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How images make world politics: International icons and the case of Abu Ghraib


This article introduces international icons to the field of International Relations. International icons are freestanding images that are widely circulated, recognised, and emotionally responded to. International icons come in the form of foreign policy icons familiar to a specific domestic audience, regional icons, and global icons. Icons do not speak foreign policy in and of themselves rather their meaning is constituted in discourse. Images rise to the status of international icons in part through images that appropriate the icon itself, either in full or through inserting parts of the icon into new images. Appropriations might be used and read as critical interventions into foreign policy debates, but such readings should themselves be subjected to analysis. A three-tier analytical and methodological framework for studying international icons is presented and applied in a case study of the hooded prisoner widely claimed to be emblematic of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

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1 The New York Times ran a short story on 21 March 2004, which briefly noted that six soldiers had been charged by the American military ‘in connection with alleged abuse of prisoners in Iraq’ and that eleven others were suspended due to ongoing investigations. Thon Shanker, ‘The Struggle for Iraq: The Military; 6 G. I.'s in Iraq Are Charged With Abuse of Prisoners’, New York York Times, 21 March 2004.

2 Bush George W., ‘Interview With Alhurra Television, May 5, 2004’, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush (2004, Book I) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 767–70, 768.

3 Perlmutter David D., ‘Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs’, Orbis, 49:1 (2005), pp. 109–22, 121.

4 Quoted in Apel Dora, ‘Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib’, Art Journal, 64:2 (2005), pp. 88100, 100.

5 Conclusive evidence as to how many images were circulated to the media is hard to find, but on 12 May 2004 members of the US Congress are reported to have been shown ‘over eighteen hundred photographs and video’. Apel, ‘Torture Culture’, p. 98.

6 Brink Cornelia, ‘Secular Icons: Looking at Photographs from Nazi Concentration Camps’, History & Memory, 12:1 (2000), pp. 135–50; Apel, ‘Torture Culture’, p. 91.

7 Seymor Hersh's article was posted on-line on 30 April 2004, while the printed version appeared in The New Yorker on 10 May. Hersh Seymore M., ‘Torture at Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker, 80:11 (2004), pp. 42–7.

8 See, for example, ‘Inconvenient Evidence: Iraqi Prison Photographs from Abu Ghraib’, International Center of Photography, New York, 17 September–28 November 2004; and Eisenman Stephen F., The Abu Ghraib Effect (London: Reaktion Books, 2007).

9 See Apel, ‘Torture Culture’; Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect; Andén-Papodopoulos Kari, ‘The Abu Ghraib Torture Photographs: News Frames, Visual Culture, and the Power of Images’, Journalism, 9:5 (2008), pp. 530; Carrabine Eamonn, ‘Images of Torture: Culture, Politics and Power’, Crime, Media, Culture, 7:1 (2011), pp. 530; Mitchell W. J. T., Cloning Terror: The War on Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011); and McWilliam Neil (ed.), Lines of Attack: Conflicts in Caricature (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2010) for images of some of these appropriations.

10 Bennett W. Lance, Lawrence Regina G., and Livingston Steven, ‘None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal’, Journal of Communication, 56:3 (2006), pp. 467–85. For a critique of the methodology and the negative conclusions of Bennett et al., see Porpora Douglas V., Nikolaev Alexander, and Hagemann Julia, ‘Abuse, Torture, Frames, and the Washington Post’, Journal of Communication, 60:2 (2010), pp. 254–70.

11 Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, pp. 7–8.

12 Khalili Laleh, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

13 Quoted in Alex Spillius, ‘Barack Obama Attempts to Block Torture Photos’, The Telegraph (14 May 2009).

14 Perlmutter, ‘Photojournalism’; Hariman Robert and Lucaites John Louis, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007); Campbell David, ‘Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – the Case of ITN Versus Living Marxism, Part 1’, Journal of Human Rights, 1:1 (2002), pp. 133; Mortensen Mette, ‘When Citizen Photojournalism Sets the News Agenda: Neda Agda Soltan as a Web 2.0 Icon of Post-Election Unrest in Iran’, Global Media and Communication, 7:1 (2011), pp. 416.

15 Perlmutter David D., Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crisis (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1998), p. 17.

16 Laclau Ernesto and Mouffe Chantal, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985), p. 112.

17 Some of the key monographs and edited volumes are Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy; Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption; Mitchell, Cloning Terror; and Alexander Jeffrey C., Bartmanski Dominik, and Giesen Bernhard (eds), Iconic Power: Materiality and Meaning in Social Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

18 Axel Heck and Gabi Schlag set out an iconological approach, yet their focus is on images in general, rather than the specificity of the (international) icon. Heck and Schlag , ‘Securitizing Images: The Female Body and the War in Afghanistan’, European Journal of International Relations, 19:4 (2013), pp. 891913.

19 Campbell David, ‘Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War’, Review of International Studies, 29: (2003), pp. 5773, 57; Williams Michael C., ‘Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics’, International Studies Quarterly, 47:4 (2006), pp. 511–31, 527. For responses to Williams's call see Möller Frank, ‘Photographic Interventions in Post-9/11 Security Policy’, Security Dialogue, 38:2 (2007), pp. 179–96; Vuori Juha, ‘A Timely Prophet? The Doomsday Clock as a Visualization of Securitization Moves with a Global Referent Object’, Security Dialogue, 41:3 (2010), pp. 255–77. The concern with visual representation has been a part of poststructuralism since the late 1980s, most noticeable in the work of Michael J. Shapiro and James Der Derian, but poststructuralists did not formulate an explicit research agenda like the one that has crystallised over the past decade. Shapiro Michael J., The Politics of Representation: Writing Practices in Biography, Photography, and Policy Analysis (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1988); Der Derian James, Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992).

20 Weber Cynthia, ‘Popular Visual Language as Global Communication: The Remediation of United Airlines Flight 93’, Review of International Studies, 34: (2008), pp. 137–53, 153; Campbell, ‘Cultural Governance’, p. 73; Lisle Debbie, ‘The Surprising Detritus of Leisure: Encountering the Late Photography of War’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29:5 (2011), pp. 873–90.

21 Möller, ‘Photographic Interventions’; Vuori, ‘A Timely Prophet?’.

22 Bleiker Roland and Kay Amy, ‘Representing HIV/AIDS in Africa: Pluralist Photography and Local Empowerment’, International Studies Quarterly, 51:1 (2007), pp. 139–63, 157.

23 Dodds Klaus, ‘Steve Bell's Eye: Cartoons, Geopolitics and the Visualization of the “War on Terror”’, Security Dialogue, 38:2 (2007), pp. 157–77, 174.

24 Brink, ‘Secular Icons’, p. 137.

25 For studies that adopt a wider conceptualisation of icons, see Alexander et al., Iconic Power.

26 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 27.

27 Mortensen, ‘When Citizen Photojournalism’.

28 Spiegelman Art, ‘Drawing Blood: Outrageous Cartoons and the Art of Outrage’, Harper's Magazine, 1873 (2006), pp. 4352; McPhee Constance C. and Orenstein Nadine M., Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Hansen Lene, ‘Theorizing the Image for Security Studies: Visual Securitization and the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:1 (2011), pp. 5174.

29 Craven David, ‘Present Indicative Politics and Future Perfect Positions: Barack Obama and Third Text’, Third Text, 23:5 (2009), pp. 643–8, 644; Mortensen, ‘When Citizen Photojournalism’, p. 7.

30 Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, p. 24.

31 Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, p. 11.

32 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 212.

33 Sturken Marita and Cartwright Lisa, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 3946.

34 Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, p. 18.

35 Mortensen, ‘When Citizen Photojournalism’, p. 13.

36 Brink, ‘Secular Icons’, p. 139.

37 Ibid., p. 139.

38 Ibid., p. 139.

39 Ibid.

40 Butler Judith, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25:6 (2007), pp. 951–66, 959.

41 Belting Hans, ‘Body and Image’, in Alexander Jeffrey C., Bartmanski Dominik, and Giesen Bernhard (eds), Iconic Power: Materiality and Meaning in Social Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 187202.

42 Alexander Jeffrey C., ‘Iconic Experience in Art and Life: Surface/Depth Beginning with Giacometti's Standing Woman’, Theory, Culture & Society, 25:5 (2008), pp. 119, 7.

43 Lisle, ‘The Surprising Detritus’.

44 Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, pp. 18–20.

45 Ibid., p. 18.

46 Ibid., p. 14.

47 Brink, ‘Secular Icons’, p. 141.

48 Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, p. 17.

49 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 39.

50 Ibid., p. 154.

51 Risse Thomas, ‘“Let's Argue!”: Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, 54:1 (2000), pp. 139.

52 Campbell David, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Weber Cynthia, ‘I am an American’: Filming the Fear of Difference (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).

53 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 6.

54 Campbell, ‘Atrocity, Memory’, p. 1.

55 Perlmutter, ‘Photojournalism’, p. 119.

56 Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 142.

57 Buzan Barry and Wæver Ole, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

58 Perlmutter describes the inability of his students to identify a series of presumably iconic photos. Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy, pp. 9–11. Such experiments provide valuable information about the capacity of potential audiences to recognise images as freestanding entities. Yet, the experimental design is also misleading insofar as ‘icon viewers’ never encounter images without some discursive contextualisation.

59 Robinson Piers, ‘The CNN Effect Reconsidered: Mapping a Research Agenda For the Future’, Media, War & Conflict, 4:1 (2011), pp. 311, 9.

60 Livingston Steven, ‘The CCN Effect Reconsidered (Again): Problematizing ICT and Global Governance in the CNN Effect Research Agenda’, Media, War & Conflict, 4:1 (2011), pp. 2036, 28.

61 Ibid., p. 29.

62 Mortensen, ‘When Citizen Journalism’, p. 7.

63 Walker R. B. J., Inside/outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

64 Hansen Lene, Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (London: Routledge, 2006).

65 Works in IR have taken different positions on this issue. Axel Heck and Gabi Schlag for example draw on German art historians Erwin Panofsky and Horst Bredekamp holding that iconic images may succeed in functioning as security acts independently of text due to their symbolic form. Frank Möller by contrast builds on social and visual theorist, W. J. T. Mitchell arguing that the image is inherently ambiguous lending itself to multiple interpretations and thus always in need of textual discourse. Heck and Schlag, ‘Securitizing Images’; Möller, ‘Photographic Interventions’.

66 Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony & Socialist Strategy.

67 Robinson, ‘The CNN Effect’, p. 6.

68 Ibid., pp. 6–7.

69 Perlmutter, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy.

70 Bennett et al., ‘None Dare Call It’, p. 481.

71 Rebecca Adler-Nissen, ‘Diplomacy as Impression Management: Strategic Face-Work and Post-Colonial Embarrassment’, Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, Université de Montreal – McGill University, Working Paper, no. 38 (2012).

72 Campbell, ‘Cultural Governance’, p. 72.

73 Ibid.; Bleiker and Kay, ‘Representing HIV/AIDS’.

74 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics’, p. 964, see also Mitchell W. J. T., What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 142.

75 Campbell, ‘Cultural Governance’; Andén-Papadopoulos, ‘The Abu Ghraib Torture’, pp. 16, 20, 23.

76 Brink, ‘Secular Icons’, p. 135; Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 203.

77 Edwards Janis L. and Winkler Carol K., ‘Representative Form and the Visual Ideograph: The Iwo Jima Image in Editorial Cartoons’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 83:3 (1997), pp. 289310.

78 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, pp. 171–207.

79 Katharine Q. Seelye, ‘Pepper Spray's Fallout, From Crowd Control to Mocking Images’, The New York Time (22 November 2011).

80 Weber, ‘Popular Visual’, p. 139.

81 Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 67.

82 Apel, ‘Torture Culture’.

83 Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 10.

84 Reinhardt Mark, ‘Picturing Violence: Aesthetics and the Anxiety of Critique’, in Reinhardt Mark, Edwards Holly, and Duganne Erina (eds), Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 1336, 16.

85 Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 147.

86 Ibid., pp. 147, 149.

87 Ibid., p. 149.

88 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics’; Dauphinée Elizabeth, ‘The Politics of the Body in Pain: Reading the Ethics of Imagery’, Security Dialogue, 38:2 (2007), pp. 139–55.

89 Several commentators situated the Abu Ghraib photos within the genre of pornography and artistic mediations thereof. Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, pp. 30–41; Mirzoeff Nicholas, ‘Invisible Empire: Visual Culture, Embodied Spectacle, and Abu Ghraib’, Radical History Review, 95 (2006), pp. 2144; Carrabine, ‘Images of Torture’. The clothed nature of the hooded prisoner made this less relevant for this particular image.

90 Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, p. 16.

91 Andén-Papadopoulos, ‘The Abu Ghraib Torture’, p. 16.

92 Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 141.

93 The profile shot is reprinted in ibid., p. 142, the cardboard carrying image in Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, p. 28. Oddly enough this image is not discussed by Eisenman or printed elsewhere in the academic Abu Ghraib literature I have come across.

94 Apel, ‘Torture Culture’, p. 97.

95 See, for example, Carrabine, ‘Images of Torture’, pp. 19, 26.

96 The analysis below builds on academic works on Abu Ghraib and a close reading of 29 documents featuring interviews, public remarks, press conferences, and press briefings by President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan between 30 April 2004 and 26 June 2004. Theoretically and methodologically, the analysis draws on discourse analysis as laid out in Hansen, Security as Practice.

97 Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, p. 8; Mirzoeff, ‘Invisible Empire’, p. 21.

98 Donald Rumsfeld, ‘Statement of hon. Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, May 7, 2004’, S. HRG. 108-868 – Review of Department of Defense detention and interrogation operations, 7 May 2004; 11 May 2004; 19 May 2004; 22 July 2004; 9 September 2004 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 5–11, 11.

99 Bush George W., ‘Interview With Al-Ahram International, May 6, 2004’, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush (2004, Book I) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 791–9, 795.

100 Ibid., p. 795.

101 Bush, ‘Interview With Alhurra’, p. 767.

102 Rumsfeld, ‘Statement’, p. 11.

103 Ibid., p. 9.

104 Bush George W., ‘The President's News Conference With Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada, April 30, 2004’, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush (2004, Book I) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 690–3, 692.

105 ‘Dr. Condoleezza Rice Discusses Iraq and the Middle East’, available at: {} accessed 9 July 2014.

106 Rumsfeld, ‘Statement’, p. 10.

107 Bush George W., ‘Interview With the American Forces Radio and Television Service, May 10, 2004’, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush (2004, Book I) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 836–41, 837.

108 Bush, ‘Interview With Al-Ahram’, p. 795.

109 Bush George W., ‘The President's News Conference With King Abdullah II of Jordan, May 6, 2004’, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush (2004, Book I) (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), pp. 783–8, 787.

110 Bush does tell afflicted prisoners and their families how sorry he is, but this does not extend to the level of a collective Iraqi subject. Bush, ‘Interview With Al-Ahram’, p. 795.

111 Khalili, Time in the Shadows.

112 Apel, ‘Torture Culture’; Eisenmann, The Abu Ghraib Effect; Andén-Papodopoulos, ‘The Abu Ghraib Torture’; Carrabine, ‘Images of Torture’.

113 See, for example, the hooded prisoner entering a ‘CIA’ plane in the background of Steve Bell's editorial cartoon, ‘Come Fly With Me’, for The Guardian (9 December 2005), reprinted in Dodds, ‘Geopolitics’, p. 172.

114 Editorial cartoon, ‘Abu Ghraib Nam’ by Dennis Draughon, reprinted in Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption, p. 202.

115 See also Eisenman, The Abu Ghraib Effect, pp. 24–30.

116 Editorial, ‘Conspiracy to Torture’, The Nation, 281:22 (2005), pp. 3–5, 3.

117 Conrad David R., ‘Ben Shahn as Aesthetic Educator’, Journal of Aesthetic Education, 15:2 (1981), pp. 7382, 77.

118 Duganne Erina, ‘Photography After the Fact’, in Reinhardt Mark, Edwards Holly, and Duganne Erina (eds), Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 5774, 71.

119 Ibid.

120 Ibid.

121 I wish to thank Laura Shepherd for the apt suggestion that the hooded figure might also be seen as vaguely alien.

122 Mitchell, Cloning Terror, p. 119.

123 Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking, pp. 200–3.

124 BBC News Europe, ‘Lampedusa Boat tragedy: Migrants “Raped and Tortured”’ (8 November, 2013), available at: {} accessed 9 July 2014.

* Earlier versions of this article have been presented at seminars in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, and at the International Studies Association's Annual Conference in San Francisco, 3–6 April 2013 and in Toronto, 26–9 March 2014. I wish to thank discussants and audiences on those occasions for questions, criticism, and suggestions. I am particularly grateful to the following for their detailed feedback: the four anonymous reviewers, the editors of the Review of International Studies, Jacob Alsted, Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Henrik Breitenbauch, Barry Buzan, Peter Marcus Kristensen, Henrik Larsen, Debbie Lisle, Megan MacKenzie, Mette Mortensen, Iver B. Neumann, Karen Lund Petersen, Lisa Richey, Laura Shepherd, Ole Wæver, Cynthia Weber, and Michael C. Williams; and to Simone Molin Friis and Johan Spanner for comments and research assistance. Research for this article was carried out as part of the project on ‘Images and International Security’ funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research – Social Sciences, Grant number DFF – 1327-00056B.

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