Photos Lie - and They Also Tell the Truth. Release Them.

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Yesterday, Antonio Taguba described some of the Abu Ghraib photos of detainee abuse that President Obama is refusing to release as a way for arguing for Obama's point of view.  Do images of rape and sexual abuse from Abu Ghraib really help a further understanding of anything?


I hold Gen. Taguba - who conducted the most thorough investigation to date into Abu Ghraib - in the highest regard.  But I am mystified by his remarks.  

The fact is that these photos are not just from Abu Ghraib.  They are, purportedly, over 200 images from six different prisons.  They can tell us a lot about the system of detainee abuse engendered by the Bush Administration.  As one who helped to make public some of the only photos from the Bagram Prison, I can testify to the fact that the photos we uncovered taught us a great deal

Gen. Taguba has argued for prosecuting Bush officials for war crimes.  But to prosecute crimes, one must have evidence.  Pictures that might show how "techniques" of abuse were similar in different US prisons are critical pieces of evidence because they indicate patterns which, in turn, are clues to policy decisions.  Refusing to release the photos is tantamount to suppressing evidence of a criminal conspiracy.  

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Philip Gourevitch also twists himself into rhetorical pretzels in arguing against the release of the photos.  On the one hand, he says that the original release of the photos was extraordinarily valuable: "they told us something that we suspected about ourselves but did not know," he said.  At the same time, he noted that he didn't show many of the more offensive pictures that he and filmmaker Errol Morris ("SOP") and many other filmmakers and TV producers, including myself, did obtain.  "Crime scene photographs," he wrote, "for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict."  

That is certainly true.  But it is also misleading.  

One can get hung up on the duality of semioticians, until one day, you wake up and nothing means anything anymore. 

The fact is that these photographs, in conjunction with other bits of evidence - including the documents that the Obama Administration properly released - can still teach us a great deal.  Further, a release of the photos probably does not prefigure their display on cereal boxes.  Newspaper editors, bloggers, TV and Film Producers will still exercise judgement about whether the release of some photos merely amounts to a pornographic display, rather than leading to a greater public understanding. 

We shouldn't allow the government to shape its own narrative about crimes that have been committed in our name.  Through good judgement and analysis, American citizens should be able to have the opportunity to work out the forensic and cultural meaning of these photographs. 



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Alex Gibney is a documentary filmmaker who made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. He has won an Emmy, a Peabody, the duPont Columbia Award, and a Grammy. More

Alex Gibney is the writer, director and producer of the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, the Oscar-nominated film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, narrated by Johnny Depp. In post-production on My Trip to Al Qaeda, based on the play by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Lawrence Wright, Gibney is also filming a documentary on Lance Armstrong. Gibney served as executive producer for No End in Sight, which was also nominated for an Oscar; a producer for Herbie Hancock: Possibilities, a film about the jazz legend's collaboration with musical talents such as Santana, Sting, and Christina Aguilera; and consulting producer on Who Killed the Electric Car. Gibney's producing credits also include the classic concert film Lightning in a Bottle, directed by Antoine Fuqua; The Blues, an Emmy-nominated series of seven films in association with executive producer Martin Scorsese; and The Trials of Henry Kissinger. Gibney is the recipient of many awards including the Emmy, the Peabody, the duPont Columbia Award, and the Grammy.

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