Monday, June 22, 2009

Images and the Impulse to Silence

Alice Ristroph

UPDATED 6/24/09 -- see below.

Just how many words is a picture worth, again? There’s no question that the written reports of dissent in Iran are powerful, but there’s also no doubt that the images of protest and bloodshed—including the graphic pictures of the death of a young woman named Neda—have a force of their own. Much has been made of the role of technology in the current conflict. Protesters have used cell phones and the internet to communicate with one another and the world beyond Iran. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of Twitter as a tool of revolution, as did my colleague Frank Pasquale on this blog. Interestingly, a “tweet” cannot exceed 140 characters, but Twitter users can share photos by tweeting links to separate webpages. And some of the images coming from Iran seem worth far more than 140 characters.

It’s understandable that the Iranian authorities have tried to shut down the protesters’ avenues of communication, and also understandable that the Obama administration has tried to keep them open. Indeed, one might think that President Obama has a particular appreciation of the unique power of visual images—and not just because, after his famous fly-swat, he looked up at the cameraman and asked, “Did you get that?” No, Obama has emphasized the value of images when there is much, much more at stake.

On his recent visit to the former concentration camp at Buchenwald, Obama noted both the disturbing nature of images and their essential political function. Obama reminded his audience at Buchenwald that when American troops took possession of the camp, General Eisenhower insisted on viewing “every corner” and ordered that photographs and films be taken to record the sights. Of course, the photographs at Buchenwald played a somewhat different role than the images of Neda and other Iranians. One of the functions of the photos of Buchenwald was to address the risk that we will not wish to speak of atrocities. In Obama’s words, there is an “impulse to silence” that General Eisenhower thought photographs and films might help us—or require us—to overcome.

In the coming months, we will see how far the Obama administration yields to its own impulse to silence. In April, the administration released key documents detailing the use of torture against detainees. But just a few weeks later, Obama reversed course on photographs of detainee abuse and decided to contest a court order to release the photos. To defend this decision, he drew a distinction between information and image, claiming that the photos would not provide any new information and would inflame anti-American sentiment. The latter worry has some merit—just as Ahmadinejad is right to believe that images of Iranian protests will inflame anti-Iranian (or anti-Ahmadinejad) sentiment. But the claim that the photos of detainee abuse have no independent value is wrong. Sometimes, images convey ideas and information for which we have no words. Sometimes, as Iranian tweeters know, images will capture attention in ways that words will not. And sometimes, as General Eisenhower knew, images can make us speak and think about subjects that we would otherwise like to avoid.

UPDATE: At Obama's press briefing on June 23, he was asked for his reaction to the images of Neda's death. He called them "heartbreaking," and was explaining Iran's violations of international norms of freedom of expression, when he was interrupted by veteran reporter Helen Thomas, who asked why he wouldn't release the photos of detainee abuse. "That's a different question," Obama said, but didn't explain, and he quickly ended the briefing thereafter. Glenn Greenwald comments on the exchange, and argues that Americans should not be allowed to "avert their gaze" from torture.

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