What Makes An Image Iconic? When Does That Meaning Wash Away?

One of the most iconic images of my recent memory is that of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, hooded and standing on a block, hands outstretched, electrical wires trailing. I remember when that image made the news, when I replicated it for a project, and I encountered reams of commentary about it. Not just about the torture and abuse that underlaid it, but the symbolism and potency of that image. It became a symbol of the wrongness that the United States was committing in Iraq, and it was a symbol of lasting shame that circulated around the world, along with other horrific images from the blood-stained halls of that prison.

That image was recently used in a social campaign playing on the ‘if you see something, say something’ programmes launched by several governments to encourage citizens to spy on each other. An outline of that famously evocative image, together with the familiar text, is a reminder to citizens to watch their governments, not just each other. It’s a call for human rights, and an assertion that we are complicit in the actions of our governments if we stand by and do nothing when we know atrocities are occurring.

Danny posed a good question when responding to the image, though:

Do the kids today even know this image reference?

Images from Abu Ghraib began circulating in 2004 and 2005, making the headlines at a number of major publications, including famously conservative ones that had historically backed the Bush administration, largely viewed as responsible for the abuses at Iraqi prisons. Those images seared the memories of viewers at the time; I can still recall at least half a dozen images in revolting detail, including the one of the man on the box. Those images are still in circulation and are still topics of discussion, but less so, and it makes me think back over other iconic images I associate with the evils of the West.

Black students attending integrated schools behind lines of National Guardsman. A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the war. A child running down a road, covered in napalm. A man about to shoot another in cold blood in the street. A starving child with a vulture nearby, preparing to swoop in. The liberation of Auschwitz. Law enforcement turning hoses on lines of protesters. Lynching photographs.

Iconic, evocative images packed with history and meaning. These images continue to be referenced and brought up, and we are not allowed to divorce them from their underpinnings, the circumstances when they were shot, what happened just before and after. The widespread advent of photography has made visual history so much easier to capture, and so much easier to hold on to. That image, of the man on a box, is not just about a historical event, of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but of the larger culture of torment and abuse the United States heaped on Iraqis in prisons during our occupation.

Danny asks if the kids these days know what the symbolism means, and I don’t know. I hope so. The thought that it might fade away is deeply sad, and also deeply angering, because it is less a fading than an erasure. I hope that the image continues to resonate through future generations, just as the picture of a single Black student clutching her books while a white woman spits on her resonates with me; because it is not just about that moment, the people in that picture, the photographer, but also about the larger circumstances and what brought those people to that moment.

What brought those people to continue reliving that moment, as well. As with segregation in schools, the torture of prisoners persists and is something that should not be forgotten. Maybe when it stops, the kids can be allowed to forget what that image means and it can become a record of history instead of a potent, loaded social commentary. Until then, the kids must be reminded, over and over again, just as I was reminded when Holocaust survivors came into my classroom to put human faces to the stark black and white images in my textbook, a reminder that those pictures showed real people, they weren’t staged, they depicted real lives and a real horror.

Do the kids know what this image references? They should.

And this is not an indictment of the kids; it’s an indictment of myself and my generation. Because if the kids don’t know what this image references, don’t immediately understand what that iconic picture of a terrified man standing on a box means, it indicates that we have failed. We have failed to communicate, we have failed to preserve our history, we have failed to hold our society accountable, we have failed, utterly, at our responsibilities as human beings, to ensure that the circumstances behind these images are never, ever forgotten.

Even if we achieve true equality, a point where abuse is no longer tolerated and prisoners are treated fairly and humanely, this is part of our history. This is something the United States did in the name of its citizens, and it is something that its citizens should be deeply ashamed of. The question is not if the United States can redeem itself, but if we can move forward to end oppression without brushing our past under the rug. Because the easiest way to perpetuate oppression is to keep sweeping; those who forget their history, as we know, are doomed to repeat it.