Mental Images, Believing is Seeing
Remember when People Magazine actually had articles? And reported on world events? Remember when people sat down and actually read their newspapers? Sure, people still read news, but they are more likely to get it scanning headlines on AOL as they sign into their email each morning, or laughing at the latest photoshopped picture of Zac Efron on Perez Hilton, than by reading an article in The New Yorker.
There was an article in The New York Times recently about film critics being laid off at daily and weekly publications around the country, including high-profile critics from The Village Voice and Newsweek. With declining readership, film critics have been thought of as expendable, especially with the rise of bloggers and self-appointed film critics on the web. Even Roger Ebert, after decades of appearing on his television show, has finally retired his thumb. It’s a seemingly small change in the bigger picture, but it’s a significant one. In a world where people look at their news on their iPhones, is there any time or room (literally) to read a full-page piece about how bad the new Indiana Jones film is compared to the spirit of it’s predecessors? Much less a piece about the presidential election?
With the rise in technology, information as a whole has become more visual – be it through photographs, on television screens, or on the internet. A photograph with a couple of quick sentences typically does the trick. Wanting to know more about a topic has been relegated to the territory of geeks wanting to obsess over every detail, whether you are a political nerd or a movie nerd — there are websites for that. The rest of us just want the basics. But when exactly did that become the standard? We live in a country that has more information than ever, but far less knowledge.
In the new Errol Morris documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, the recent scandal at Abu Gharib is explored not so much as an indictment of the torture and abuse that occurred there at the hands of American soldiers, but as an indictment of the evidence that exposed the deplorable situation.
Which, as we now know very well, were a series of photographs taken by the officers stationed there. They featured the prisoners bound and posed in degrading sexual positions for the soldiers’ amusement. The officers posed with the tortured and humiliated captives, smiling as if they were in Spring Break photos, giving thumbs-up signs to the camera. The photos are pretty damning of the mental and physical abuse that went on there. One prisoner who was said to have died of a heart attack was seen in photos with his nose broken so horribly that cartilage was poking through his skin, his lips busted open, and teeth knocked out.
The American media displayed the photos on the news for weeks, portraying the soldiers in the pictures as monsters. They were singled out as bad apples who were acting on their own, and the entire situation was spun endlessly by the government until the entire thing went away without much of an outcry from the American people.
What Mr. Morris’ documentary does very well is ask the simple question: What is it that I’m seeing in these photographs? It starts by asking, who took these photos (the answer: a Superior officer). The officers in the photos were lower in rank, and clearly acting under the full awareness of their superiors. The prisoners are bound in strategic stress positions that were clearly not thought up on the spot. In the photos, there are obvious signs of physical abuse and torture, which are a violation of the Geneva Convention. They are also evidence that the American government at some level sanctioned the use of abuse, torture, and murder in this facility. These kinds of actions would have to be cleared by higher ranking military officials, ultimately reaching up to Washington D.C. and the President.
What is so interesting is that the film looks closely at the photos, and asks questions about them, and about the nature of photos altogether. It isn’t content to be given a visual image and simply accept it. It is smart enough to realize that an image is only two-dimensional, and the actions that took place were three-dimensional. They happened to three-dimensional people, in a three-dimensional world that has sounds and smells, and moments that happened before and after the photo. The film puts them in their proper context and reveals a piece of a much larger puzzle. The notion of a few bad apples at Abu Gharib quickly becomes implausible and ridiculous.
The Abu Gharib photos are reminiscent of the iconic war photo “Flags of Our Fathers,” where soldiers are seen valiantly raising our country’s flag at great odds. It is heroic-looking photograph, and supposedly embodies the spirit of what our nation has always fought for. But the photo itself is a sham. It is a staged photograph that inspired a PR campaign to sell war bonds and raise money for the effort.
Ironically, to this day, it still stands in most people’s minds as a symbol of our country. Clint Eastwood’s film, Flags of Our Fathers, was a great film about the topic. It addressed how our idea of heroism has been manufactured, and more interestingly, that our need for heroism is also something that has been created. Errol Morris addresses this idea as well in his film, saying that the notion of a scapegoat is a fiction – that the truth is always infinitely more complex and ambiguous and unsatisfying. An image like “Flags of Our Fathers” is more appealing and more digestible. That might be part of the appeal of a photograph – that it isn’t real, that there is ultimately no responsibility to a photograph. Looking at war or history through a lens is easier to deal with than looking at a bleeding human being two feet away from you.
In different ways, what these two films are saying is that pictures lie. They are cautionary tales about visual information, and the blind acceptance of what you see. They are also amazingly relevant films, given that we live in a society that values visual information more than any other form. Even in the case of something far less serious, like tabloid photos in a magazine, they insist that it is absolutely essential to question what it is you are seeing – and that sometimes, the most important part of what you are looking at might lay outside the frames of the picture.
For example, why is Britney Spears being photographed at a Burger King at three in the morning? Who woke up, stalked a girl at her house until she was hungry enough to go get food, then followed her to the restaurant, got out of their car and yelled and flashed their camera at her while she was ordering a hamburger? What kind of person is this? What is their motivation for such a violation? The answer is most likely to sell a photograph to be run in a magazine for someone’s personal enjoyment. Do people ever ask, what is my role in this? Am I paying for someone’s privacy and peace and safety to be violated on a regular basis? And in a media saturated society, the pictures that make it to our newsstands and television screens are chosen and cropped by editors, and shaped into the most interesting versions of stories by film and TV producers. The visual information we eventually get is never first-hand.
And with the rise of dating and hook-up websites on the internet, people meet other people online based purely on a picture. But does a picture represent who they are as a person, how much fun they are, or how they will treat you? Does a photograph of a body part represent in any way what kind of a lover they might be? Does it tell you anything about their history or if they are safe? Photos have not only made their way into our private lives, but for many people, have become the driving force of it.
Visual imagery is undeniably more alluring than blocks of words, but it has its limits. Images aren’t capable of telling a fully rounded picture. At concerts now, the crowds are blanketed with the glowing LCD screens of cell phones or digital cameras recording the show. People watch the screens more than the show itself, as if the act of eventually playing back the moment is more important than the actual moment itself. Will that little recording say anything about the experience of being at that event, in that community of people? Could it possibly capture the actual sound or lights or temperature of the place? Would it say anything about your mood, whether you got in a fight with your girlfriend or boyfriend that night, or how a particular song affected you? Visual images are limited the minute they come into existence.
As is frequently stated on Oprah Winfrey’s show and in books like The Secret, visual imagery is at the cornerstone of who we are. If we can see something in our minds, we can become it in the concrete world. Visualization is at the heart of many philosophies. And there is a truth to these notions – everything that exists now exists because someone imagined it and could see it in their minds, and then went about making it happen. Mental images are where buildings and cities started, where space ships first took flight. Most forms of meditation revolve around visual imagery. Even many musicians see their songs in visual form as they are writing them. In the recent documentary film Blindsight, a group of blind teenagers climb a peak of Mount Everest lead by a blind guide. Having been blind from birth, how did they achieve such a difficult goal without some sort of mental image of the mountain they were climbing? To see yourself doing something in your mind might just give you the courage and a road map of sorts to take that leap. When you don’t have pictures to go off of, imagination can still make things possible.
And although mental images might get at the truth of things in ways literal imagery cannot, it is still something that is unreliable. Memories change over time – sunsets get more beautiful, fights get more violent, high school crushes become more idealized. And things that were once heartbreaking or devastating are suddenly laughable little stories. We change over time, and the memories change right along with us. Visual memories can lose their weight and meaning too. As vivid as a world in someone’s mind can be, the context of those images is just as relevant.
The soldiers in the photos taken at Abu Gharib were doing monstrous things, but those photos don’t represent the disgust, the remorse and helplessness some of them were feeling at the time they were taken. One of the soldiers considered the act of posing for a picture to be an act of defiance against the government that gave her permission to do these things. By having those pictures taken, they would exist as documentation of the crimes that went on there.
In a time when information is controlled and filtered for you, to not question the context of the images in your daily life is like downsizing all of your critics. Without a dissenting voice in society, that society ceases to question what it is being told. And to do that, you become a person sitting in an audience at a magic show being wowed by the tricks being paraded in front of your eyes. Sometimes seeing really shouldn’t be believing.
Text by Blake Davis
Illustration by Johnny Cheuk