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Photography and the nature of evil are on the agenda today at the TED conference, the invitation-only get-together for big thinkers in Monterey, California. This afternoon psychologist Philip Zimbardo is speaking about how ordinary people become capable of doing horrible things. He’ll be illustrating his ideas with pictures. Zimbardo served as an expert witness for the defense in the trial of a U.S, soldier who served as a prison guard at Abu Ghraib prison. In that capacity, he obtained many images of abuse that have never before been seen. He has compiled the images in a short video, which he enhanced with sound effects. You can see the video previewed on Wired.com. Be aware that these are intense and disturbing images and use discretion.
Many of the images made at the notorious prison have become icons of the war in Iraq. Indeed, at this point I think it’s safe to say that those images—made by prison guards themselves on cell phone cameras—will be the enduring expressions of the war. In the way that only photographs can, they will form the fabric of our memories. There will be no way to separate those images from the American experience of the war.
As always with photos, the question is what they can explain and what they can’t explain. The images themselves started as keepsakes, then became evidence. Eventually they became artifacts that seemed to describe not only the specific events they depicted, but also something far greater. We read certain ideas into them, and they become icons representing an entire moral framework.
Zimbardo, who once conducted the famous experiments at Stanford University in which students posed as prisoners and guards, helps us view these images for what they were before they were iconic. In his view, we are seeing people whose actions are “a product of a powerful situation within a powerful system.” These soldiers, says Zimbardo, can be seen as experiencing “diminished capacity and have lost their free will or their full reasoning capacity.” It’s more comfortable for many of us to look at the Abu Ghraib images and see them as art, not simply as snapshots. As snapshots, these images remind us that the American soldiers were real people and more or less like the rest of humanity.–David Schonauer