Critic's notebook

'Standard' ways of seeing

Errol Morris's new documentary invites a re-examination of vision and truth

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008

"Standard Operating Procedure," Errol Morris's new documentary about the abuse of prisoners by US soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, is very much a moral exercise: an examination of the misuse of power and abdication of personal responsibility by individual service personnel, the military as a whole, and, ultimately, the United States as a democratic society.

Yet it's also a striking visual exercise - a meditation on the hold that seeing has over us as human beings. That hold, as shown in Morris's film, is threefold: in how we do (and do not) distinguish fact from fiction visually; in how we respond at a wholly visceral level to varying degrees of moral outrage depending on our own role as spectator; and, simply, in how pervasive the act of recording what we see has become in our daily lives.

These elements are so thoroughly woven into the film that Morris could have called it "Ways of Seeing" - except that the art critic John Berger beat him to it, for his classic book and BBC series on how we relate to visual artifice.

Morris's actual title refers to the Army's standard operating procedure in post-Saddam Iraq: ineptitude, maltreatment of prisoners, and an ultimate unwillingness to punish any guilty parties other than a handful of enlisted personnel. As regards seeing, though, the title has a further meaning - two meanings, in fact.

Perceptually, humans have a standard operating procedure, too: We are prone to believing what we see. As a result, the photograph, as commonplace as it is, has a persuasiveness unmatched by anything we hear or read. In the assessment of evidence, the eye is all-powerful - if not all-knowing.

Cinematically, an important part of Morris's standard operating procedure is the reenactment. He is one of the great interviewers in film history. (The things he gets people to say! Just ask Fred Leuchter, the Holocaust denier, in "Mr. Death," or Robert McNamara, in "The Fog of War," or Lynndie England, here.) And he long ago hit upon the use of reenacting events as a way to provide a visual counterpoint to the many talking heads that populate his films and to flesh out what they tell us.

As practiced by Morris, the reenactment works to augment his talking heads; it's a kind of talking past. Augmentation is not substitution, though. Morris edits, lights, and shoots the reenactments in such a way as to differentiate them visually from the interviews and archival footage.

These two related yet opposed standard operating procedures make for an epistemological tension in the documentary. There's the (presumed) veracity of the photograph. And photography, of course, is what made Abu Ghraib notorious. Then there's the (acknowledged) fictiveness of the reenactment. This tension can make watching "Standard Operating Procedure" a fascinating excercise in the interplay of what we see, which is real but not necessarily true, and what we believe, which is always true, subjectively, but not necessarily real, objectively.

In fact, it gets more complicated than that. As the film notes, some of the Abu Ghraib photographs as released to the media were cropped or exist in very similar versions (either taken seconds later or by another camera) that can cast the recorded episode in a different light. And almost as if to bear witness to the slipperiness of photographic veracity, all three cameras the Abu Ghraib pictures came from had inaccurate time and date stamps. (The Army's Criminal Investigation Command had to reconstruct the photographic time sequence.)

As Philip Gourevitch writes in the namesake companion book to "Standard Operation Procedure," a collaboration with Morris, "photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation."

Evidence can make other, more bewildering demands, too. Watching Morris' documentary, one realizes how powerfully the effective complicity that comes of seeing certain of these photographs affects our moral response to the acts they show. These are the photographs of enforced degradation, such as group masturbation; humiliating poses; and, most notoriously, the prisoner being held on a "leash" by England. (The picture was taken as "a souvenir," England tells Morris. "It's just a picture.")

By any sane measure, such acts - inexcusable as they are - are far less worse than the frequent instances of inflicting extreme physical deprivation and pain at Abu Ghraib, let alone killing. Yet the instinctive revulsion one feels at seeing the acts of degradation is distinctly more pronounced than the dismay we feel upon seeing other, more horrific but less outre images.

It may just be that movies and television and video games have so inured us to violence. It also may be that such extreme acts lie beyond our active moral comprehension - as instances of outrageous humiliation do not. Even more, though, the response has to do with the element of spectatorship. We as viewers are implicated here - our presence enlarges, or even completes, the intended humiliation - as we are not with pictures of more grievous acts.

The Army would seem to agree. A suspected terrorist, Manadel al-Jamadi, died while being interrogated at Abu Ghraib. Several service personnel saw fit to pose with the corpse and snap pictures. Specialist Sabrina Harman tells Morris, "It was just - Hey, it's a dead guy, it'd be cool to get a photo next to a dead person." The Army never charged anyone with al-Jamadi's murder - but Harman was initially charged with photographing his corpse! It's "Alice in Wonderland" as "Alice in Hell": Propriety trumps murder, violation causes revulsion as violence does not.

Apparently, it was cool to get pretty much any kind of photo in Iraq. Many have pointed out that what made the events at Abu Ghraib a scandal was the photographic evidence. Who knows what the fate of Guantanamo would have been were cameras there the way they are in Iraq. "Everyone in theater had a digital camera," Sergeant Javal Davis tells Morris. "Everyone was taking pictures of everything, from detainees to death." Or as Harman tells him, "people have photos of all kinds of things. Like, if a soldier sees somebody dead, normally they'll take photos of it." The most striking word there is, of course, the adverb.

John Updike has written of the "surreal centrality" of the automobile in American life. That may change, the price of gasoline being what it is. The surreal centrality of the camera is unchallenged. Taking pictures, "Standard Operating Procedure" reminds us, is as ubiquitous in an Iraqi prison as in a suburban backyard. What's most un-American about Guantanamo isn't, alas, waterboarding or lack of due process. It's the absence of clicking camera shutters.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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