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The Abu Ghraib scandal : visual performances of American power Chan, Carissa

Abstract

On April 38,2004, disturbing photographs capturing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers were aired on the CBS news program "60 Minutes 11" (Levi Strauss, 2004: 87). The photographs depicted events that took place in October 2003 at the Abu Chraib prison outside of Baghdad, Iraq. The presentation and preservation of the acts on film served as a "public ritual of mortification and a visual marker of humiliation" (Giroux, 2004: 790) of the detainees by the American military. This analysis supplements the wealth of information on the transmission of ideologies through discourse with a focus on visual representation, specifically with regards to the Abu Ghraib scandal, but also in the broader context of the war on Iraq. The American state, military and media were complicit in the production and circulation of the myth of freedom and democracy in order to garner and preserve public support for the war. I explore how the ideological justifications leading up to the war were depicted through particular details in the photos and how these became subject to later debate and discussion in the aftermath of world-wide circulation. According to court testimonies of the soldiers, the images were circulated around the Abu Ghraib prison to function as sources of psychological humiliation and intimidation. While the images themselves do not prove or disprove that acts of physical torture took place, I contend that the images visually demonstrated how the building of the United States as an empire was predicated on gendered, sexualized and racialized power. I have chosen two of the most notorious photographs in the scandal and deconstructed them using Roland Barthes’ (1981) trick effects to unveil the intersections of these systems of power. I also analyze how the constructed image of the war as a showdown between good and evil was loaded with hidden racialized, gendered, and religious categories of knowledge. The distribution of the photographs within the global sphere revealed the ideological meanings behind the production of the images and also exposed the strategies the state and media utilized to preserve the myth of democracy and freedom.

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