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How Abu Ghraib echoes Robert Mapplethorpe

When I saw the pictures of American soldiers abusing and torturing Iraqi POWs at Saddam Hussein's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, my first thought was of Robert Mapplethorpe's X-series. At first, I dismissed the comparison as saying more about my personal circuitous, twisted thought process than anything else. But the more I thought about it . . .

For those who have been under a rock or hiding in a hole (like a certain former brutal Middle East dictator) or don't read the newspapers (like a certain Leader of the Free World), the X-series is a group of homoerotic, sadomasochistic pictures taken by celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989 just after his retrospective, titled "A Perfect Moment," began touring the United States. The exhibition curator discovered the images in a drawer in Mapplethorpe's studio and convinced him it would be a good idea to include the nine photographs within the context of the dozens of images in the show. When "The Perfect Moment" traveled to the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art in 1990, the center's director, Dennis Barrie, was promptly arrested and prosecuted for obscenity. In the end, Barrie was acquitted, and the far Right's vociferous attack on the First Amendment left freedom of expression in America bruised but intact. (Of course, a recent study at the University of Connecticut indicates that 34 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment offers too much freedom anyway.)

Both the Abu Ghraib series—as these images will inevitably come to be known when they take their rightful place in the iconography of American photography—and the X-series are the kind of images that are hard to forget; they cut deep. And both series tell volumes about America: much more than, say, a photo of the president standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, decked out in a flight suit with a banner behind him reading, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. These images rip through the posing and posturing to the grit that defines us; they are like secrets whispered in dimly lit bedrooms across America or smoke-filled backrooms on Capitol Hill.

These images are unequivocally political and ideological. The Abu Ghraib series documents the worst nightmarish acts the Left might imagine of the Right, and the X-series documents the worst nightmarish acts the Right might imagine of the Left. Neither series was intended for public dissemination. These are private snapshots, documents of moments that held value to the author, participants—intended to be discreetly shared with likeminded compatriots. But it is difficult to imagine two series of photographs that would have a greater impact on the American public.

Perhaps more than anything else, the series are emblems of the growing polarization between the Left and the Right in America. The headline for the Dec. 1, 2003, cover of Time Magazine reads, "Love Him! Hate Him! Why George Bush arouses such passion, and what it means for the country." The cover features an image of George W. Bush, a black eye on one side of his face and a red-lipstick kiss on the other side, and the cover story delineates how America is so clearly—and nearly evenly—divided about George W. Bush. I would think that today, after the political storm the Abu Ghraib photographs have stirred, the lipstick kiss might be a bit smudged. But maybe not: to a substantial number of Americans, Bush is a symbol of the faith they have in their dearest beliefs, and there is probably nothing he or his administration could do that could not be explained or excused away. Even after someone in the Bush administration outed former Iraqi ambassador Joe Wilson's wife as a CIA agent in retaliation for his New York Times editorial criticizing the Bush White House, the Far Right faithful seemed unaffected: I guess istreason isn't what istreason used to be.

So which series of photographs is better? Obviously, for sheer aesthetics, the Mapplethorpe images win hands-down. As expert witnesses testified in the obscenity trial, the lighting, composition and orchestration of textures in the Mapplethorpe photos are superb. Yet the Abu Ghraib images do emanate a distinct raw punch owing to their crude execution.

In terms of content, the X-series is much more explicit. The homosexual acts in the Abu Ghraib series are only simulated, no penetration is depicted—although written accounts of anal penetration are found in various reports on investigations into Abu Ghraib prison abuse. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned on May 7 when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee that there are many more and "worse" images and even videos that have not yet been released to the public.

The photograph of Iraqi prisoner abuse thus far seen publicly that is closest in content to the X-series is not part of the Abu Ghraib series. It is an image of a British soldier urinating onto a hooded Iraqi soldier. Allegedly taken in a detention center near Basra, this image was splashed on the cover of the London tabloid Mirror last week with the headline "VILE! SHAME OF ABUSE BY BRIT TROOPS." This image is strikingly similar to the Mapplethorpe image of a leather-clad man urinating into the open mouth of a man kneeling before him. The soldier does not appear to be urinating into his captive's mouth, but he is standing above a kneeling figure and positioned to the left of the picture plane just like in the Mapplethorpe image, a stream of urine visibly arching from his penis.

Unlike the X-series, the Abu Ghraib series is not exclusively homosexual in its images. U.S. Army Private Lynndie England, formerly of West Virginia (I assume she'll be relocating), is featured prominently in a number of the photographs. Currently in custody at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, London will likely be discharged from the Army; she may even do some time in military prison. But she probably has an opportunity-laden future. A book deal? Maybe a movie? She could no doubt get top dollar as a dominatrix in New York or some other metropolitan city in America. Or she could land one of those six-figure-plus jobs with Halliburton or one of the other companies that are advertising on their websites as looking for "military professionals" to work in Iraq—some companies are specifically looking for "interrogation specialists."

What will the rest of the world take from these two series of photographs? For several years, the Pew Research Center has been monitoring public opinion of the United States in foreign countries. Seventy-seven percent of Moroccans, citizens of a predominantly Muslim nation, held a favorable view of America before 2000. When the survey was conducted again in 2003, that number had declined to 17 percent. Although the overall changes in international opinion are not as dramatic as that in Morocco, most of the world's populace generally held a fairly high regard for America before 2000, and that regard drastically declined when the poll was taken again in 2003.

I don't think the photographs on the X-series will inspire many people to hate America. The same cannot be said about the Abu Ghraib series—or those few who as of 2003 didn't already.

Mike McGee is the gallery director at Cal State Fullerton.
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