Discourse / Editorials / April 25, 2012

Image as dismemberment

Perhaps you have seen the photographs this week of U.S. soldiers posing with the body parts of dead insurgent Afghan fighters. Perhaps you have not. At any rate, one photograph is easy to describe: a young American soldier, sweaty-faced, smiling as if to contain laughter, looks toward his left shoulder. Meanwhile, on his right shoulder, a hand rests — not his hand, but darker and without its body. We continue looking at the photograph, seeking some form to which we might attach this incoherence of a hand. How to incorporate this removal, this amputation?

We find it, it meaning body — in the background, a dead man. The corpse’s eyes are open but, like the young man in the foreground, they avoid looking directly into the camera. The newspapers assure us that this dead anonymity — this hand, this face — is the “mangled remains of an insurgent suicide bomber.” So the wound was self-inflicted. We sigh with relief. “At least we aren’t responsible for that,” we say. “That” meaning death. “That” meaning the mangling of what remains. The American soldiers become absolved of that death, even as they are photographed into a more confusing crime.

So the language swathes us with its comforts. In the coldly crafted line, there is an abstraction that acts as salve. It is more difficult to actually look at the photographs, to feel the mind incapable of protecting itself with description.

At the same time, we like to be struck dumb and suffocated into muteness. Because of this, the photos have a grotesque allure. We are seduced by their wordlessness, by their silence that could overthrow us. We forget descriptions, we want the photos. Google, latimes.com, whatever — it doesn’t matter. We find them, these photos — each a moment torn from the larger movement of time, each an amputation. Photography itself, a method of dismemberment.

These photographs remove us from the problems which the attendant article inevitably discusses: the President’s reaction, the investigations already underway, the other PR gaffes which insult our American sense of moral superiority. The photographs ignore these issues in order to frame intricacies of their own.

What to do, for instance, with the fact that I look so similar to the sweaty-faced soldier? His hair cut as short as mine, his nose coming to a similar point — his flag which is my flag, the flag that rests on his arm a few inches away from the dark, anonymous hand.

And what to do with that sickening inkling: the intimation that had these moments not been photographed, we would not have known about them? What else goes unphotographed, we want to know, what good are words for proof? The unphotographed moment becomes nothing to us; it has already succumbed to nullity and impotence.

But more than all of that: why is it wrong to photograph the victim of self-immolation while the conflict that inspires and kills him can be just — or at least can be justified, by either side? Both photography and battle involve shots, yet this trick of language, this pun does nothing to clarify the moral question. It feels quaint and meaningless and hollow.

A long rage of condemnation heats to a crisis — I feel the desire to hate the suicide bomber, the Americans, the Afghans, the presidents, the soldiers, the country that raised them, that feeds them, the countries that we fight against. I hate that we have reasons to fight each other. I want to condemn each of us for our violence. But in order to condemn, I have to use language against someone, which means using hollowness, letting that hollowness mangle another. I perpetuate, I mangle.

The question becomes: how to fight what attends the image? Better yet: how to do something other than fight? The image finds its power in what rests outside of its frame: the circumstance — circumstance meaning the mangled and indescribable remains, the long flow of history and context, all of it rushing together in order to fall apart again. And it is this intolerable inundation of events, not the photographs, which we try to fight against — almost impossibly. Rage coming to us in flashes, resistance slowly growing. We want to develop, hardly realizing that it is the darkest of processes.

Christopher Poore

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