Index World Press Photo
January 2006 | Edition Three     

Talking Point is the feature which we hope will be just that.

In each edition, we ask an expert to write an article about a current issue affecting photojournalism.

If you agree or disagree with what is said, please let us now by emailing from the link at the foot this page. We would like to reflect your views in forthcoming editions.

In this issue, we look at the real impact of dramatic images in the media.

Few photographs in recent years have been as controversial as the amateur snapshots of U.S. soldiers abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the prison twenty five kilometers (20 miles) west of Baghdad.

They instantly became icons after being broadcast on American TV by ABC’s 60 Minutes at the end of April 2004 and iniating a debate both inside and outside the United States.

Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, a Ph. D. research fellow at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication Studies at Stockholm University, discusses the real impact of the images.

"While it is popularly held that the Abu Ghraib photographs had a sensational impact on American politics and public opinion, most communication scholars are quite skeptical about claims of the powerful effects of news photographs.

The real meaning of the torture photographs was far from obvious when the Abu Ghraib story broke.

Instead, a political debate took place in the United States about how best to put the photographs into context and how far-reaching the prisoner abuse scandal was going to be.

So, the Abu Ghraib case offers an opportunity to explore the relationship between news photographs and public, media and political reaction.

My key conclusion is that even if evidence is hard to find that such news icons have an immediate political or policy effect, they certainly have long-term repercussions for the shaping of public consciousness and popular memory.

The Bush administration at first managed to contain the political consequences of Abu Ghraib and rode out criticism while avoiding any real shake-up. It suggested the photos were no more than a series of sick abuses initiated and performed by the individuals in the images.

These acts were carefully presented as deviant behavior by a small group of perverted individuals, deflecting responsibility from policymakers.

If this view is accepted, rather than serving as evidence of the administration’s failed foreign policy, the photographs could instead be represented as merely showing what the young Americans smiling back at the camera were up to.

In this scenario, the photographs have been exploited by political elites to blame the individuals posing in the images, in order to protect those higher-up in the command chain.

However, if we want to assess their political impact, we must also consider their circulation outside news media and political circles. There is also the influence on popular culture.

Worldwide, the Abu Ghraib photos have continued to be re-represented in posters, murals, ads, comics, art and on popular websites.

In many cases they have been transformed into anti-war and anti-American messages.

So, even if in the short-term the Abu Ghraib photographs have had minimal political or policy repercussions, they may nevertheless have helped to deal a fatal blow to the United States’ mission in Iraq.

People have made use of the torture photographs to highlight so-called American pretensions to racial, cultural and political domination in Iraq.

Not only were these photographs bound to alienate Iraqis and much of the Arab world, in the long-term they would also register strongly in the minds of Americans.

The images have helped preserve the issue of prisoner-torture in public consciousness and become an integral part of peoples’ understanding of the US ”war on terror”. "

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A hooded, and apparently wired prisoner

A poster drawn from the hooded prisoner image

The images were turned into wall-art by Salaheddin Sallat

The so-called "Leash Gal" image

One of a series of graphic illustrations based on the Abu Ghraib photos by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

Copyright 2006, all rights reserved by the photographers