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A View from Henry Jenkins

How Digital Photography is Unmasking the Banality of Evil

Salon has some interesting speculations about the impact of digital photography on the military’s ability to manage public perceptions of the American occupation of Iraq. Concerned that wartime images undercut public support for the Vietnam War, the military has sought…

  • May 13, 2004

Salon has some interesting speculations about the impact of digital photography on the military’s ability to manage public perceptions of the American occupation of Iraq. Concerned that wartime images undercut public support for the Vietnam War, the military has sought to restrict the production and circulation of images of American war dead and they certainly didn’t want to see images of tortured prisoners getting circulated as porn on the internet. What they never anticipated was that the digital production and distribution of photographs, including those produced by their own people, would make a mockery of such restrictions and reshape how we understood this war.

“I remember during the ’80s Ronald Reagan said that the fax machine would pierce the Iron Curtain,” says Peter Howe, a photojournalist and the former picture editor of the New York Times Magazine and Life magazine. “What we have today is an extension of that and a proliferation beyond anything we imagined – now, we are piercing any form of governmental control whatsoever.”

So, we now can see images of flag-draped coffins, sexually humiliated prisoners of war, and beheaded Americans.

The question is why such images are produced to begin with. In the case of the Abu Ghraid photographs, it would seem that this is an example of what has been called the “banality of evil.” The phrase was first applied to the matter of fact way that many Nazis responded to the most horrific aspects of the concentration camps. In recent years, photographs of lynchings of African-Americans have resurfaced and become part of the historical record of the civil rights era. They are now read with shock and horror but the participants recorded them because they were proud of what they were doing. They posed with family, friends, even children in front of the corpses of black men hanging from trees. And they sent them with cheery messages as picture postcards.

Could something like this have happened in Iraq? What we look upon with horror may once have been looked upon with pride. As is so often the case, images circulated on the internet get decontextualized, read according to criteria very different from those intended when they were first produced.

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