errol morris, abu ghraib, alice in wonderland, weekend at bernie's, and saying cheese


Errol Morris has a new documentary about Abu Ghraib called Standard Operating Procedure, which is currently playing at the Sundance Kabuki in SF and at the Elmwood in Berkeley. If you'd like to go see it, let me know. Morris also blogs for the New York Times, and last night posted a fascinating and chilling article about one particular photo, which appears after the jump.

The article is lengthy, especially with the extensive footnotes, but very much worth reading. Here's the photo:


This is Sabrina Harman posing with a murdered Iraqi prisoner in a shower stall at Abu Ghraib prison. The image is pretty horrifying, and my gut reaction (and perhaps yours) is to really hate Harman and her smile, and that thumbs-up. But Morris makes a persuasive case that Harman's smile betrays no joy, and in fact that her later documentation of the corpse's brutal injuries was ultimately civil disobedience, and exposed the lie that the prisoner had died of a heart attack.

I'd encourage anyone to read the whole thing, but here are some interesting excerpts:

On the dead prisoner's nickname

HYDRUE JOYNER: Oh, okay. Yeah, I called him Bernie. You ever see that movie, "Weekend at Bernie's?" I don't want to spoil it for you. Go rent that and you'll understand what I'm talking about. But for you folks out there that knew what I'm talking about, when Bernie surfaced, if you will, again that happened on my day off... ...So lo and behold, I get the story and yeah, he died in interrogation and they put him on ice and a decision, I guess, was being made of how they were going to move him out without everybody thinking the man had just died. I'm like, "Oh Lord, have mercy." And I'm thinking to myself in the back of my head, "Oh, thank God I was off yesterday." The only thing…­Yeah, I mean, the man's dead, that's wrong, you know, I don’t know him but I feel sorry for his passing. But it didn't happen while I was working, so you got to take your victories where you can get them. So I was like, "Whew." But yeah, Bernie expired on my day off.

Soldiers eventually took the corpse out on a gurney, Jonathan Silverman-style, hooked up to a fake IV so as to look like a sick prisoner.

Fuzzing It Up

Fuzzing it up is a common practice in government. You hide intention and responsibility. You have one person say one thing, and another person the exact opposite. You create a blizzard of paper, so much paper that actual evidence is lost in the glut. And of course, you deny anything and everything you can deny — particularly the obvious. (Denying the obvious is always popular.) You produce noise, distraction and confusion. People rarely think of this as a well-established bureaucratic technique, but it is a tried and true methodology.

Saying Cheese

[Facial expression expert]PAUL EKMAN: In picture 2728 she is showing a social smile or a smile for the camera. The signs of an actual enjoyment smile are just not there. Theres no sign of any negative emotion. She's doing what people always do when they pose for a camera. They put on a big, broad smile, but they’re not actually genuinely enjoying themselves. We would see movement in the eye cover fold. That's the area of the skin below the eyebrow before the eyelid. And it moves slightly down only with genuine enjoyment...That's the crucial difference between what I call a Duchenne smile, the true smile of enjoyment, named after the French neurologist who first made this discovery in 1862, and the forced smile, the social smile... ...The crucial thing is, there's no sign that she's really feeling genuine enjoyment while this picture’s being taken. Nor is there any sign that she feels any other emotion, no sign of sadness, no fear, no disgust, and no contempt. It’s just a "say cheese" smile.

ERROL MORRIS: It makes me think the "say cheese" smile was "invented" just for photography.

PAUL EKMAN: Oh, no, no. People do this all the time.


ERROL MORRIS: Just once again so I can be sure I understand. You can distinguish the "say cheese" smile from genuine smiling, the smile of enjoyment.

PAUL EKMAN: Absolutely. It's the absence of the orbicularis oculi par lateralis. That muscle orbits the eye completely. It pulls up the cheek and it produces crow's feet wrinkles. However, when you get a big broad smile, like she's doing, that pushes the cheeks up anyhow. And it will produce crow's feet wrinkles just on its own. So the only reliable clue as to whether orbicularis oculi par lateralis has acted is to look above the eye. No muscle can lower that skin other than the orbicularis oculi. The smiling-muscle, zygomaticus, can't affect it. So you can put on as big a smile as you want, and the cover fold skin will not come down.


Errol Morris Interview from Ferdy on Films

Morris: You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don't. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi's corpse, you think she's responsible for the murder. She isn't.

To me, which is the worse crime—the thumb up or murder? People don't see the murder. People are obsessed with the thumb and the smile. It's an essay on the Cheshire Cat. You see the smile, you don't see the cat.

Weekend at Cheney's, from 2002.


Even if it's just a "say cheese" smile, it's still weird and offensive to pose with a corpse, much less a murder victim.

I did enjoy the in-depth analysis of the smile. At least she'll one day be punished with crow's feet. Whew!

Huh. I just went and read the article. Nice find.

Why can't we just say, she's not a good OR a bad person? She did a brave thing coming forward and she did a stupid, offensive thing with the picture and this isn't Lord of the Rings so people get to be both good and bad. Sometimes we are helpful and sometimes we make jokes about a dead guy on the beach.


Look, if we don't decide on heroes and villains, then the orcs, the Nazgul, and the terrorists have already won.

I will say this is notable for being the only time in the history of photography that being really photogenic has worked against someone. Up is down! Black is white! Big Brother has already won.

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This page contains a single entry by Sean Keane published on May 21, 2008 5:37 PM.

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