Errol Morris: "The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us"

By Sean Axmaker

A startling thing happened in my interview with Errol Morris.

Errol MorrisLet me back up a bit. I was intent upon exploring the power of imagery in Standard Operating Procedure, a film that is about the images as much as what lies behind them. The photos taken by the guards at Abu Ghraib didn't just break a terrible story; they centered the story, limited it, and ultimately defined the entire investigation behind the atrocities committed by American servicemen and women at the prison. Morris never states it explicitly in Standard Operating Procedure, but that's exactly what the film reveals: the images that exposed a story ultimately became the story, which never really explored anything outside the frame of the photos.

During our session, the issue of reenactments came up and I was curious as to why he chose such an inflammatory style to recreate the scenes of the MPs standing over the prisoners, groups of American soldiers in fuzzy, indistinct video, shot from a distance, peaking around corners and looking over railings. He was astounded. Those were not reenactments. It was video footage from a camera phone. I was astounded. I couldn't believe that such footage existed. Every other documentary image in the film had been seen in the media. These hadn't.

I was chagrined, to say the least, to have misidentified the footage. It looked different from the stylized footage of Morris's "illustrations" (I don't like to call them reenactments, for that suggests something that is neither implied nor revealed in the footage). Sabrina Harman told us that she had shot some camera phone footage and sent it to her partner back home. Yet I couldn't believe the footage was real. Maybe I didn't want to. Perhaps assuming it was a recreation was an instinctive act, so I didn't have to confront it for what it was.

Morris wasn't offended at my mistake, but he was concerned that such a mistake could be made. But it also brought us right back to the question of imagery and how we react to it, how we process it, how we think we know what it means, and how we come to conclusions about it without really knowing or understanding the context. I had illustrated my point far more effectively than I could have ever imagined. And I wondered if the hullabaloo over Morris' technique, of using reenactments, led others to make the same assumptions as me.

To give you a flavor of the actual interview, Errol Morris has a measured, deliberate speaking voice and an agreeable smile, and he keeps you focused with eye-contact, just like the interviews in his films. I would have loved to remain longer and ask him more questions about the film and his thoughts about imagery and media, which he also tackles in his blog on the New York Times, but he had a plane to catch.

Janis Karpinski


How did you convince the five MPs to consent to be interviewed?

Not just the five; everybody was difficult. I suppose that the easiest of all the people I've interviewed – well over twenty people, lots of interviews that are not in the movie – the easiest was Janis Karpinski. I worked as a private detective years ago and I was starting a new case, one of the first cases I worked on, and I said, "Who should I interview first?" And my boss said, "You should always pick the people who have been fired because they are always willing to talk." And that is very, very sound advice.

Janis Karpinski was fired and demoted by Bush and she'd been making the rounds. This all started because my cameraman saw an interview with her on C-SPAN and said, "You should check this out. I think you will be interested." And I brought Karpinski to Boston and we did a 17-hour interview over two days, this quite extraordinary interview where Janis Karpinski started out angry and got angrier and angrier and angrier. I suppose this goes into the DVD extras category, but at one point she made a comparison between Lynndie England and herself and Jessica Lynch. I suppose it's these pictures of American women in the military, how the story changed from the damsel in distress to these evil witches who caused perhaps the demise of our war effort in Iraq. And the way Janis put it, I will never, ever forget. She said, "They needed another face of American women in the military in Iraq and it was Lynndie England and it was me."

This is a very complex, convoluted story on so many, many different levels. I think it is, in many ways, a story about American women in the military. I think that's one of the things about the photographs that made the photographs particularly strange, particularly appalling, particularly perverse. I've often imagined, when [Charles] Graner was taking those pictures, of his 90-some-odd pound, twenty-year-old girlfriend, holding that leash on that the prisoner known as Gus, he was in some very deep sense reenacting American foreign policy.

You bring up what I think is a central point. It's about halfway through the documentary when Lynndie England tells us she was 20 when all this happened.

And turned 21.

That's not something that was part of the story in the media when it broke. We didn't think about how young she was, but in fact there were a lot of young soldiers and MPs there and not a lot of strong leadership, or at least responsible authority.

There was authority. There were commanding officers, there was a chain of command. I often think of Javal Davis and Sabrina Harman talking about their first day on the tier. This is mid-October, 2003. They walk in on something well before they arrived on the scene: prisoners in stress positions, panties on their heads, sleep depravation, stripped nude. Often the policy had them stripped nude by a female interrogator or a female MP because that would be more humiliating. Even [Tim] Dugan, the contract interrogator, talks about how he goes to work: first day at Abu Ghraib, two female interrogators have stripped this Iraqi prisoner nude, and he goes and asks his supervisor: "Excuse me, but should they be doing this?" He says, "Well they can do it, you can't. But they can do this, yes." It's part of policy!

Thus the title: Standard Operating Procedure.

I mean, to think that this happened because of a few rogue soldiers flies in the face of just overwhelming evidence. This is not a political debate, this is not left versus right. We're talking about evidence here. When one of the prosecution witnesses, Brent Pack, tells you that the iconic picture of abuse is standard operating procedure, that's not me saying it's standard operation procedure, that's Brent Pack, Army C.I.D. and photo expert, saying it's standard operating procedure. I like Brent Pack a lot. He's an uncommonly decent and helpful guy.


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