"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

15 May, 2009

Guantanamo Tribunals & Torture Photos: why my own Honeymoon with Obama is over

This image (from the 2006 series “Guantanamerica”)
Copyright 2006 John Keane/Flowers East

Barack Obama’s controversial decision to restart the Guantanamo Bay tribunals has been hailed as the official "End of the Honeymoon". It certainly marks the beginning of my own irritation with the increasingly pragmatic President. Just when I thought it was safe to publish a new post on his decision to hold back thousands of images of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, he throws in yet another extraordinary reversal of a campaign promise, infuriating the left-liberal blogosphere and rendering much of my own carefully crafted musings on the torture photos decision rather old hat.

The story is still moving quickly. Just as the White House is spluttering over what or was not promised on Guantanamo, more shocking pictures of American torturing prisoners have emerged, despite all the administration's efforts to suppress them. The latest images to emerge via an Australian television channel are thought to be from a batch of the original 2006 Abu Ghraib shots which were not publicised at the time.

My last post on Obama’s approach to the thornier elements of the Bush legacy was in early March, when I explained the significance of his promise to release previously banned images of America’s war dead and other footage from both theatres of war. At the time, the decision was, rightly, hailed as a victory for a long-fought battle for freedom of information and seen as welcome proof that Obama’s re-iterated campaign promises for greater transparency would be honoured. The main reason given this week for holding back the torture images is the need to prevent any further international anti-American feeling, suggesting that now finally in office, the Obama administration may be finding national security issues more complex than they appeared to be when viewed from the rather simpler perspective of a hopeful candidate.

However, this week’s back-tracking, both on the torture photos and on Guantanamo seems to signal a decidedly more sober presidential approach, interpreted by some U.S. commentators as a victory of statesmanship and pragmatism over the instinct and spontaneity which has previously characterised the new President’s approach and which so many of the electorate clearly found so attractive. Nevertheless, the speed of both reversals has shocked observers on both sides of the political divide. The president originally ordered Guantanamo to be shut by early 2010 in a bid to restore America’s human rights image. But the closure of the Cuban-based detention camp was always going to be fraught as Newsweek’s Dan Ephron pointed out perceptively as long as six months ago.

The image above is by John Keane (b.1954) one of my favourite and most thoughtful artists. He is often called the ‘journalists’ artist’. He was the Official Artist during the First Gulf War and has since consistently turned his intelligence and extraordinary technical approach to issues of conflict and media all over the world. My personal favourites are his 2006 Angola series, in conjunction with Christian Aid and his 1999 series ‘Making a Killing’ featuring Rupert Murdoch and Diana, Princess of Wales.