Eye Contact: Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib and the Interrotron


by Paul Schmelzer, 5/21/08 • Watching Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” I was reminded of a Jean Baudrillard quote I’d jotted in a notebook years ago: “Perhaps our eyes are merely a blank film which is taken from us after our deaths to be developed elsewhere and screened as our life story in some infernal cinema or despatched as microfilm into the sidereal void.”

The film, like all of Morris’ recent works, was made using his patented interviewing tool, The Interrotron, a device that puts a video image of Morris where the camera lens should be. It makes interviewees more comfortable and gives movie-theater audiences direct eye contact with them. Given what some of the Abu Ghraib guards have seen with those eyes — often as perpetrators of horrible acts — this contact can be unnerving, and I found an odd disconnect: the intimacy of eye contact is in such stark contrast to the distance I felt seeing those bizarre photographs.


Interview: Errol Morris on “Standard Operating Procedure”

“Here’s one irony,” Errol Morris told me in a recent interview. “You take a picture and you see the culprit in the picture, but you don’t see the culprits who have not been photographed.”

That pretty much sums up the thesis of his new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which opens at The Lagoon in Minneapolis this Friday. An unflinching reconsideration of the iconic photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison, the film talks mainly to low-level military personnel and contractors (only one higher-up, Col. Janis Karpinski, would talk) but still manages to look beyond the frame of the photos we’ve all seen a million times to find some of the context for these unfathomable acts. My interview, conducted for Minnesota Monitor, covers what we don’t see in those shots: the “obscene” violations of the Geneva Conventions, the vast tent cities and cellblock networks of the prison, and the countless people — MPs, intelligence officers, commanders and civilian contractors — who were there when these supposed “bad apples” were at Abu Ghraib.

“Photographs can make us feel like we’ve seen everything when in fact we’ve hardly seen anything at all,” Morris said. And in yesterday’s post at his New York Times blog, he addresses one such case, that of Spec. Sabrina Harman, whose smile in her snapshots with a battered Iraqi corpse is not what it seems. He told me:

“There’s one photo that endlessly fascinates me. It’s Sabrina Harman with her thumb up smiling over the corpse of an Iraqi prisoner. I looked at the photo and thought, initially, what a monster. I now know she had nothing whatsoever to do with this man’s death and she was secretly taking photographs to prove that a murder had occurred and the U.S. military was attempting to cover it up. In fact the picture means something much closer to the opposite of what we think it means.”

Click through to the Monitor to read excerpts from the interview.