Images From Abu Ghraib

by Jamison Koehler on June 25, 2010

A couple of years ago, my wife Susan Burke delivered the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for Photographic Education in Denver. Susan talked about the power of photographic imagery to shape and change our world views.  Beginning with photographs from the Vietnam War (the little girl running naked from the napalm, the shooting of a Vietcong suspect by the mayor of Saigon), Susan moved on to the now now-iconic photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. She reminded the audience how these images had shocked the country and outraged the international community. She also described how the photographs have served as evidence in the court martial of offending soldiers and in the civil suits against American contractors who committed the torture.

Drawing on her experience as lead counsel for the civil case, Susan described how she had provided a number of artists with access to her Iraqi clients with the hope that the resulting “art would serve to magnify the voices of the victims.” She described how, from her interviews with the victims, including the Iraqis captured in those iconic photographs (the man in the hood, the man on the leash, the men in the pyramid), she knew that the victims wanted justice.  She also knew that the victims wanted the world to know what had happened to them.

Based on this recognition, Susan brought along Jennifer Schelter whose one-woman play, Love Lessons From Abu Ghraib, opened in Philadelphia and then in D.C.  She brought along Chris Bartlett whose photographic portraits of the torture victims have toured the country.  She brought along author Nick Flynn, whose experience serves as the underlying theme for The Ticking Is The Bomb, a memoir that came out this year.  And she brought along Daniel Heyman, the painter/printmaker for whom the Abu Ghraib torture had been a major source of artistic inspiration – almost an obsession – even before he was introduced to Susan at a Philadelphia dinner party.

Beginning with Daniel Heyman, I plan to profile many of these artists over the next couple of months and the art that emerged from their exposure to the Abu Ghraib victims.

4 Comments on “Images From Abu Ghraib

  1. Dear Mr. Koehler:

    This is slightly off-topic but I noticed you mentioned the photograph taken during the Vietnam war of the older man holding a gun to the temple of a younger man. You also mentioned that the older man was the mayor of Saigon. I have seen this photograph many times, but this is the first time I have ever learned of the identities of the two men. How do you know that the older man was the mayor of Saigon?

    Great post, incidentally. I look forward to the series.

  2. Judith A: Thank you. Many years ago, the Washington Post did a “where are they now?” article on both the photographers and subjects of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. The reporter tracked down the photographers and subjects of a number of these photographs and found that, almost without exception, the Prize and resulting publicity had been a curse. In the case of that famous Kent State photograph, for example, the Post reported that the photographer had almost been driven to suicide by the pressure to replicate his most famous photograph. The publicity from the photograph — and the anger from seeing her anguish depicted that way — also led to later problems for the subject of the photograph, who at the time, if I recall correctly, was a 15-year-old runaway.

    The reporter also tracked down the older man depicted in that photograph from Vietnam, and identified the man as the former mayor of Saigon. The Post reported that the man had subsequently immigrated to the U.S. and was then working as the manager of a little pizzeria in Arlington, Virginia. This was a surprise to me considering I had been to that pizzeria and had seen the manager, without recognizing him or realizing who he was.

    I have no idea if the man is still alive but I do know he is no longer working at that pizzeria. There used to be a large Vietnamese community in the Clarendon area of Arlington, which back then was a run-down neighborhood with strip joints, tattoo parlors, and pawn shops. The Clarendon area is now thriving, with high rise apartment and office buildings and expensive restaurants. The pizzeria was torn down many years ago as part of that expansion.

  3. It sounds like you’re talking about the photo that Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for. If so, the shooter was a General who was in the national police force in Saigon. Adams had been following him around, and when he saw him start to shoot, he did what any good news photographer would do and reflexively took the picture.

    Adams later regretted taking the photo. The executed prisoner had been part of a Viet Cong team that had just been shooting at the General’s men, killing a few, I think. Adams felt that the General was basically a pretty heroic guy who was fighting against the brutal Tet Offensive, and that this image made him far more infamous than he deserved to be. It was an example of how an image could be truthful and yet unfair. Adams later apologized to the General and his family for talking it.

  4. Windy:

    Thank you. I stand corrected. That’s what I get for relying on my memory of a newspaper article I read over 25 years ago. And I am very impressed with your wealth of knowledge.

    I think it may have been another article that tracked down the little girl running from the napalm. In that case, and again if I remember it correctly, it was a happy story. The little girl survived and recovered from her burns. Or so I’d like to think, anyway.

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