At the Limits of the Image: Torture and its Re-Presentation in Popular Culture

Spring 2009

iconoclastia 1

On April 28, 2004, a series of images from Abu Ghraib prison were aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes II. This was the first time that these photographs would be seen in public and they counted amongst their number an image that was to become instantly iconic. A man, in a penitential shroud, stands aloft a box with a hood on his head and what appears to be electric wires attached to his fingertips. The image is poorly taken, stark, and under-lit but, in all its purgatorial undertones and abject hopelessness, it would sear its way on to television screens and the front pages of newspapers worldwide; its iconographic wretchedness acting as a lightening rod for both anti-American and anti-war protestors alike.[1] And yet, for all the opprobrium and shock directed towards both this image and the perpetrators of this ghastly scenario, I have to admit that I did not find this image shocking as such. More images would follow this one, some more disturbing in their content, some obviously depicting torture, others showing a dead and obviously abused Iraqi—later identified as Manadel al-Jamadi—packed in ice and wrapped in cellophane. A significant number of images depicted forced acts of prisoner-on-prisoner fellation and masturbation; prisoners in enforced stress positions with women’s underwear draped on their heads; and prisoners stacked one upon another in a grotesque human pyramid. Others showed a man with a leash around his neck being led naked from a cell and a faeces-besmeared man standing forlornly with his arms akimbo in the face of his gun-toting tormentor. Amidst this abecedarium of abuse, specific images stood out, none more so than a petrified prisoner with a snarling dog inches from his face. But none of these photographs were as redolent as the hooded man standing on the box. This was surely, in all its casual arbitrariness and yet methodical application, the brute fact of what Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life”: the application of a brute sovereign form of power upon that most vulnerable of entities: the rightless and thereafter forsaken subject.

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[1] The image was taken by Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II during his time at Abu Ghraib, which dated from October to December 2003. Frederick would be- come the highest in rank of the seven U.S. military police personnel who would be later charged with torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, all of whom were members of the 372nd Military Police company.


Downey, Anthony. “At the Limits of the Image: Torture and its Re-Presentation in Popular Culture.” Brumaria Spring 10, 2009: 123-33.