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Snapshots at Abu Ghraib 
by Robert Leverant
June 27, 2004

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When tourists view a famous and oft-photographed vista site, they often say, “Pretty as a picture.” After hearing this exact statement and similar others, many times at tourist sites, I’ve come to understand this strange statement to mean that the actual vista is there to corroborate a mind/memory photograph. Its origin is a photograph seen in the print or electronic media, downloaded and stored in the viewer’s mind. Though artificial, this mind/memory photograph is the real vista site rather than the vista itself. Take Ansel Adams’ stunning photograph of Half Dome. This is the real Half Dome against which visitors to Yosemite view and compare the actual Half Dome. Importantly for a consumer culture, the real Half Dome can be purchased at the Ansel Adams gift shop, or elsewhere in the world, and taken home. It doesn't matter if it is a signed or unsigned archival print or a poster, I own it. It, an image from virtual reality, is mine.

Actual vista points like Half Dome do have an overt purpose – to serve as a backdrop for taking snapshots of smiling loved ones. Photographs in such settings are the main source of idealized and mythic memories. They confirm to family members and friends that “we are a happy family.” This is the core myth in both unhappy and happy families. After posing for the snapshot in front of a vista site, members of a group usually begin talking, soon get in the car, and quickly leave, perhaps, to go to another “must see” vista site. [1] They have made little, if any, actual contact with the site or the environment. They have little incentive to do so, because the site has served the purposes accorded it, in a culture that is devoted to image and not reality.

We use the personal camera, a highly purchased consumer product, to record important moments of our lives – what we’ve done, where we’ve been, with whom, when, and why. This includes not just births, birthdays, marriages, gatherings, travels, and the like, but also the torturing others. In this context Abu Ghraib is just another occasion to share with those back home. There is no sense to us, in the foreground of the photograph, that what we have done to the others, in the background of the photograph, is wrong, because they, like any vista point we photograph in front of, are a prop for us and hence are not real; and hence lack rights and feelings. Besides, the photograph is not of them, but of us, smiling in front of them, our vista point, as we do in all the snapshots that we send home on CDs, as a way of saying to family and friends that we are happy, alive, well, and having a good time. [2]

Robert Leverant has written books and articles on the spiritual aspect of photography and influenced a whole generation of photographers in Europe and the U.S. in experimenting with a Zen approach to photography. In the late Sixties and through the 70s, in addition to being a commercial photographer, he taught photography at the Oakland College of Arts and Crafts, Feathered Pipe Ranch, Mendocino Art Center, Esalen, and in private workshops. Currently, he is a depth psychotherapist in private practice in Sebastopol, CA.


1) For a poignant poem that expresses the lostness and ennui of tourists at vista sites, see Linda Pastan, “It is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” In Norma Fox Mazer & Marjorie Lewis, Eds., Waltzing on Water, Poetry By Women, (New York, New York, Dell, 1989), p121.

2) For insightful commentary on the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib and their cultural meanings, see Susan Sontag, “What Have We Done,” Guardian Unlimited, Monday May 24, 2004.

Other Articles by Robert Leverant

* 5763, Jerusalem
* The Resolution: Sebastopol, USA and Baghdad, Iraq