June 13, 2004
Torture Incarnate, and Propped on a Pedestal
CONS live their own lives. Of all the photographs of American soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, one alone has become the icon of the abuse.
The image appears in mock advertisements in New York, in paintings in San Francisco, on murals in Tehran and on mannequins in Baghdad. It shows no dogs, no dead, no leash, no face, no nakedness, no pileup, no thumbs-up. It is the picture of a hooded prisoner standing on a box, electrodes attached to his outstretched arms.
Why this image above all the rest? It is far from the most violent, but easily the most graphic. You need less than a second's glance to know exactly what it is. The triangle of the hood silhouettes sharply against the hot pink or chartreuse background of a fake iPod ad. Andy Warhol himself could not have done better. It holds its own on murals meant to be read from far away. It plays well against the Statue of Liberty. It suggests Christ on the cross. And, best yet, the hooded figure in the photograph is on a pedestal. It is already an icon.
As a symbolic shape, the hood is almost as strong as a cross. The difference is that the hood has generally been the sign of the persecutor, not of the victim. It is the uniform of the executioner, the sheet of the Klansman, the mask of Death. Until now. In these images, you can see the hood's meaning begin to change and take root.
Maybe it's because the hood resembles a veil. Look at the photograph of two people in Tehran walking by murals based on the Abu Ghraib photographs: the hooded figure on the box - echoing the robed and veiled Muslim woman passing in front of it - becomes every Muslim. The photo is an ad for martyrdom, made in America.