The recently released images from a cache of 55,000 photographs depicting emaciated, strangled and beaten corpses — allegedly taken in the jails of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad — are terrible to view. They are also bewildering. The photographs, which document the deaths of some 11,000 detainees, were taken not by the opposition but at the behest of Assad's regime. Wouldn't such a government — wouldn't any government — want to hide its crimes rather than record them?
Though this trove of photographs was not meant for release — it was reportedly smuggled out of the country by a defector — these are not the first images of savagery produced by the Syrian regime. Assad's forces have disseminated numerous other photographs and videotapes documenting executions and torture that they have orchestrated. Meanwhile, anti-Assad rebels proudly broadcast their own images of violence and mayhem (beheadings seem to be especially favoured, sometimes accompanied by cheering crowds).
If the Spanish Civil War was the first conflict to be photographed, by Robert Capa and others, in a modern way — that is, up close on the battlefield and among civilians — the Syrian civil war may be the first truly postmodern conflict, at least when it comes to its images. Both sides are engaged in a perverse competition to show the world, and each other, how ruthlessly barbaric they can be. Aided by new technologies — the cellphone camera, YouTube, Instagram, social-media sites — these images of cruelty ricochet around the globe. The traditional role of war photojournalism has been turned on its head: Rather than expose atrocities, photographs now advertise them.
But in other ways the Syrian images are hardly unique. They are the culmination of a long and ignoble lineage of perpetrator photographs: pitiless pictures taken by tormentors of the violence and sadism they inflict on helpless victims. Some of these photographs are disgustingly graphic and reveal the ways in which the human body can be undone; others are quiet portraits of terror and powerlessness in the face of death. Some were taken by those working for recognised governments to impassively record mass murder; others, often exultant, were taken by soldiers on their own or by members of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries or terrorist organisations. The largest and most notorious collection of such images, combining both official and "autonomous" photographs, was taken by Nazi photographers, soldiers and civilian supporters: in the Jewish ghettos, on the Eastern front, in the occupied countries, even in some of the concentration camps (Auschwitz employed two official SS photographers).
More recently, members of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, famed for their mass amputations of their countrymen, photographed themselves as they committed some of their atrocities. So did some of Saddam Hussein's Baathists, as well as the Scorpions, a feared Serbian paramilitary force. Several years ago, Hizbul Islam, a militia in Somalia, invited a photographer to document its death-by-stoning of a man accused of adultery; the resulting photographs are as close to unviewable as any I have ever seen. And some of the most searing and unforgettable images from the post-9/11 era — including the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the Abu Ghraib torture photos — surely fall in the category of perpetrator images.
Other sets of perpetrator photographs display what we might call the "cool gaze" of murderous regimes as they go about their business; such photographs are not always overtly violent, though they are always cruel. Stalin's police photographed condemned political prisoners in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison before their executions; their faces peer out at us in sadness, fear and bewilderment. The recently revealed photographs from Assad's secret jails, though far more graphic, fall under this rubric. Here, again, photography becomes a handy appendage in the bureaucratic manufacture of death.
There is a double horror in the act of looking at perpetrator images. First and most obviously, they show repellent things, fearsome things, unbearable things — things that we would like to believe human beings don't really do to one another. But this revulsion is intensified by the knowledge that these images were made not as protests against viciousness but rather in celebration, or at least documentation, of it. The very existence of such photographs testifies to the fact that such acts can be cause for satisfaction, for pride, for glory — or even for amusement. (It is striking how many smiles appear in the Nazi photographs and those from Abu Ghraib.)
This is why there is such resistance to looking at perpetrator photographs, and why they are often dismissed as "torture porn" — a handy excuse that relieves us of the burden of viewing and thinking about them. They present a sharp challenge to modern concepts of universalism, to the comforting belief that "we" are all essentially the same and that the family of man, while sometimes disputatious, can unite on at least some basic common values. Not so. Perpetrator photographs reveal how terribly different people can be and how terribly easy it is to excise others from the category of the human. As one of Assad's supporters asked of the tortured corpses, "Are they innocent political prisoners or are they Al Qaeda?"
The documentary photographers of the early 20th century, and especially the early war photographers, believed that the revelation of violence and oppression would lead to saving action. Some even dreamed of a world without war and exploitation. I don't think they ever imagined that the camera would become a tool with which to proclaim and affirm, rather than fight against, the most hideous aspects of war and the most fearsome authoritarian regimes. Their dream has become our nightmare.
The New York Times News Service