"I know it looks bad."
March 20, 2008 5:10 PM   Subscribe

The Woman Behind the Camera. Film maker Errol Morris, and the New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch look at Sabrina Harman, photographer, and Army MP in Iraq.

"Harman liked to have her picture taken, almost always showing the same smile and thumbs-up sign. "I guess we weren't really thinking, Hey this guy was just murdered" she said of the corpse photographs. "I know it looks bad."
posted by timsteil (19 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fascinating article. In reducing it to that soundbite of hers, I get the feeling you may not have read, or understood it.
posted by progosk at 5:25 PM on March 20, 2008

This is a fascinating article. In reducing it to that soundbite of hers, I get the feeling you may not have read, or understood it.

Actually Prog, I was totally prepared to hate this woman's guts. I am reading it for the second time now, and am just coming to grips with how much more to her there seems to be other than the dumb redneck leaning over a burnt body in an Iraqi prison stereotype we have all seen.

I don't know what makes folks want to be forensic photographers, or MEs, or MPs. I just kinda figure every day I go without seeing a corpse is fine by me.

I'll probably be on my fourth read by the time you see this, but my biggest thought right now is that this woman was not a monster, just someone thrust into a monsterous place. However numbing that might be I have no idea.

I just thought it was a damned fine piece of journalism, and something that ought to be shared, and read more widely than by whatever folks that don't suffer my utter geekness in subscribing to the NYer.
posted by timsteil at 5:37 PM on March 20, 2008

The point of the article is that the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs did not document rogue soldiers' excesses, as the administration has claimed, and as the media has largely reported.

In fact, the photos were windows into the official U.S. policy, documenting some of the mandated, routine torture of prisoners suspected of possessing actionable intelligence, the article says.

No article I have read in the mainstream American press has put it this bluntly:

"The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity.

Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments." (emphasis added)

The article later points out that "the only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. No one has ever been charged for abuses at the prison that were not photographed."

Remember the picture of the prisoner who had been packed in ice after he had been tortured to death? The one whose body was decked out with bandages to make it look like he'd been treated, instead of being killed by his interrogators?

Yeah, well, the interrogators were not charged. But they did hang a charge, later dropped, on the woman who took the picture. "Destruction of government property."
posted by sacre_bleu at 5:42 PM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ok, I'm with you there, then. It was the journalistic gist of your post (and the tack of your tags...) in reference to an article where the role of the journalistic medium (as a vehicle to understanding things) is so precisely called into question, that just rubbed me wrong.
The previous talk Morris held with Gourevitch was equally interesting. Very much looking forward to seeing S.O.P.
posted by progosk at 5:48 PM on March 20, 2008

Philip Gourevitch is just a fantastic reporter. He was reporting on Africa's World War when no one else was. Great writer.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:15 PM on March 20, 2008

I read this article last night and found it profoundly disturbing, for the reasons sacre_bleu delineates, and for its sharply and sickeningly detailed portraits of densitization and obedience in wartime. I think where Gourevitch points out how Harman's positioning herself as documentarian worked psychologically to help her remove herself from accountability is an important point. The ongoing documentation of the Iraq war through personal mobile technology has been discussed elsewhere. What happens to us when we all see ourselves as just documentarians behind a lens or reporters behind a keyboard, generating content for the great Spectacle? Where does agency go?
posted by Miko at 6:25 PM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

The cat’s head was one of Harman’s gags. She had a kitten that was killed by a dog, and since it had no visible wounds she performed a rough autopsy, discovered organ damage, and then an M.P. buddy mummified its head. They gave it pebbles for eyes, and Sabrina photographed it in various inventive settings: on a bus seat with sunglasses, smoking a cigarette, wearing a tiny camouflage boonie hat, floating on a little pillow in the wading pool, with flowers behind its ears.

Look, there is just something not right about this Sabrina character. To be blunt, she is weird, and not particularly bright. End of story.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:40 PM on March 20, 2008

People who have a weird fascination with death always seem to be the folks you end up finding have bodies in their crawlspace or something. And truth be told there has never been a one of these kinds of stories that hasn't squeemed me out a bit.

First time I read this piece I thought I hadnt given her a fair shake, second time it was a bit gross and "um ewwww", third time was damn I wish I had never read it to begin with.

Personally I think anyone with their mind wrapped around dead bodies like that, might be just a little off,(It took me all three times through the mummified cat thing to try to believe it wasn't' true) but then again, there is probably a funeral home within a mile of your house, and the guy who owns it goes home and doesnt kill anyone. It seems most people who go into that biz do so because their father owned the town one, and this was sort of a guaranteed job/living thing.

I have to agree with Kokoryu, man when there is something that makes you want to run up and have your pic taken next to a corpse with a thumbs up thing, that's beyond me.

At this point I regret posting it, as well as reading it.

Still, a good piece of writing, about a person I guess we all have to go make our mind up about.
posted by timsteil at 9:08 PM on March 20, 2008

I can't help but think that Errol Morris' final documentary (is there still going to be one?) on this subject is going to be one of the most intriguing and important works of anything, ever. If there's a fault it's that he's discovering just how big these issues are, like traveling to the end of the universe and realizing just how seemingly infinite space is.
posted by pokermonk at 9:14 PM on March 20, 2008

At this point I regret posting it, as well as reading it.

This comment really, really confuses me.

It seems most people who go into that biz do so because their father owned the town one, and this was sort of a guaranteed job/living thing.

Are you trying to make a distinction between Harman and funeral home workers? Because the article mentions, "Harman said that she had wanted to be a cop, like her father and her brother, and her idea was to become a forensic photographer."

Her temperament and perspective on corpses isn't some freak fascination; it's actually pretty mundane even if different from yours.
posted by pokermonk at 9:33 PM on March 20, 2008

I agree that the cat's head isn't morbid unless thinking makes it so.

When I was in college my friend and I had this styrofoam hat dummy that we'd drawn math diagrams all over. We called her "Math-Head Girl" and took at least a dozen polaroids of her in various poses, wearing tinfoil hats or goggles, looking disdainfully (she was always disdainful) off into the distance. They were all captioned, too, along themes like her haughtiness and the universal realm of math from which she regarded our foibles, or speculations as to whether she was ever tempted by the mundane. Just an object, just something to do while smoking at the kitchen table on Saturday nights.

My dad's a cattle and goat rancher in Oklahoma. When the animals die, if they're small enough, you throw them on the back of the four-wheeler and take them down to the boneyard. If they aren't small enough, you tie them to the four-wheeler with chains and drag them down to the boneyard. Their skin comes half off by the time you get them down there. It's pretty unnerving at first, but after one or two go-rounds you just get inured to it. Just an object, too. I don't usually have a camera on me when I'm there, particularly not when I'm lugging dead animals around, but I've often felt the documenting urge, maybe more so with the dead things than anything else. Dead things are interesting. Everything else is alive, and then there they are. Skinned, stiff, stinking, other. There was this aborted goat fetus once—it was translucent, it didn't have any hair yet. You could see all its insides, and it was radiant, beautiful and repulsive at once. I would have taken twenty pictures of it if I had had a camera on me.

I don't think it would be that weird if these two experiences had elided into each other. The fact that they didn't is just a fact, and could have easily been otherwise.
posted by felix grundy at 10:18 PM on March 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Abu Ghraib prison
posted by KokuRyu at 10:39 PM on March 20, 2008

I think this article just goes to show how complicated a story can be. Before I had read it, I didn't even know who this woman was, let alone cared enough to actually find out--the only thing that I was aware of about her was that she had posed herself with a dead body of an Iraqi Prisoner of War by her side, with a thumbs-up sign--smiling, and there was nothing that I wanted to do more than to hate her so completely for it that I can't even begin to describe it now. And yet, after reading the article, which I couldn't at one single go, because I couldn't believe that I was starting to maybe feel some empathy for this person (yes, person! I wonder when that happened), I had to go back and google up the photographs that she had taken of the naked Iraqis piled one ontop of another, just to remind myself of whom I was talking about--and then really had to push myself to complete the story. But I'm glad I did, because it's not easy to look at this kind of stuff from the perspective of the person who you'd assumed to be the monster that you'd pinned all of your hate on, especially since she was the most public figure of the entire travesty.

I think I'd much rather prefer to remember Sabrina as the girl whose name the Iraqi children would shout out in the hope of maybe getting a bit of candy from, and she doing her best to oblige them.
posted by hadjiboy at 4:31 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The story speculates that she started to take pictures as a way to try to distance herself from what was happening. As Sy Hersh has written, other soldiers that did the chain-of-command thing to try to stop the torture got ignored, or cashiered.

Her personal story reminds me of nothing more than the Vietnam stories about the small town boys turned GIs who want crazy behind the razor wire waiting, as the booby traps and the snipers turned their friends into corpses.

I would not want her to babysit my kids. But as a United States citizen I feel I owe this Sabrina a debt of gratitude.

If not for her pictures, how much longer would American boys and girls have kept the torture machine rolling? How many more innocent Iraqis would they have maimed, killed, sent stark raving nutters, turned into jihadis?

The American torture system does not only destroy those from whom it wants to extract information. It scars its employees too.

Or so the story would suggest.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:49 AM on March 21, 2008

It's a complicated and fascinating story. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of Sabrina Harman. She seems a lost soul, searching for but never finding solace in the camaraderie of others. I'm no psychologist, but I think Sabrina has a morbid fascination with death and - more importantly - the circumstances leading up to death that she has to pass through some sort of intermediary filter, which she is able to do by putting a camera in between her and her subject matter. She told herself she was documenting abuses she knew to be wrong but ping-pongs between emotions ranging from giddy to penitent, sometimes within the course of a few hours (as evidenced by her letters). I think the truth is, she enjoys seeing these things but can't rectify that image of herself with the girl who showers Iraqi children with candy.

It's sad to reduce the story's complexity to a hackneyed movie plot point, but Sabrina reminds me of nothing so much as the stock character from high school moviedom who is initiated into the "popular crowd" by being required to pull a cruel prank on a former friend, only to beg for foregiveness later. Only these weren't cruel pranks; this was torture.

What's clearly more disturbing is the ever-clearer MO of the Bush Administration when it comes to its myriad array of scandals: repeat a phony cover story with carefully-crafted soundbites for as long as they possibly can, because by the time the American public finds out the truth, it'll either be too late to stop them (as with the war in Iraq) or America will have lost interest in the story (which is true of Abu Ghraib). I'm glad MeFites picked up on the story and were as enthralled with it as I was.
posted by mrkinla at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

She was thrust into a situation more complex than her simple mind and limited experience could handle. I'm having a really hard time figuring out how to feel about her. Where does one draw the line? Can she be excused for lacking emotional depth? She struggled so much, and yet still seems to view half of what happened there as excusable or not a big deal. She recognises physical torture as inherently wrong, but apparently has little understanding that degredation and emotional abuse are equally as horrible. She fostered a kitten, sheltered it and took care of it, then used it's severed head as a toy. I can't help but think that if she never left the US, she'd be seen as nothing worse than quirky and a bit dim, but what is harmless in polite society seems totally warped in the context of Abu Ghraib.
posted by picea at 10:16 AM on March 21, 2008

She recognises physical torture as inherently wrong, but apparently has little understanding that degredation and emotional abuse are equally as horrible.

Great point - I think this is what really bothered me. Again, it directs the attention back to leadership and policy. US policy and the the tactics of the campaign have been developed to encourage and make use of characters like hers. The success of the strategy depends upon people who struggle with and have trouble parsing the moral repercussions of what they're doing, ultimately relaxing onto the requirements of the structure and signing off judgement. Just following orders.

The lack of solemnity and respect for death itself, whether or not you are comfortable with it, was an upsetting note. It's awfully hard to reconcile the corpse pictures and dead cat head with the stated values of the military as displayed in the pageantry of the returning caskets and the ongoing worldwide search for MIA soldiers' remains. There is an enormous disconnect between death as experienced in the theatre of war and death as imagined and dressed up for civilian consumption.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2008

SABRINA HARMAN: It seems like stuff like this only happened on TV. It’s not something you really thought was going on. At least I didn’t think it was going on. It’s just something that you watch, and that is not real.

ERROL MORRIS: What does that do to your head?

SABRINA HARMAN: Again, I don’t even know where I was at that point. I put everything down on paper that I was thinking. And if it weren’t for those letters, I don’t think I could even tell you anything that went on. That’s the only way I can remember things, is letters and photos.

ERROL MORRIS: So it’s a way of creating memory?

Errol Morris is perfect for this subject: he has a wonderful talent for maintaining dramatic realism in cinema, with his Interrotron that makes it really seem as though his subjects are loooking through the screen and into our eyes, and his famous artistic and emotional recreations of events, like the infamous flying milkshake in The Thin Blue Line. His take, as a passionate documentarian, on this subject of truth, witnessing, and distribution, will be very interesting to observe. I'm eagerly awaiting this film, as I've loved all his others.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:38 PM on March 21, 2008

At this point I regret posting it, as well as reading it.

FWIW I'm glad you did, and glad I read it. This piece was one of the best I've ever encountered. Seconding the anticipation for SOP.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 3:05 PM on March 24, 2008

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