Hers is a face I recognize and know intimately.
Sabrina is almost always smiling. She is every smiling white female I see in ads, mail order catalogs, Facebook photos, and family albums. I know her, her image convinces me.
The truth is that I know very little about the woman behind the photograph, the 25-year-old army reservist from Lorton, Virginia, who served at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. Along with eleven other soldiers, Sabrina Harman was convicted for her participation in the infamous torture scandal, in which Iraqi men and women were brutally attacked by dogs, raped, beaten, and forced to masturbate in elaborate scenes staged for and documented by the camera.
At the time the news broke, I was old enough to be familiar with the photographs, but too young to understand the context that produced their iconic status. Nine years later, when I clicked through them for the first time, the photographs felt fresh and shocking. I felt myself grasping, retroactively, to understand a series of events politically engineered to evade lucidity.
Of the thousands of digital photographs that circulated at Abu Ghraib, only several hundred low-resolution jpgs were released to the public. (In 2007, President Obama had the opportunity to declassify thousands more photographs, but refused, citing issues of national security.) The largest collection of media was published on Salon.com: 279 images and 19 videos, half of which were taken by Sabrina.
Quickly, I became obsessed—enchanted?—with Sabrina’s smiling face, flashing a thumbs-up against the backdrop of nameless, bloody, brown bodies, whose personhood was never acknowledged in mainstream news outlets. She appeared more often than Lynndie England and Megan M. Ambuhl, the other female soldiers made visible by the scandal. Competing media narratives vilified Sabrina as the perpetrator of great violence and inhumanity,¹ and they exalted her as a camera-wielding agent of truth, documenting illegal practices from within.² Sabrina is the “Abu Ghraib photographer,” credited for starting the photographic ritual that allows me to see her and see what she saw.
Sabrina’s countenance is familiar and even mundane, but the experiences she represents couldn’t be further away from me. (This is the existential trauma of the photograph; you can posses the image, never the experience.) The more I dug, the more I became convinced that I would only encounter the image—not truth or justice. Sabrina grinned at me through pixels, fragile and teasing, as I zoomed closer.
“She liked to look,” Philip Gourevitch wrote in his New Yorker expose. “She might recoil from violence, but she was drawn to its aftermath. When others wanted to look away, she’d want to look more closely. Wounded and dead bodies fascinated her. ‘She would not let you step on an ant,’ Sergeant Davis said. ‘But if it dies, she’d want to know how it died.’ And taking pictures fascinated her.”
For the media, the Abu Ghraib photographs were “content”—documents and evidence—but they couldn’t speak to the circumstances that produced each picture and the soldiers’ desire or need to photograph. What I read did little to explore what the photographs originally meant to the soldiers, their commanders, or their victims. Nor did these articles acknowledge the importance of the camera as a distancing mechanism in traumatic circumstances; and how photography can be a social ritual performed among peers to memorialize important events.
At the moment they were made, the photographs produced as “truth” the humiliating and dehumanizing postures of torture. (“Look at these people; they are dirty, deviant, disgusting dogs,” the pictures might say.) At the same time the camera created reality, it also separated the photographer physically and psychologically from the events in front of her. In an environment where torture and violence are normalized, each soldier records their daily experiences; they perform for the camera to pass the time. The camera is a way to “see” without being there and creates a reality with clear victors.
As an image-maker and American soldier, Sabrina occupies a position of power; she is the acting agent. As an image-object—the face looking back at me—she is frozen, objectified by the camera. Her male comrades intentionally photographed male Iraqi prisoners with female soldiers to further the humiliation of their torture. For better or for worse, the objectifying lens of the camera does not distinguish between tortured and torturer. Sabrina’s grin places her somewhere in-between these two spaces, both empowered and dis-empowered by the lens. She is notably silent.
Gourevitch’s words bookend either side of Sabrina (2012), a small, accordion book I made to study the soldier’s expression. In a long row, her de-contextualized faces tilt and smile, from the iconic pictures (posing over a pyramid of naked prisoners) to lesser-known scenes (smiling next to an Iraqi child and with fellow soldiers). I couldn’t tell you which faces come from which moments.
The book gestures towards my initial fascination with her image, and the ambiguity, tension, and curiosity I felt towards the stories journalists told about her. It places Sabrina in this realm of ‘looking’ and invites the viewer to look at her.
Today, I am still looking at Sabrina, looking. Having asked so much of her image, I feel somewhat accountable to it. Art historian and visual culture scholar W. J. T. Mitchell argues for considering pictures as living things with desires and lacks. His provocation, What do pictures want?, shifts the central question of affect away from the viewer. It’s his question that allows me to engage with her image at eye-level.
Sabrina asks something of me—to be larger, to be tangible, to step into physical space—and I want it to be large enough to confront, large enough so that I can “look closer,” and no longer squint to see it.
The next iteration of the Sabrina projects is much bigger: composed of one thousand hand-painted blocks, it measures a total of 43 inches tall and 35 inches wide. The face it mimics comes from a photograph of Sabrina posing with an unidentified female prisoner, thought to be a prostitute. The wooden 3D “pixels” seem to make her image concrete in a way that her low-res digital picture couldn’t aspire to. Her picture is still disorienting and fragmented; I have to be far away to see her.
Building on Mitchell’s question, I’m compelled to ask: What does Sabrina—the image—want? I imagine it might answer, Justice.
Not justice for Sabrina, the 25-year-old army reservist from Lorton, Virginia; nor justice for the atrocities that she was complicit in, nor justice for the victims of those atrocities.
I imagine that it wants to be recognized as just an image, produced by a woman that is both empowered and dis-empowered by the lens. I imagine that it wants to be a just image, to be the things it lacks, to be what I ask it to be.
- Early stories covering Abu Ghraib typically focused on the horrific content of the images and asked broad questions of military responsibility. See Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib” (The New Yorker, 2004), and The Guardian’s image gallery “Torture scandal: The images that shamed America” (2004).
- Specific features of Sabrina Harman came later, focusing on the complexity of her situation and motivations to photograph. In addition to Philip Gourevitch’s expose in The New Yorker, see Errol’s Morris’ “The Most Curious Thing,” (The New York Times, 2008).
Bio: Lizz Thabet is a multimedia artist and illustrator from Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2010, she moved to New York to pursue her BFA at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied photography and visual culture. Like Sabrina, her work often begins with a deep desire to make something accessible to her own understanding. Drawing from trauma studies, cyborg theory, and the work of W. J. T. Mitchell, Lizz likes to consider pictures as living things. She strives to make pictures that will speak back to her. See more of Lizz’s work at www.lizzthabet.com.
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