Who is Pfc. Lynndie England? Anyone can tell you: she’s the woman in the Abu Ghraib pictures. The world recognizes her as a slight female figure standing on the left side of the frame, holding a leash connected to a naked, manacled male figure sprawled on the right. Most people could place Spc. Sabrina Harman, too, if shown her most notorious snapshot. She’s the grinning young woman who leans into the picture from the top, flashing the thumbs-up over an iced corpse. We know about England and Harman because of photographs; and from there, it’s a short step to imagining that we know them through photographs.
No doubt the Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman who speak to the camera in Errol Morris’s documentary Standard Operating Procedure are also creatures of photography. Colored shadows with a synchronized soundtrack, they live within the confines of Morris’s film much as their younger selves are contained in the Abu Ghraib pictures. And yet when the silent, frozen figures of your memory give way to these images that move and talk, you are likely to feel a shock–not of recognition but of alienation. No longer the criminal gamin with boyish hair, England is suddenly a dour, resolute, puffy-faced woman dressed in a denim jacket. “When we first got there, the example [for treating inmates] was already set,” she says defiantly. “It was OK.” And Harman, with her thick curls grown out and her lips made up with color, now appears not at all like the sadistic, T-shirted imp of the still photographs. Sober but also a little ingenuous, she seems half gawker and half witness of conscience: “The first thing that I noticed [in Abu Ghraib] was this guy with underwear on his head, handcuffed backward to the window.” Another “looked like Jesus Christ…. I had to laugh.”
Once you gather your impressions of a dozen such interview subjects, weigh their testimonies, wince again at the display of photographs (far more of them than you’ve probably seen before) and mull over Morris’s ghostly evocations of the setting, you may begin to understand Standard Operating Procedure less as a reconstruction of facts than as a study in estrangement. Morris wants you to sense the otherworldliness of Abu Ghraib, a place he represents as an airless, windowless, round-the-clock delirium of shouts and banging, filth and raw concrete, huddled bodies and incoming shells and bizarre, ritualized ordeals. He wants you to experience the absurd gap between what happened in that other world and how US officials characterize what happened. (The film takes its title from the categories of the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division. As former CID Special Agent Brent Pack explains to the camera, no one from Abu Ghraib was indicted for placing a hood over a man’s head, standing him on a box with wires attached to his arms and telling him he’d be electrocuted if he fell off, because that isn’t a crime–it’s standard operating procedure.) And Morris wants to estrange you from one more element of this nightmare: the pictures that were the primary evidence of its existence and the government’s primary means for placing blame on a handful of guards. We know about the torture in Abu Ghraib because of photographs; but what we know through these photographs, as Morris demonstrates, is far from complete.
For example, the photographs seem to show Harman gloating over her victims. Was that why she took the pictures? In speaking to Morris, Harman claims an entirely different motive: she, too, was a documentarian. She didn’t think anyone would believe what she’d found in Abu Ghraib, and so she took photographs as proof. In support of this story, Morris puts on the screen some of the letters Harman sent home, in which she expressed her unease at the events around her. But if that was how she felt, how does she account for her beaming face and approving gesture in the ugliest of the photographs? “It’s just something that automatically happens,” Harman explains. “When you’re in a photo, you want to smile.”