This essay's point of departure is the question of how images of death and torture are literally and metaphorically framed by the people who take them and how they are further received by the publics who see them. Beginning with a comparison of two digital headshots of an Arab enemy taken in the throes of war during the US occupation of Iraq, the essay asks, following the lead of Judith Butler, what is visual culture's critical task during times of war? Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure points the way. This extraordinary documentary film, grounded in interpretations of the infamous photos of Abu Ghraib, investigates the frame that creates the figure of the “cluster fuck”—a hopeless entanglement of sexualized yet inept forces—that proves the most eloquent figure of the American entanglement in Iraq. Morris's film can help us discover the difference between a frame that “conducts dehumanizing norms” and a frame that might be capable of questioning these very norms to open up our seeing and knowledge to elusive and contingent truths that lie beyond the frame's limits. The photos of Abu Ghraib pointed to, and were often evidence themselves of, crimes. But they are not the smoking guns they seemed to be. They suggest that photographs must always be considered in the light of what we know about the situation of their taking and that very often, as in the torture death of Manadel al-Jamadi, the real incriminating photo does not exist, though an eloquent picture of “cluster fuck” does.
Linda Williams; Cluster Fuck: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure. Camera Obscura 1 May 2010; 25 (1 (73)): 29–67. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2009-014
Download citation file: