The Mirror and the Leash
There she is again — Private Lynndie England, revealed by now to be a kind of victim herself, a small town girl who grew up in a trailer on a dirt road and joined the army to make money for college, explore the world, seek sophistication. She found it in Abu Ghraib, a worldliness that makes us shudder not because it’s so alien but because it’s so familiar. We’ve seen this sort of thing before.
The picture on the right is a detail from “Hotel Room, Place de la Republic, Paris, 1976,” by Helmut Newton, one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. A German Jew born in Berlin in 1920, Newton transformed fashion photography during the 1970s. In 1971, he suffered a heart attack; when he recovered, he resolved to devote himself to work that fascinated him and images that haunted him. His photographs became more overtly sexual, but not sexy; they were filled with cold, robotic nudes, props in scenes intended to simultaneously suggest menace and powerlessness. The fashion world loved that. And Newton found the opportunity to channel his youthful encounters with German fascism into pictures to be a kind of redemption. His photographs, he’d say, were not so much violent as disturbingly erotic. He was especially intrigued by making pictures of women on leashes.
Eros, desire — the first move in every theological equation — echoes even in pornography. Porn, argue many theologians, is an expression of the longing for transcendance. Depending on your religious position, that can mean it’s sinful or a step toward some strange kind of salvation. But not many will find even a whisper of eros in the pictures from Abu Ghraib.
The elements of Newton’s picture are all there — nudity, a leash, a body that has no identity. It’s that last — the body — that even more than the leash is the key to really seeing these pictures. The most notable thing about the body in Newton’s is that the line of the woman’s spine and her buttocks reflect that of the leash which restrains her. In the picture on the left, the prisoner has been made a prop in a re-enactment of the same image. England is both the subject and author of this this overtly-sexual, unsexy nude, made menacing — like Newton’s — by her encounters with fascism. In Iraq, of course, the regime overthrown and the regime implemented, but also earlier, back home. Where we are horrified by such pictures. Where we don’t do such things, don’t think such things, never saw such things.
The picture on the left is the mirror of the one on the right in more ways than one, a recreation of an image variations of which Pvt. England saw a thousand times over, glossy and pixellated and billboarded. She seems to be in control — and she will surely take the fall — but this picture is from the bottom of the chain of command, the one that descends from art to commerce to porn (or should those two be reversed?) to this image from a circle of Hell both too deep and too banal for Dante. If you believe in souls, you might see hers slipping away — look there, at her shoulders slumping, her hands hanging limp, her eyes following the line of the leash to the creature at the other end. One of them is lying down, the other is standing. It could just as easily be the other way around.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).