Believing is Seeing Redux

In a recent blog post, Errol Morris addresses the debate over the identity of the subject of the iconic “hooded man” photograph taken in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Recalling that The New York Times reported on March 11, 2006, that Ali Shalal Qaissi, nicknamed “Clawman” by his guards, was the man in the photograph.  To reinforce this point, the Times published a photograph of Qaissi holding a copy of the “hooded man” photograph on the front page of the paper.   As Morris goes on to note, the Times was forced to issue a retraction one week later when it was determined that another prisoner, nicknamed Gilligan, not Qaissi was the “hooded man.”  Morris uses this controversy to remind us of “the central role that photography itself played in the mistaken identification, and the way that photography lends itself to those errors and may even engender them.”

Morris uses these arguments about the properties of photography to underscore a larger argument that what we see in photographs is determined by what we believe and not, as we might expect, the other way around.  In other words,  as Morris puts it, “believing is seeing.”  As I prepare for my “Documenting Injustice” seminar at FSU, I’ve been finding myself thinking about many of the arguments that Morris raises and, I think that his blog essay will provide an interesting companion to some of the other materials I’ll be teaching this semester (and it’s consistent with an argument I made last fall about the controversy over Thomas Hoepker’s “Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2001”).

I do think that Morris continues to turn “post-modernists” into straw men by implying that postmodernism “would throw truth out along with objectivity” (i.e., postmodernism isn’t relativism), but I share much of his skepticism regarding photography’s ability to represent reality.  But part of what I find valuable about Morris’s blog essay is his detailed reading of the second photograph, the Times picture that shows Qaissi holding the “hooded man” photo.  Morris asks the reader to take a second look at the photo and points out that Qaissi’s injured left hand–the injury that earned him the nickname Clawman–is cropped out of the photograph, speculating about the conscious and unconscious impulses that might have gone into choosing that particular photograph for the Times story.

I’m still thinking about how I’ll use the article–I obviously have a lot of material I want to cover–but I think Morris’s comments will be useful for framing some of these arguments about photography and documentary.

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