Back to News & Commentary

A Director’s Take on Why the Photos Are Important

Share This Page
May 29, 2009

Alex Gibney, writer, director and producer of the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, recently commented on The Atlantic about the Obama administration’s reversal on releasing photos depicting detainee abuse in U.S. custody overseas in the ACLU’s Torture FOIA lawsuit.

As a filmmaker, Gibney clearly understands the importance and sensitivities around using images to tell a story. Taxi to the Dark Side investigates the murder of an innocent Afghan taxi driver at the Bagram Air Force Base. By incorporating images from inside the Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons, and interviews with former government officials, interrogators, prison guards, journalists and families of the tortured prisoners, the film dissects the progression of Bush administration policies condoning indefinite detention, torture and abuse.

Arguably, this story would be a hard one to tell without images illustrating the kind of torture and abuse the film confronts.

In an entry entitled “Why the Photos Are Important,” Gibney states:

…When I was making “Taxi to the Dark Side,” we scanned scores of previously unreleased photos from Abu Ghraib and discovered disturbing evidence of widespread abuse and lack of discipline…the photos confirmed a de facto policy that was meant, according to an investigation conducted by Major General Fay “to condone depravity and degradation.”

…So, painful as they may be to examine, these new Abu Ghraib pictures probably have even more to teach us about how the “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by the Office of Legal Counsel, for a few detainees in CIA custody, somehow managed to spread to Iraq, where even John Yoo has said that the Geneva Conventions were supposed to apply.

Our enemies already know much of what we have done in the CIA black sites, and in our prisons in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq. By following the rule of law, and abiding by our principles of openness and inquiry, we don’t give comfort to our enemies. Just the opposite. We send a powerful signal that we mean what we say about investigating crimes, rather than covering them up. We show that we mean what we say about the rights of the individual and that we are strong enough to assert them, not so weak that we must hide our principles – or our photographs – whenever our military forces are engaged in combat.

In a second post about the photographs entitled “Photos Lie – and They Also Tell the Truth. Release Them.” Gibney goes on to say:

…The fact is that these photographs, in conjunction with other bits of evidence – including the documents that the Obama Administration properly released – can still teach us a great deal. Further, a release of the photos probably does not prefigure their display on cereal boxes. Newspaper editors, bloggers, TV and Film Producers will still exercise judgment about whether the release of some photos merely amounts to a pornographic display, rather than leading to a greater public understanding.

We shouldn’t allow the government to shape its own narrative about crimes that have been committed in our name. Through good judgment and analysis, American citizens should be able to have the opportunity to work out the forensic and cultural meaning of these photographs.

Well said. We give that a standing ovation.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page