Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography | by Errol Morris | The Penguin Press | 336 pages, $40.00
Here’s a theory: every year photographs become more ubiquitous, and as that growing ubiquity builds to a certain critical mass, our collective understanding of photography’s place in our lives becomes more and more diluted, and our need to reconsider our relationship to the medium becomes more and more urgent. It’s arguable that the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs was that moment of critical mass for the digital era. Certainly there was no comparable phenomenon in previous photographic history. The photos were taken not by journalists but by soldiers with consumer-quality digital cameras—participants in the story they were documenting—and were rapidly reproduced and disseminated on a global scale. And, proving the fraught nature of our relationship with photography, the images have now spent more than seven years in the public eye, and have managed to become iconic but not understood, as the circumstances they depict remain shrouded in obfuscation, politicization, and mystery.
The argument that the Abu Ghraib photos themselves (rather than just the horrors they depicted) represented a watershed moment in the relationship between photography and the public was made first and most compellingly by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in his 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure. And Morris’s new book of essays, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography just might be that much-needed book that codifies our relationship to photography in the post-digital world.
Though Believing is Seeing ranges widely, dealing with everything from Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War in 1855 to “photography and memory” during the American Civil War, the essays that deal with contemporary and specifically digital photography are the collection’s lynchpin: the key to the book’s cohesion as well as its relevance. In fact, every essay in the book is itself a product of new media, as each originally appeared in some form on Morris’s blog at nytimes.com. Regardless of whether you’ve read the blog, which features long-form, heavily footnoted essays that are refreshing in their complete disregard for the blog format, it should be noted that Believing is Seeing is not a mere exercise in recycling. The essays have been adapted and arranged into a coherent whole, and people who have read the pieces before will enjoy revisiting them in book form, where they achieve a thematic resonance that failed to come through when published independently.
For me, the highlight of the collection is the pair of essays on Abu Ghraib, particularly the essay on the iconic Hooded Man photograph. Morris’s book is simultaneously an homage to and a warning against the power of images over the human brain (really, all of his work is a mix of fascination and skepticism) and, like many of the photographs Morris deals with in the collection, the Hooded Man has a hugely powerful symbolic meaning that serves to overpower and subvert the factual information the photograph contains.
Morris opens his essay with an explanation of how the image managed to dupe The New York Times, which published a front page story on March 11, 2006 claiming that a former Abu Ghraib prisoner named Ali Shalal Qaissi was the man in the photograph. The story was quickly discredited (Morris makes a strong argument that the Hooded Man was in fact another prisoner named Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh) but the Times was hardly alone in rushing to draw conclusions from the photograph that were not supported by the facts.
Morris explains that there are actually multiple versions of the Hooded Man photograph. The first version, which is the photo (posted above) that everyone thinks of when they think of Abu Ghraib’s Hooded Man, was taken by Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, one of the Military Police assigned to Abu Ghraib who was later sentenced to eight years in prison for abusing prisoners. Another photograph was taken just minutes later by Specialist Sabrina Harman, and shows the Hooded Man along with Sergeant Frederick, who is holding his digital camera, looking down at the photograph he has just taken: the photograph that was destined to become perhaps the most famous image of the Iraq War.