Photographs as Questionable Evidence? The Case of Abu Ghraib

27morris_2728_c_111Errol Morris steps into the controversial over at the NYT blog Zoom [also see the depressing comments]:

The following essay shows how a photograph aided and abetted a terrible miscarriage of justice. I invite readers to offer their own interpretation of the considerable amount of material contained in the footnotes…

“How can you say she’s a good person?” I am sitting in an editing-room in Cambridge, Mass. arguing with one of my editors. I reply, “Well, exactly what is it that she did that is bad?” We are arguing about Sabrina Harman, one of the notorious “seven bad apples” convicted of abuse in the notorious Abu Ghraib scandal. My editor becomes increasingly irritable. (I have that effect on people.) He looks at me as you would a child. “What did she do that is bad? Are you joking?” And then he brings up the trump card, the photograph with the smile. “How do you get past that? The smile? Just look at it. Come on.”

The question kept coming up. How do you explain the smile? What does it mean? Not only is she smiling, she is smiling with her thumbs-up – over a dead body. The photograph suggests that she may have killed the guy, and she looks proud of it. She looks happy.

I should back up a moment.

This is one of the central images in a rogue’s gallery of snapshots, a photograph taken at Abu Ghraib prison in the fall of 2003. It is a photograph taken by Chuck Graner of Sabrina Harman – posed and looking into the lens of the camera.

In my filmed interview for my documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” Sabrina explains her thumbs-up and her smile:[1]

SABRINA HARMAN: I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla, and so whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands… So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just — I just picked it up from the kids. It’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo, you want to smile. It’s just, I guess, something I did.