Torture Images: a failure to see

This paper offers two readings of a set of photographic images released in 2016 by the US Department of Defense, after a prolonged campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). From a known cache of 2000 images produced by the US military, as documentation of the CIA Torture Programme, 198 images were released. These two sets of images – both the seen and the unseen – provoke a dialogue between the discourses of contemporary documentary photography and forensic imaging in order to think about the evidentiary nature of the documentary photographic image. The contemporary image is postulated as a vehicle upon which to gauge the role of intuition in knowledge formation. Further, the hidden, or latent, image brings forth a discussion of the problematic of the unseen; some of the 1800 withheld images appear as ekphrastic apparitions in the ‘Torture Database’, created by the ACLU as a repository for this material. This paper offers an evaluation of the ‘legal turn’ in contemporary visual art, with its emphasis on legal documents and redactions, which create a kind of cultural afterlife for state imagery. The 198 images were bought as printed artefact in a clear plastic bag by artist Christof Nüssli at a Paris art fair, implying they already operate culturally, if not juridically, as evidence. This sustained act of looking acknowledges the profound power of the image to bring forth a sense of aesthetic justice, while addressing the acutely political question of what, and who, is permitted visibility in our current episteme.