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Putting brutality on display

Abu Ghraib photos are being exhibited in New York and Pittsburgh.

September 17, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Millions of people have already seen the amateur photographs showing the torture and humiliation of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, whether on the Internet or in the New Yorker, or on "60 Minutes II," or on the front pages of countless newspapers. The digital images still can be obtained only secondhand, though, by downloading them off a computer, and it's not feasible to make good copies much larger than 5-by-7 inches.

Yet when the head of Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum met here in July with the chief curator of Manhattan's International Center of Photography, they discovered that they had independently reached the same conclusion: that it was time to exhibit the shocking photos taken by American troops who could not have dreamed that their snapshots would wind up on the walls of museums -- or as the key evidence in their own ongoing military trials.

The simultaneous exhibitions opening today, "Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs From Abu Ghraib," follow an age-old principle in displaying already familiar objects, whether it's Duchamp's urinal, Warhol's soup cans or iconic news photos: that the process of offering them for formal viewing, in a museum, may get people to look at the familiar with new eyes and in different contexts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Abu Ghraib photos -- A caption with an article in Friday's Calendar section about exhibitions of images showing the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison incorrectly identified a grouping of photos. The caption incorrectly made reference to photos on plain paper, tacked to the wall. The photos actually shown were not the plain-paper prints but rather pictures of how the abuse photos were used to fuel anti-American sentiment.

Both exhibitions take pains not to give the Abu Ghraib photos the usual trappings of museum "art." Printed right off computers on plain white paper, they are the size of conventional family vacation photos and fixed to the walls with the sort of tacks used to pin up office memos. None is framed in either museum.

There are differences, however, in the two exhibitions. At the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, near the hometowns of several of the troops depicted in the photos -- and charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners -- the photos from Abu Ghraib are paired with others showing atrocities by "the other side," though the museum director insists that's not a bid to mute the protests of local veterans groups, which denounced the exhibition before it opened.

New York viewers won't see those contrasting photos, such as ones of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded by masked captors, or of the bodies of murdered Americans hanging from a bridge. Instead, the show at the photography center, a block from Times Square, pairs 19 pictures from Abu Ghraib with several showing the effects of the images of Iraqis being humiliated, specifically how they were used to fuel anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East.

The New York show also places the Iraqi photos in the context of three other exhibitions opening at the same time, one of which -- "Looking at Life" -- includes Life magazine photos from World War II and Vietnam. Among them are pictures that were controversial at the time for showing war atrocities or simply for showing dead Americans.

The "Life" show provides other contrasts as well. On display across from the entrance to the small room containing the pictures from Iraq is a photo of actress Jane Fonda, decked out not as a war protester but as a Space Age sex kitten for the 1968 film "Barbarella." Inside the Abu Ghraib exhibition, the sexuality is far more hard-core, of course, although some of the photos of naked Iraqis -- downloaded from the New Yorker website -- blur the prisoners' genitalia.

Brian Wallis, director of exhibitions for the International Center of Photography, accepts that most visitors will have already seen most of the pictures tacked to the wall. Indeed, he was amazed that, despite reports of there being hundreds more such photos -- shown to members of Congress in a carefully controlled viewing last May -- "when you actually begin to look into this there aren't that many that are publicly available, about 40 or 50 maximum, and many of those duplicate pretty closely other ones."

So he wound up with "kind of the obvious ones." The cover of the exhibition's brochure, with text by Wallis and the New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh, features the widely published photo of a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box, arms spread, his finger connected to what he no doubt believed was an electrode. Next to it in the exhibition is the photo of Pfc. Lynndie R. England holding a leash that's around the neck of a detainee. On the wall to the right is the infamous photo of her boyfriend, Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., giving a thumbs up as he poses with a prisoner.

By displaying the photos so informally, the show tries to duplicate how most people originally saw them -- fleetingly -- on their TV or computer screens. But beyond that, Wallis is counting on the exhibit "re-presenting the photographs and asking the audience to look again."

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