The Neoliberal Drive For Images of Suffering
Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, discusses how images of suffering “arrest attention,” shocking the viewer into looking at an image while eliciting a strong emotional response. Moreover, the photograph is the most “compact form for memorizing,” and allows for instantaneous memory recall, making it into a quasi-memory. The shock creates such a strong emotional response because these quasi-memories, seem almost as real as an actual memory. However, “photographs shock insofar as they show something novel,” and as people become hyper-exposed to these images in the modern-day, they become more desensitized to the shock of these horrifying images. This means people must be exposed to even further shocking and horrifying images to elicit the same emotional responses. This quest for further “dramatic images drives the photographic enterprise,” where “shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and value.”
Henry Giroux, in Disturbing Pleasures, Murderous Images and the Aesthetics of Depravity, argues that the photographic industry Sontag discusses is an innately neoliberal enterprise, one that profits from the shock value and emotional responses the images create. He argues our capitalist society “inordinately invests in and legitimizes a grim pleasure in the pain of others, especially those considered marginal and disposable,” intimately connecting pleasure, pain, and profit. These images also create an “aesthetics of depravity,” which is an aesthetics that masks images of suffering from the “formal properties of beauty, design, and taste.”  These properties serve to remove any moral response to the tragedy shown. Aesthetics in this scenario refers to something that captures the eye and forces us to continue looking. The aesthetics of depravity attempts to represent suffering through eye-catching properties, which traps the viewer into blankly looking at the image instead of examining the context, content, or message behind it. This phenomenon is so dangerous because these photos lose all their capacity to motivate change through a reframing of what is important. The more we look at these images the more distant we become to the forces of change necessary to uproot the cause of the suffering.
Giroux bolsters his argument by connecting it to Sontag’s observation that viewers become more desensitized to the images of suffering as they consume more. This desensitization works together with the “aesthetics of depravity” to create photographs that mask the suffering though both aesthetics and a repeated exposure that lessens the impact of each new photo. However, Giroux takes his argument one step farther by connecting this desensitization to the broader neoliberal structure. The structure uses violence to “generate a source of gratification and intense socially experienced pleasure,” that stems from a desire to be close to death. Then, this fascination with death allows the neoliberal enterprise to create profits from suffering. Yet the more desensitized the individual becomes to the neoliberal presentation of suffering, the more gratuitous the suffering must become to bring in profits. This can be seen today where “whatever bleeds brings in box office profits and dominates media headlines,” where people pay to see violence and death entertainingly displayed for them. Entertainment has also become more violent as graphical quality improves, and people are exposed to more violence. A plethora of both recorded and simulated violence shapes an environment where, through a screen or image, we feel distanced from violence, yet we are closer to violence now than ever before.
However, Giroux, like Sontag, does find that these images of suffering can create social change and political activism. Although they both critique a system that repurposes violent photographs for pleasure, they do realize the power that these photographs have to shock people into action, however, they emphasize that “shock can wear off.” Sontag uses the example of Canada printing shocking images of smoking-related issues on cigarette packs. People five or ten years from now will most likely get familiar with the images and it won’t decrease the number of cigarette buyers as this shock wears off. Especially with newspaper headlines, the shock is often experienced at one singular time and wears off as it disappears into irrelevance as new shocking stories are released. Because the shock is so ephemeral, these violent images will rarely spur change. In most cases, the increasing shock factor has just served to further desensitize people, which makes change contingent on even more shocking images.
Abu Ghraib prison was an American-operated prison twenty miles west of Baghdad. Here, American forces held Iraqi soldiers detained during the Iraq war. In 2003 the US military used torture techniques on detainees that included sexual humiliation, assault, and threats of death. In 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated: “Al Qaeda is not a state; it is a terrorist organization,” denying US obligation to uphold any standards set by the Geneva Convention in the case of terrorism. This includes standards prohibiting the use of torture in questioning prisoners. However, senior officials in the Justice Department and the CIA approved a list of coercive interrogation techniques that amount to torture. In 2004, photos taken by military personnel were leaked depicting U.S. military personnel abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners.
I will examine one photo leaked from the Abu Ghraib prisons in 2004, depicting United States Sergeant Michael J. Smith handling a dog in front of an Iraqi prisoner in a corner. This image was first shown to the public via a Washington Post Article written by Scott Higham and Joe Stephens on May 21st, 2004 that described individual victim testimonies about their experiences with torture and abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison. The photographer is unknown as is the exact date the photograph was taken. We can utilize Henry Giroux’s “aesthetics of depravity” to analyze the effect this violent image had on masking broader neoliberal issues of government-sponsored torture and warfare.
When first looking at the image, one is captured by the sheer shock of witnessing the torture and abuse of the prisoner through an image. It captures the viewer’s attention for a long time because of the deep expression of fear on the prisoner’s face, the vulnerable position that he has been forced into, and the threatening and scary demeanor of the Sergeant. The aesthetics of the image capture the viewer into looking at the photograph and forces them to think about the photo, yet it removes the viewer from a responsibility to address the underlying important aspects of the photograph.
First, the aesthetics removes all culpability away from the viewer and solely places it into the Sergeant that is performing the torture. This happens because the focus shifts away from the prison and the war and is only placed on the individual act itself. The viewer can now ignore their culpability because the image distances the horrific acts from causal actors and events like Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war. Perhaps the viewer was a supporter of the Iraq war, an event that directly led to the torture. Because the viewer is pushed to only focus on the Sergeant and the prisoner without the context, they ignore the surrounding structures that created this scenario and lose all capacity to create the change that would solve a similar scenario. That viewer might not decide to stop supporting the war effort because this scenario is aestheticized as a unique and isolated case.
Instead of spreading awareness of the context creating this event, like torture regulations or war, the image becomes an art-like placeholder to remind people of the history. Journalist Michael Kimmelman in Abu Ghraib Photos Return, This Time as Art, comments on how the photos of Abu Ghraib prison have become framed as art pieces only five months after their release. Now, they are placed in museums, “quasi-aesthetic artifacts” that are displayed for the pleasure of museumgoers. Their placement in a “sleek white room” that invites us to “cogitate on their visual properties” plainly displays how these photos have aestheticized depravity. They are placed in an environment where they are intended to be examined for purely aesthetic purposes, regardless of any complementary plaque or brochure. Culpability and message have been farther displaced from the image as the viewers consume it as art, barricaded off from the underlying significance of the images. Furthermore, the placement of these images as separate pieces in a collection makes each image seem distinct from the others and makes viewers focus on the specific atrocity instead of the overarching structures that created and shaped the violence. These museums become a way for patrons to witness the beauty of violence without having to feel guilty or change anything while letting the atrocities disappear into the archives of American history.
Regardless of the overwhelming photographic evidence displaying Smith’s improper conduct, he only received a sentence of six months of prison and a demotion. Even after being found guilty of six of thirteen accounts of prisoner abuse and facing up to eight and a half years, he managed to incur a light sentence. Sergeant Smith received an unusually lenient punishment, especially regarding the number and severity of the crimes he committed and the already-established international laws prohibiting any form of torture. Moreover, responsibility was taken from the government, the war, and the superior officers entirely and pinned entirely on the low-ranking individuals in Abu Ghraib like Sergeant Smith. This directly connects to Giroux’s argument that the neoliberal economy masks its horrors through the “aesthetics of depravity” that abstracts the underlying conditions that make the horrors possible. By pinning the blame on a few individuals, the system escapes blame entirely and masks the conditions that made the torture possible.
Giroux also discusses how an “aesthetics of depravity” erase the names of the marginalized victims of the images themselves. Although another victim of canine assault (not the victim displayed in this particular photo), Ballendia Sadawi Mohammed, stated to investigators that were first released to the Washington Post, neither his name nor testimony are found in most other news articles discussing canine abuse in Abu Ghraib. However, the name “Sergeant Michael J. Smith” appears in most articles, showing a shift in focus from the victims towards the perpetrators. For example, in a different instance of torture, a New Yorker article refers to the victim as “prisoner No. 153399,” yet has an entire paragraph dedicated to reporting the names of the perpetrators. This photograph uses the suffering of the victim to attract attention to the violence yet tears away humanity and individuality from him by excluding his name and testimony. The focus of attention switches away from the importance of resisting instances of torture, instead of moving towards the individual atrocity that Sergeant Smith committed. This further erases the ties between the act and the larger scope and allows the neoliberal system to remain unscathed despite its culpability.
Giroux discusses the hypocrisy of the news by pointing out that “the dominant media had no qualms about showing the faces of the victims, thus violating their dignity, but expressed widespread indignation over reproducing the naked bodies of the victims claiming that it would demonstrate bad taste.” Newspapers rarely used the names of the victims but found no harm in releasing their identity through their faces. Furthermore, the photos displaying nudity are unique because they turn the attention of the photos more towards the victim and the torture instead of the perpetrator, therefore placing more of a focus back onto the surrounding events that caused the torture. By refusing to release the photos, the newspapers
Journalists also profit from the attention that a high-magnitude story brings. Scott Higham mentioned above, co-author of the Washington Post article releasing the photograph is a Pulitzer prize winner in investigative journalism. Journalists like Higham need atrocities to occur for them to have a job. Higham’s story about Abu Ghraib made him a finalist for another Pulitzer prize and won him the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for large newspapers. For the news system, it becomes about finding a bigger and better story that will receive more attention, as the system survives from suffering to produce consumable stories. Journalists receive prizes, awards and are allocated more resources from their company when they discover a groundbreaking story. This means the system profits from the suffering of the crimes they seek to bring to light; however, the system requires more problems to be created to bring in more attention and profits into the journalism industry. Investigative journalists like Higham are in a unique position where they don’t ever feel guilty profiting from these atrocities because they know their efforts in exposing the problems might help solve them.
The government echoed the effects the “aesthetics of depravity” had on this image in their official statements released to the public. President Bush, in a national address, claimed the torture was “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described it as “an exceptional, isolated case.” The federal government took steps to protect its actions by pinning the blame exclusively on the perpetrators, even though there is sufficient evidence to prove that Rumsfeld or other top Pentagon officials gave the green light on the torture initiatives. A systematic problem was blamed on the work of a few individuals, and it allowed the system to escape a lot of blame. This is identical to the effects that the “aesthetics of depravity” has on viewers because it takes the focus of the image away from the larger neoliberal structure and onto a particular individual or situation.
To a certain extent, it is impossible to eliminate the “aesthetics of depravity” from images, because beauty is innately tied to photograph. However, we can constructively use aesthetics, because aesthetics don’t always have to mask suffering or violence in photography. I think it is important for photographs to be accompanied by a textual background, and this textual background should focus on broader issues rather than an isolated case. This will allow the photograph to complement a broader directive instead of defining a story’s boundaries. Photographs have the power to create change society and connect people to politics, we only have to utilize images properly to mobilize them for good.
Human Rights Watch. “The Road to Abu Ghraib.” Human Rights Watch, June 8, 2004. https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/06/08/road-abu-ghraib.
Garamone, Jim. “Geneva Convention Applies to Taliban, Not Al Qaeda.” American Forces Press Service. February 7, 2002. https://archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=43960.
Giroux, Henry A. “Disturbing Pleasures: Murderous Images and the Aesthetics of Depravity.” Third Text 26, no. 3 (May 2012): 259–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2012.679036.
Hersh, Seymour M. “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” The New Yorker, April 30, 2004. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/torture-at-abu-ghraib.
Higham, Scott, and Joe Stephens. “New Details of Prison Abuse Emerge (Washingtonpost.Com),” May 21, 2004. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43783-2004May20.html.
Higham, Scott. “Scott Higham Biography.” Washington Post. Accessed April 10, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/people/scott-higham/.
Kimmelman, Michael. “Abu Ghraib Photos Return, This Time as Art.” The New York Times, October 10, 2004, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/arts/design/abu-ghraib-photos-return-this-time-as-art.html.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks, 2005.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York, N.Y: Picador, 2003.
“Transcript from Bush Speech on American Strategy in Iraq.” The New York Times, May 24, 2004, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/24/politics/transcript-from-bush-speech-on-american-strategy-in-iraq.html.
Wendel, Susan. “Dog Handler in Abu Ghraib Photo Found Guilty.” NPR.org. March 24, 2006. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5293136.
 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others Farrar, (Straus and Giroux, 2003), 20.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography, (Rosetta Books, 2005), 23.
 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 20.
 Henry Giroux, Disturbing Pleasures, Murderous Images and the Aesthetics of Depravity, 261.
 Giroux, 262.
 Giroux, 265.
 Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 65.
 Jim Garamone, “Geneva Convention Applies to Taliban, Not Al Qaeda,” (American Forces Press Service, February 7, 2002).
 Human Rights Watch, “The Road to Abu Ghraib,” (Human Rights Watch, June 8, 2004) Section II.
 Human Rights Watch, 1.
 See Appendix A.
 Scott Higham, Joe Stephens, “New Details of Prison Abuse Emerge,” (Washington Post, May 21, 2004).
 Giroux, 261.
 Michael Kimmelman, “Abu Ghraib Photos Return, This Time as Art,” (New York Times, October 10, 2004).
 Susan Wendel, “Dog Handler in Abu Ghraib Photo Found Guilty,” (National Public Radio, March 21, 2006).
 Giroux, 261.
 Seymour Hersh “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” (The New Yorker, April 30, 2004).
 Giroux, 261
 Scott Higham, “Scott Higham Biography,” (Washington Post).
 Giroux, 261.
 “Transcript from Bush Speech on American Strategy in Iraq.” (The New York Times, May 24, 2004).
 Human Rights Watch, 1.
 Human Rights Watch, Section II.
 Giroux, 261.
 Giroux, 261.