Abu Ghraib and the power of symbols

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Covered in a frayed cape, the hooded prisoner in the photograph stands atop a box, wires attached to his outstretched fingers, arms splayed in the eerie pose of a dark prophet. It has become an iconic image of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal -- for some a symbol of American shame, for others a metaphor for war's cost to both victim and victor.

And now, reports say the detainee in the photograph is also something else: a 43-year-old man named Ali Shala Quaissi, a former parking lot manager in Baghdad.

While several media outlets profiled Quaissi as the man in the picture, another report disputed the conclusions and Quaissi later admitted that he was not the prisoner in that photograph, although he maintains he was similarly abused.

Despite the confusion, the stories examining the prisoner beneath the black hood have already changed the image's meaning -- and robbed the photograph of much of its power.

This image stood apart from others at Abu Ghraib in part because of the hooded prisoner's anonymity. The other photographs -- the guard's ghoulish thumbs-up, the women's underwear, the naked pyramids -- were all ugly, but none was as powerful.

Because we saw the victims' faces and learned the biographies of the callous and smiling prison guards, those pictures could be dismissed as isolated acts of inane brutality, scenes from a demented fraternity party. That's how military officials wanted the public to see them, and after the initial outrage quieted, that's how they were treated. Those pictures were about individuals.

But this picture, the hooded prisoner alone on his box, was about something else.

It was repellent, like the others, but this one was also truly frightening. His hood and shroud darkly echo the Ku Klux Klan's garb. His arms are positioned as if at a crucifixion, and wires dangle from his hands; the fringed cape hangs to his shins like a medieval cloak; the exposed skin -- neck, hand, feet, hand -- forms a perfect diamond; his head a void sheathed in black.

The image, as eerily composed as a biblical painting, haunted millions. Perhaps he's condemning us, perhaps he's begging for our help, perhaps he's resigned to his degradation. We can't know. But we can't look away, either.

Remembering that the picture was taken on a particular night by a particular guard, and that the man depicted is not a symbol but an individual, lowers the stakes and brings the photograph's meaning from the general to the specific. It's now about this man's maltreatment -- a scandal in itself, but not of the same caliber.

The photograph that wouldn't go away, the one that seemed to tell the story not just of a man but of all that's gone wrong in this war, now takes its place among the mundane, horrifying others.

This is a curious inverse of a well-worn journalistic convention. Usually, journalists use individuals as representatives for larger stories: to depict hunger in Africa, we'd introduce a starving mother who cannot feed her children. We need a human connection to grasp abstractions.

But here, it's the opposite: When an individual intrudes, the horror recedes. Why?

Photographs, of course, capture only a single moment. The larger meanings come from us, not from the picture. With the victim now calling himself a survivor, we know the awful episode ended. The hood came off. The wires were detached. The prisoner stepped down from the box.

Sam Dolnick is asap's night supervisor.

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