Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Torture and the Replication of Religious Iconography at the Abu Ghraib Prison: A Visual Semiotic Experiment

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Torture and the Replication of Religious Iconography at the Abu Ghraib Prison: A Visual Semiotic Experiment

Article excerpt


When the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos were initially released, I felt I had already viewed them. I was sure I'd seen them somewhere else, disconnected from Iraq. As a student of art and popular culture, it dawned on me that those images were found, repeated and replicated, in the pages of art history textbooks and in the viewing of religious imagery. In examining the "composition" of the Abu Ghraib photos, I found many of the graphic arrangements common to the grand masters of paint and visual storytelling. Specifically, I saw secular and sacred religious iconography re-mixed in these pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison that documented theretofore-unimaginable torture and abuse. (1)

Using self-selected images of abuse from Abu Ghraib and religious imagery taken from a variety of artistic mediums, (2) this paper gives a commentary on the offences committed there. The author notes that this paper is not intended to be an in-depth historical or sociological treatise explaining the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Rather, this work is a visual semiotic experiment crafted primarily to combat what art historian Stephen Eisenman calls the "'Abu Ghraib effect'--a kind of moral blindness that allows [individuals] to ignore, or even to justify ... degradation and brutality." (3)

Indeed my purpose is fourfold. First, by juxtaposing religious imagery with the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib, this work is an attempt to promote a specific mode of "visual cultural analysis"--a surrealistic blending of images for the purposes of comparison and critique. (4) Second, by appropriating and re-mixing these images I seek to transform them into messages that call out and question religious, cultural, and political justifications for the use of torture. Third, this visual essay is also constructed to combat the casual passing of Abu Ghraib from our memories. Stated differently, this work is meant to make collective the remembrance of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, for the first step in dismissing horrors, abuses, and barbarism is to ignore their existence. Lastly, this essay attempts to combat the dehumanization of Muslim men and women by crafting allusions to sacred forms. Simply, I attempt to challenge the people viewing them, especially those who identify as Christian, to adopt a different mindset about the acceptability of torture and engender a capacity for empathy and compassion (5) toward those abused.

The Emergence of the Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Photos: A Brief History

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Abu Ghraib, one of the world's largest and most notorious prisons, became a US military station. As the new "managers" of Abu Ghraib, the US Army was charged with rehabilitating the prison and employing it as a central weapon against an emerging Iraqi insurgency. (6) By late summer of 2003 several thousand Iraqi civilians were incarcerated at the prison, most rounded up in indiscriminate "cordon-and-sweep" operations. By 2004 the prison population had swelled to more than 10,000. (7)

In response to the growing prison population and mounting pressure from Washington for "actionable intelligence" on the insurgency (that is, to identify genuine insurgents among the thousands of innocent or neutral Iraqis caught up in the sweeps), military and administration officials approved new interrogation techniques to be used at the prison. These new techniques included the use of stress positions, the forced removal of clothing, solitary confinement, light deprivation, and prolonged exposure to extreme heat, cold, and loud noises. (8) As such, these new interrogation forms quickly led to all manner of physical and psychological manipulation, including threatened physical abuse, (9) forced drugging, (10) and emotional blackmail via the threatening of loved ones with physical harm. (11) In more extreme examples, prisoners were raped, deprived of medical treatment, and killed. (12)

Soon after these new and emergent techniques were implemented, soldiers began documenting the scene with photographs and videos. …

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