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had never seen the photographs […] [,] after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real” (20). While the photographs of the Nazi death camps might still serve as “ethical reference points” (21), Sontag is critical about photography’s potential to invoke the viewers’ ethical responsiveness. “After thirty years,” she writes, “a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (21). Moreover, she points to the fact that for an event to gain meaning and thus be considered an event it not only needs the photograph but “the existence of a relevant political consciousness” (19). Without such a “political consciousness,” photographs showing atrocities will “most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow” (19). Considering the fact that the use of the word torture “remained a rhetorical tool in the Bush Administration’s arsenal, used to condemn Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime but not America’s” (Niman 19), the political consciousness Sontag talks of seems to have been absent.

In “Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,” Judith Butler ponders on the use of the word “terrorist” which she claims “is a word that, within the hegemonic grammar, should be reserved for unjustified acts of violence against First World nations” (13). This argumentation, I want to suggest, is equally applicable to the use of the word torture within the Bush administration. Overall, Sontag’s elaborations on the workings of photography as well as Butler’s study on the rhetoric of violence and mourning help to understand the reactions to the photographs from Abu Ghraib. Although triggering a new debate on torture, the power of the images to influence the politics of the Bush administration or the course of the presidential election was at best limited. Instead, George W. Bush was reelected the very same year the pictures were published.

The Dual Powers of Photography

The difficulty to experience torture by looking at the photographs from Abu Ghraib might still have another reason. The symbolism inherent in the pictures, and particularly evident in the picture of the hooded detainee standing on a box, further complicates the representation of torture in the photographs. By outstretching his arms, the prisoner turns into a parody of the crucified Christ. Another picture of a naked man walking down the floor of the prison and covered in what appears to be a mixture of mud and excrement echoes the same imagery and is also reminiscent of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, today a symbol for aestheticism in the Renaissance period.


Fig. 2

“To feel the pulse of Christian iconography in certain wartime or disaster-time photograph is not a sentimental projection. […] Such perceptions […] add aura and beauty,” Sontag writes in her last book Regarding the Pain of Others (80). In fact, the aesthetic element implicit in the photographs from Abu Ghraib is an inherent element in all photography. These are the dual powers of photography: it generates documents, but it also creates works of visual art (76-77). As Sontag puts it, “photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be beautiful […] as it is not in real life” (76). These double workings complicate the question of photography’s ability to portray reality and thus also ‘real’ pain.

Photography as Accomplice in the Act of Torture

The Abu Ghraib pictures certainly have a snap-shot like quality. Yet, a careful arrangement is evident in the images as well. This arrangement relates to yet another element of photography: the element of spectacle. “Photographs objectify,” Sontag writes. “[T]hey turn an event or a person into something to be owned” (Regarding the Pain of Others 81). Arguably, this aspect of photography is of central importance for explaining the outraged reactions. And it is especially true for those images where military personnel is posing in the picture, smiling, having fun and glistening with pride by giving thumps-up signs.

clip_image007.jpg clip_image008.jpg

Fig. 3, Fig. 4

“[T]he flashy smiles and complete disregard of the pain and torture make each and every picture appear surreal, as if the perpetrators superimposed photos from last summer’s vacation onto a completely wretched scene,” writes Brooke Warner (76). Dora Apel stresses that there are noticeable similarities between the torture photos from Iraq and American lynching photos. In both sets, the proud perpetrators are convinced that they are committing their deeds for the good of the nation, or at least, that the larger community sanctions their behavior. For the reader of The New York Times or the viewer of 60 Minutes, on the other hand, the proud self-display of the committers in the pictures is evidence of their lack of understanding of their wrongdoings and thus evokes revulsion and outrage. In general, the immediate legibility of the pictures results from these references to lynching photography but also to Do-it-yourself porn and Blackface Parties (Strauss 96; Sielke 159).

Moreover, apart from the content and arrangement of the pictures, the photographic act per se and the violence that it can entail have to be more carefully considered as a cause of shock. As Susan Sontag emphasized: “The horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken” (“Regarding the Torture of Others”). Photography becomes a tool of power as it intrudes the other’s space. It is because the camera’s output is not merely a record or a simple document of what has come to pass. The subjective choice of framing and the individual perspective inherent in every photograph accounts for the photograph’s capacity to capture a specific way of seeing. In the case of Abu Ghraib, this way of seeing is driven by a feeling of superiority over the literally debased detainees. Moreover, the existing photographic material of the incidents at Abu Ghraib and its endless and uncontrollable distribution over the Internet perpetuates the torture. “Photos […] spark rumors that hit family honor. […] [T]hese blurry photos burn with agony and shame,” Annia Ciezadlo reported in an article on Iraqi women who had been incarcerated at Abu Ghraib. The psychological strain for the torture victims are as much caused by the actual torture than by the knowledge that their suffering is captured in the picture.

In his “Five Theses on Torture,”5 Avelar Idelber claims that “[w]hat is proper to torture is the obscene exhibition, in public or private, of its own power” (258). The staging of the photographs becomes part of the torture, and it is never more explicit than in the picture with the hooded man standing on a pedestal, up on public display.

The modern technique of torture systematically includes, as a central element of the apparatus of terror, its own double in the realm of signs, its own farcical semantization, its own display. Such a representation is a fundamental component of terror itself, a surplus without which the modern science of torture would not have the form that it has, a constitutive surplus frequently experienced as the worst possible pain […]. (257)

Visual representations not only document the act of torture, but form its constitutive moment. They are not an additional element of the torture but central to it. Photography, far from merely documenting scenes of torture, becomes an integral element of torture and an accomplice of the torturer. Finally, the viewers take on their roles as well: the photographs only unfold their complete power by being looked at. 


The role of photography in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal is a complex and complicated one. The photographs are documents and pieces of evidence of the abuse. They played a crucial role for uncovering the misdeeds of American military personnel at Abu Ghraib. At the same time, the aesthetic component inherent in the photographic representation enables a downplaying of the incidents and also accounts for the differences in interpreting the photographs. Finally, photography is not an objective device for uncovering the scandal but takes on the role of an accomplice in the act of torture. It freezes the moment of humiliation for future audiences to come and thus further objectifies the torture victim.

After the Abu Ghraib scandal surfaced, Donald Rumsfeld complained about “people [who] are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise” (“Rumsfeld testifies”). In his testimonial before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May of 2004, he thus indirectly raised the question of how to ever wage war again in times of digital photography. While this comment cynically suggests that it might become harder and harder for the U.S. to carry out torture in secret, I believe there is more to his complaint. Torture has undergone a transformation; it has arrived in the twenty-first century—that is in the digital age. In a paradoxical way, torture makes use of the medium of photography to achieve a maximum effect. Yet at the same time, photographs also form the main pieces of evidence to convict the torturers of their crime.  Torture has also undergone a visual turn and it is therefore vital to study the relationship between torture and its visual representations further.

1 “The events are in part designed to be photographed,” Susan Sontag argues. “The grin is a grin for the camera. […] [T]hese acts were performed” (“Regarding the Torture of Others”).

2 Sabine Sielke, for instance, writes: “Einige der Fotos von Abu Ghraib […] haben deutliche Bezüge zur postmodernen Kunst und Performance Art – zu Arbeiten von Jenny Holzer und Marina Ambramovic beispielsweise –, die den Körper und die Formen seiner kulturellen Zurichtung wieder ins Zentrum gerückt hat“ (161). Similarly, Slavoj Žižek writes: “Die Positionen und Kostüme der Gefangenen lassen an eine Theaterinszenierung denken, an eine Art Tableau vivant, das automatisch Erinnerungen an die ganze Bandbreite der amerikanischen Performance-Kunst und des ‘Theaters der Grausamkeit’ weckt, an die Fotos Robert Mapplethorpes und die absonderlichen Szenen in den Filmen David Lynchs” (30).

3 Besides Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others” and Milam, see also Kim and Rich.

4 For a discussion of art on Abu Ghraib by Arab artists, see Ketz and Blanford.

5 I thank Sabine Sielke for pointing me to this valuable article.

Works Cited

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Žižek, Slavoj. “Die Amerikaner kontrollieren gar nichts! Nicht mal sich selbst!” Berliner Zeitung 23 June 2004. 30. 

Image Sources

Fig. 1: United States Department of Defense. Wikimedia Commons. 21 March 2006. 17 May 2009 <>.

Fig. 2: United States Department of Defense. 19 Apr. 2009 <>.

Fig. 3: United States Department of Defense. Wikimedia Commons. 19 Feb. 2006. 17 May 2009 <>.

Fig. 4: United States Department of Defense. Wikimedia Commons. 10 Aug. 2007. 17 May 2009 <>.