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A Controversy of Faces: Images from Bali and Abu Ghraib

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Simon Philpott



The Bali bombing of 2002 and the US war against Iraq have been partly defined as media events by a series of photographs depicting the perpetrators of serious crimes in attitudes of jocularity . Photographs of ‘the smiling bombers’ and US torturers at Abu Ghraib have caused shock and outrage because their grinning, smiling and laughing seems starkly at odds with the criminal acts for which the bombers and torturers have been charged, and, in some cases, convicted. Yet divergent meanings have been assigned to the photographs by western political elites. While the Bali bombers have been characterised as representing all that is wrong with and barbaric about militant Islam, the Abu Ghraib torturers have been dissociated from the US military and its values through their representation as a few isolated miscreants. However, I analyse the smiling of the bombers and torturers as forms of symbolic communication entailing resistance and mockery of state power on the part of the bombers, and domination and knowing humiliation on the part of the torturers. The clamping of meaning around these images by powerful political interests forecloses on the possibility of a deeper understanding of what is at stake in the war on terror and, for ordinary consumers of these images, encourages complicity in the rolling back of civil and political rights.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Philpott S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal for Cultural Research

Year: 2005

Volume: 9

Issue: 3

Pages: 227-244

Print publication date: 01/07/2005

Date deposited: 18/04/2008

ISSN (print): 1740-1666

ISSN (electronic): 1467-8713


DOI: 10.1080/14797580500179741


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