Errol Morris is widely considered to be one of the best American filmmakers, a reputation that is especially impressive considering that he works in the ghettoized genre of the documentary. The Fog of War (2003) won him an Oscar, and The Thin Blue Line (1988) accomplished an even more notable feat: it got an innocent man off death row. Recently, Morris launched Zoom, an ambitious series of essays for the New York Times Web site that examines the ability of photographs to reveal truths about the world. He explores similar terrain in his upcoming film, Standard Operating Procedure, investigating the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs and the incidents they portray. (The 1.5 million words of interview transcript he amassed from soldiers and the Army Criminal Investigation Division (cid) will also serve as raw material for a book by the same name, which Morris is writing with Philip Gourevitch, the author and Paris Review editor.)
Morris, whether his subject is a former secretary of defense, a lion tamer, or an operator of a pet cemetery, is a master of getting people to listen—so when he enters a reportorial minefield as fraught as Abu Ghraib’s, journalists would do well to pay attention. Michael Meyer sat down with Morris in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, office to discuss photography, journalism, and the strangely overlooked fact that there is a real world out there. (A video clip of the interview is located here.
Michael Meyer: In a very real sense, it was the genre of photography that gave birth to Abu Ghraib, at least as a public scandal. What role did photography play in the way you constructed Standard Operating Procedure?
MM: Was the film motivated by frustration at how Abu Ghraib played out in the media? Did you feel that a part of the story was being left out, and the task had somehow fallen to you?
EM: I don’t know that the task fell to me, because I don’t want to be grandiose about it, but I wonder why the ball got dropped here. It interests me that both the left and the right didn’t think it was necessary to look beyond the pictures. The left thinks: “This is the hand of Cheney and Rumsfeld, who created policies and forced these kids to do what they did.” The right thinks: “Animal House on the night shift, high school kids gone crazy.”
MM: So you think that the reason the ball was dropped had a lot to do with the photographs themselves?
EM: I think that the photographs served as a cover-up as well as an exposé. That is one of the things that’s truly fascinating about them. They gull you into thinking that you know everything there is to know. This is the bad stuff—look at it; here’s the ocular proof; here’s the image. I started to think of biography and history, and how they’re most often written. People start at the beginning, they go through the middle, and they come to the end. There’s something truly insufferable about it, because often I feel I’m going through some kind of routine and I don’t know why. Just the mere fact of ordering stuff chronologically is supposed to be good enough, it’s supposed to express causation. But what if you could do history in a completely different way? What if you entered history through something really, really specific, like a moment in time and a specific place, picked almost at random? What if you could enter history through a photograph?
MM: How did you go about employing your film as a remedy for some of the inherent problems with photography, some of which you just mentioned?
EM: It’s taking a photograph and providing context for it any way you can. Talking to the people who took the photograph. There are literally thousands upon thousands of Abu Ghraib photographs; you can just spread them out on a table in a big pile. Then it’s a matter of recovering a narrative from that big pile—ordering the photographs, contextualizing the photographs, trying to understand what they are photographs of.
MM: What role does your use of reenactments play in encouraging an audience to enter into the photographs?
EM: The reenactments are designed to facilitate that process of going back there in the mind. There’s a line that I very much liked years and years ago from the philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who wrote that history was a reenactment of the past in the mind.
MM: If the reenactments are designed to take the audience into the scene, are they striving to be literal?