Digital Photography at Abu Ghraib

“Putting the Pieces Together Again: Digital Photography and the Compulsion to Order Violence at Abu Ghraib.”
Visual Studies 6:2, June 2011.

This essay considers the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs in the context of psychoanalytic trauma theory involving repetition, memory, temporality and narrative formation. The American response to the photographs, especially from military investigators, revealed their urgent investigative need to ‘plot’ and temporalise the event on an axis of idiosyncratic mistakes in judgement. The response among many Iraqis, however, was to encode the event as a repetition, a latent cultural memory in a longe durée of traumatic historical encounters between the Middle East and the ‘West’. Psychoanalysis as a critical method is useful in examining the relation between repetition and memory and the compulsion to ‘bind’ the energy of individual and historical trauma by narrating, sequencing and organising.

Johnsrud Visual Studies Figure

The challenge presented to the US Abu Ghraib inquiry team – and also to this study – is a uniquely digital one: an over-abundance of photographs in the form of digital media encoded with metadata. The military investigation’s response was to time-stamp images to frame the plot sequence, followed by the clicking of the ‘Save As . . .’ button: a mnemonic act of re-naming, categorising, hyperlinking and culturally archiving the digital images in accordance with their role in the plot.

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