Shawn Michelle Smith

Shawn Michelle Smith is currently an associate professor in the department of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a scholar as well as a practicing artist whose most recent photographic work deals with the much-publicized Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Her work (both written and visual) speaks to a long history of racial and gendered bias within the United States, taking the symbolic role of white womanhood as a point of departure. F catches up with her on an idle Tuesday morning...

Q. When and how did you conceptualize your recent work with the widely circulated Abu Ghraib torture photographs?

A. I have been working on the Abu Ghraib photographs for quite some time. Recently I came across the work of two photographers Antonin Kratochvil and Clinton Fein who, within the last year, have "restaged" the Abu Ghraib torture scenes. Even though I think their work is interesting, I find it problematic in several respects. This is partly because they both focus, almost exclusively, on the victims in the pictures. And I found that odd, because one of the most powerful and disruptive things about the Abu Ghraib images was the way they showed the torturers. So, I wanted to respond to that. I wanted to make a piece that would comment on the absence of the torturer in Kratochvil and Fein's work, and also make the torturer present again. Another thing I found striking about their work is that they transformed the scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib into these entirely homosocial scenes in which only men are depicted. One of the things that was most interesting to me after the images were released in the spring of 2004 was the way in which, in the United States, people consistently responded to the woman in the pictures -- Lynndie England. So, in my work, I wanted to allude to Lynndie England's presence and absence.


Q. How do the Abu Ghraib images function as "after-images" of previous regimes of torture and brutality within and/or beyond the United States?

A. I am trying to use the concept of the 'after-image' both literally and metaphorically. Literally, the 'after-image' is the trace that remains on the retina after one has looked. I think that the Abu Ghraib images were shocking not simply because they were new, but also because they were recognizable to people. And in the United States, I think that they were recognizable as after-images, as shadows or reappearances of lynching photographs. And I would suggest that lynching photographs were actually very present in a pretty broad public imagination at the time that the Abu Ghraib images circulated because James Allen's Without Sanctuary exhibit had been touring the country for a few years. I think that that temporal coincidence really enabled the Abu Ghraib images to register lynching photographs in a powerful way. To me, the most striking connection between the two kinds of images is the presence of the white torturers -- that's the real link -- the presence of the torturers, there to be photographed, posing for the camera. So, thinking about the Abu Ghraib photographs as after-images, I am trying to get at the sense in which people saw those images as shocking, but also had the sense that they had seen them before.


Q. How does the symbolic role attributed to the white woman change over the course of roughly a century that separates lynching and Abu Ghraib? Does it change? Do time and space matter in this context?

A. Well, a lot does change over the course of roughly a hundred years, but what was fascinating to me was the way in which peoples' response in the US, in the press, in the mass media, seemed to suggest that not that much had actually changed in the symbolic understanding and use of white womanhood. People were horrified to see the woman in the pictures; they were horrified to see Lynndie England as a torturer. England's status as the icon of the American torturer brought up a set of unresolved anxieties regarding the role of women in the military, etc. Reading that response in relation to lynching photographs, I think that so much of the way lynching was supposedly legitimized, the way in which lawmakers were encouraged to turn a blind eye to this practice that was always illegal (was murder) was through this rhetoric of 'protecting the white woman' (from the black man). That rhetoric could only be effective if the idea of the 'sexually pure white woman' could be contained and stabilized. As the icon of the American torturer, Lynndie England, reveling in the nakedness of her victims, was anything but contained and 'pure.'


Q. Do you think there exists a link between that notion of 'pure white womanhood' and the media frenzy over Jessica Lynch?

A. Yes, absolutely. Jessica Lynch could be figured as a 'damsel in distress' a woman in need of rescue. Even though their military stories were a year apart, England and Lynch were consistently paired in the media. In a lot of the media coverage of Lynndie England, she was explicitly referred to as the 'inverse' or the 'opposite' of Jessica Lynch -- 'the Jessica Lynch gone wrong.'


Q. I do not know why, but I find it a bit unsettling, the widespread tendency to relate the images of torture to pornography. Can you help me put a finger on why that is?

A. Pornography is not really my forte, but I think that it's clear from the images that part of the torture was making people simulate or participate in sexual acts against their will like the masturbation, and the simulated oral sex scenes. Even the pyramid images evoke so much (to me) the threat of rape. But to say that the images are then pornographic, I don't know...


Q. What role does photography play in the history of lynching and, more recently, in the unfolding of events at Abu Ghraib?

A. It seems pretty clear that many of the photographs of lynchings were orchestrated precisely to show the people in the mob -- that the images were, in fact, made for the murderers. In some instances these images were actually reproduced as postcards, literally evoking their status as souvenirs and mementoes to be shared with loved ones, so as to reinforce a white supremacist community. They were also used as threats and sent to African Americans who were prominent in the press. Some African Americans, like Ida B. Wells, reproduced the images in their own publications; in those contexts, of course, the meaning and significance of the photos were hugely altered and wielded against the mob. Now, in the context of Abu Ghraib, I believe it is documented that people did send these images to family members. Moreover, they kept the photos on hard drives alongside tourist-ey images of themselves on camels, etc. The practice of photographing itself might have significantly increased the shame felt by the victims; as for the torturers, I think the snapshots did serve a souvenir-esque function. Whatever the case, I do not think the pictures were ever meant to receive the kind of public attention they did.


Q. Do you think the soldiers collected these souvenirs in bad faith, I mean, knowing full well that they were doing something really fucked-up or do you think they were actually proud of their actions?

A. To my mind, the fact of the photographs suggests that the soldiers felt that their actions were authorized, legitimized, licensed, so to speak...


Q. To shift gears and look more closely at your work now, was the choice of this very specific shade of green and pure white for these images (reproduced at the top of the page) an aesthetic choice or more than that?

A. Given how I came to make these pieces, and given how much I had been thinking, over the last couple of years, about the symbolic role of white womanhood, the literal whiteness of the cut-out figures was important to me. And the green is actually taken from the sandbags that were used to cover the victims' heads.


Q. I find your work very compelling in that it seems (to me, of course) to empty out the "after-image" and infuse it with symbolic weight. Can you talk a little bit about how your work functions alongside the widely distributed images they reference and alter?

A. I wanted to strip them down. I wanted to strip the images and gestures down to their essential forms to show how they are -- maybe not at first, but ultimately -- recognizable. I was interested in showing how these images and gestures -- like the 'pointing' and 'thumbs-up' have now become iconic and emblematic. By reducing these gestures to their most minimal forms I hoped to get at the basic disconnect between these cocky, ridiculing, even seemingly innocuous expressions and torture.


Q. This last question is slightly broader in scope than the others. What do you think is the role of politics in art? I have been talking to many people who make clear-cut distinctions between their art, their lives, their beliefs and the murky realm of politics. Since your work makes no bones about its political nature and content, I thought it might be interesting to hear your views on the matter...

A. Well, they say "all art is political," and I agree. Some is overtly political, or issue-based -- art that tries to directly intervene and take on a specific problem. This work, however, is a new direction for me. In my scholarly (written) work I have been dealing directly with racial, national and gender politics. I have also been doing photographic work that is much less directly issue-based. So I have been pursuing these two practices side by side for years, and one of the most exciting things about being at the School and being in Visual and Critical Studies is the opportunity and encouragement to merge one's practices. So, this work represents the first time I have made visual work that is overtly political. We're at war. It's hard not to respond.