Very coincidentally, Errol Morris updates his blog yesterday sometime after I'd made my post. (Not the most probable thing, since his updates seem to be quite well-spaced-out). He's talking about how a photo from Abu Ghraib unfairly implicated (character-assassinated) one of the contractors/soldiers involved. She's seen smiling, posing with the body of a dead torture victim and we immediately assume that she's a sadist.
He interviews Paul Ekman (the facial expressions guy from Blink) on this:
“Horror,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the combination of disgust and terror. So I think “horror” is the right word. It’s a horrible sight, and it instills horror. And then you see, right next to that, someone having a good time. Most people will not realize that’s a “say cheese” smile. They’ll think, because of the broadness of the smile and the thumbs-up gesture, they’re having a good time. That’s what makes this a damning picture to the typical viewer.
I’ll add one more thing. When we see someone smile, it is almost irresistible that we smile back at them. Advertisers know that. That’s why they link products to smiling faces. And when we smile back, we begin to actually experience some enjoyment. So this photograph makes us complicit in enjoying the horrible. And that’s revolting to us.
So why it is such an upsetting photograph is not just because we see someone smiling in the context of the horrible, but that when we look at her, we begin to have to resist smiling ourselves. So it’s a terrible, terrible picture for that reason alone.
So going back to the issue of context which I'd mentioned in my earlier post, Errol Morris says:
Photographs reveal and they conceal. We know about al-Jamadi’s death because of
Sabrina Harman. Without her photographs, his death would likely have been
covered up by the C.I.A. and by the military. Yes, at first I believed that
Harman was complicit. I believed that she was implicated in al-Jamadi’s death. I
was wrong. I, too, was fooled by the smile.
It's an addition to what Yon had to say about photos, truth and context. The photo is fact, but like statistics, it's so damn easy to twist the fact into a false interpretation. Truth can only be obtained by investigation and reasoning, which we often hand over to the powers that be. The result? People wronged, and others who get away.