But how do we know what the story really is?
Errol Morris's latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, is an examination of the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. In the latest post on his New York Times blog, Zoom, Morris takes one particular part of that scandal - one particular photograph, in fact - and deconstructs it, looking for the real story.
This is the picture (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons):
That is Specialist Sabrina Harman, smiling over the body of Manadel al-Jamadi, who died after being seized by US forces as a suspect in a bombing that killed two Red Cross workers. al-Jamadi passed through various hands at Abu Ghraib before he was found dead in a shower room. In the interim, he was beaten and tortured (see Morris's post for more details).
What is so jarring about that picture for so many people, Morris included, is obvious:
'How can you say she’s a good person?' I am sitting in an editing-room in Cambridge, Mass. arguing with one of my editors. I reply, 'Well, exactly what is it that she did that is bad?' We are arguing about Sabrina Harman, one of the notorious 'seven bad apples' convicted of abuse in the notorious Abu Ghraib scandal. My editor becomes increasingly irritable. (I have that effect on people.) He looks at me as you would a child. 'What did she do that is bad? Are you joking?' And then he brings up the trump card, the photograph with the smile. 'How do you get past that? The smile? Just look at it. Come on.'From there, Morris goes into great detail about that photograph, when it was taken, and what the other photos taken during the same session show. He consults an expert in facial expressions to see if Harman's smile means what we think, at first glance, it must mean. It's a long detailed post which really demands a full read.
The question kept coming up. How do you explain the smile? What does it mean? Not only is she smiling, she is smiling with her thumbs-up – over a dead body. The photograph suggests that she may have killed the guy, and she looks proud of it. She looks happy.
As usual, the final answer is neither quite as obvious nor quite as emotionally satisfying as first-blush revulsion. It not only raises issues about abuses like Abu Ghraib, but also about how photographs effect us and what they mean as evidence. I'm not sure I agree with Morris's conclusion, but I know one thing - if I ever get charged with a crime, I want him on my defense team.