Linda Williams is a professor of Film and Media Studies and Rhetoric at UC Berkeley
“At first I had to laugh, so I took a picture,” Specialist Sabrina Harmon wrote in a letter home from her new job as a guard at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, describing the sight of a prisoner in shackles with underwear on his head. When the photographs taken by Harmon and her colleagues at Abu Ghraib were eventually made public, nobody laughed. Errol Morris’s documentary attempts to understand what these nightmarish images reveal, and what might be hidden outside the frame. In interviews with several of the so-called “bad apples” involved in the making of the photos, a picture emerges: a convergence of the shameless and the clueless in a place where there was little official distinction between torture and standard operating procedure. Morris augments the talking heads with lushly lit reenactments, swarms of snapshots, and streams of data, but the most crucial revelations come not in images but in the subjects’ words.