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The story behind the Abu Ghraib series

April 25, 2007

by Giuseppe Di Bella, artist/photographer based in London

Art and myself vs. the British anti-terrorist branch and the FBI

The first time I saw the Abu Ghraib photographs I was unsure what I was looking at. Of course I very soon realised the seriousness of these images and their global impact upon political, social and cultural life. In the same way that many of us were, I was deeply disturbed and shocked by these images as they contrasted with the US military and political objectives under George W Bush presidency. These objectives were to bring democracy to the people of Iraq and to free them from the tyranny of its former president, Saddam Hussein.

Although the Abu Ghraib images provoked profound anger and disgust, I must admit they didn’t really come as a surprise. Sadly, these atrocities happen in every single war and are nothing new. I believe the Abu Ghraib photographs expose and remind us of the power relation in a war zone. An imbalanced power: the powerful against the powerless.

As an artist working with photography, I felt I had a moral obligation to respond to the Iraqi conflict and particularly to these tragic events. At the time (May 2004) I had concerns on the way public images were being circulated, treated and consumed by society; particularly gruesome and violent images. So it is from this perspective that I produced the Abu Ghraib series that consist into a collection of postage stamps that I put into public and global circulation. (Make it a better place – Group exhibition conceived and curated by Dinu Lee – The Holden Gallery – MMU)

dibella-abu-gharib-3.jpg

The reasons I chose the postage stamp format as a vehicle for my ideas was because of its consumable, desirable and collectable characteristics. It is also a very democratic way to diffuse images and information. Traditionally, the postage stamp function is to pay tribute or commemorate the traditions and culture of a country. It is also a powerful form of communication as it travels around the globe advertising the proudest aspects of a nation, in contrast to the Abu Ghraib photographs. I was interested in how the mechanical act of licking and stamping a postage stamp could be linked to a notion of humiliation and abuse/torture as revealed in the photographs. I was conscious that this process could turn the viewer into an active consumer and make the user aware of the consumption and treatment of public images in circulation. This could also lead the user to become an active accomplice – in some sense – to the abuse and violence. The repetitions of images on the stamp sheets are also a reflection of the depersonalisation that happens to victims of such abuse. The intimate and personal details of each account, and the consequences for the abused/tortured is hidden and forgotten as the images are multiplied, repeated and ‘consumed’ by society.

The way I chose to present the work was also a very important factor, as I wanted the viewer to look at the stamps as objects of consumption. In addition, four series of franked stamps – therefore used/consumed – are presented framed and as such, as trophies. Ultimately, that is what some photograph seems to be about. Through this presentation, I wanted to highlight the contemporary society’s appetite to consume such gruesome and violent imagery.

dibella-abu-ghraib-6.jpg

As there is two version of the Abu Ghraib stamp (US/UK) I had to delegate the distribution of the US version of the stamp to a friend who lives in New York: Art. (Stands for Arthur) My friend Art, whom I have not met (not yet!), agreed to actively participate in this project. I sent Art, via an international courier company (I won’t name it here for legal reasons) more than 100 envelopes and postcards – all pre-addressed and with the Abu Ghraib faux stamp affixed on it. The instructions given to Art were clear: to buy US stamps and affix them onto the envelopes and postcards beside the faux stamp and to post them from New York.

When I contacted the courier company to inquire the lateness of the parcel I was told that the police, then subsequently the British anti-terrorist branch were investigating the content of the parcel for alleged ‘anti-American documentation’. I was also informed that the content of the parcel had been scanned and passed onto the American authorities for further investigation. I requested the courier company many times during that week to be contacted by the British authorities in order to explain my work, but my requests were systematically refused.

A week later, I required the courier company either inform the British authorities to release the parcel or to charge me with an offence I evidently had not committed, (The fact that I use a real postage stamp onto the envelopes and postcards, invalidated the potential problem any faux stamp could present to the postal authorities) The courier company agent put me on hold and eventually informed me that the British authorities found the work ‘offensive’ to which I replied that the images are indeed unpleasant; but they are a verification of the sexual abuse and of the torture to the victims, their families and their communities. They are an insult to humanity and human dignity. So, I cannot but agree with the British and other authorities that the images are indeed offensive. Later, I was also told that the British authorities could keep the work indefinitely, to which I answered that it was illegal even for the British authorities to hold something indefinitely, particularly when no offence had been committed. I demanded the immediate release of the parcel otherwise I would be seeking legal action to retrieve it. Eventually, the following day the parcel left for its final destination in New York. My friend Art started to post the mail and I was beginning to receive back the envelopes and postcards so important for my installation.

A few weeks after the British authorities incident, I received a phone call from my friend Art informing me that two FBI agent were about to pay him a visit regarding the Abu Ghraib work and myself. As he was obviously concerned about it, I suggested he simply answers their questions and not to worry too much, as it was clear they were inquiring about my artwork and me. The FBI wanted to know where he knew me from, if I had spoken to him about my political views and finally if I had a bigger agenda. (Making new stamps maybe?) The funniest thing about this laughable story is that the two FBI agents were dressed with back suites and black glasses.

dibella-abu-ghraib-8.jpg

After that, I did not hear neither from the British authorities or the FBI. Although I freak out about the British anti-terrorist branch, the FBI seemed to be less formidable because of the comical link inferred by their attire. Sometimes I wonder how much trouble I would have got into if I were a Muslim artist, or worse if was living in America?

The saddest thing during and about this story is that I was beginning behaving as if I were doing something wrong, something illegal. I felt my emails and my phone calls were being monitored. Some how I felt watched. Whether this was pure paranoia or not, I don’t know. The idea of being investigated by the anti-terrorist branch was somehow concerning, and although I am an Italian citizen, I could be easily mistaken for a person of Middle Eastern origin, therefore a potential threat to the authorities – or am I wrong? The reality remained that I had to bring the framed work abroad without having it seized by the authorities. I wasn’t prepared to take any more risks, because of the exhibition deadline, and little by little and with the crucial help of my friends, the installation material crossed the British border unnoticed and the work was successfully exhibited in Brussels. (Portraits de l’autre – Group exhibition curated by Virginie Devillers – Musee d’Ixelles, Brussels – Belgium)

The story of the Abu Ghraib series inevitably points to the events of the 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings and their aftermath. Anti-terror laws have been implemented all over the world. We must wonder whether these new laws pose a threat to our freedom of speech and artistic expression and if they infringe our civil liberties. We need to ensure that the current war on terror does not completely annihilate our freedom; it should not justify everything and anything. More power is being taken from us when actually more trust should be given to people. The experience I have encountered with the authorities poses a fundamental question: Are we really living in a democratic society?

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13 comments

  1. Incredible story. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hi, Giuseppe. Thanks for your account. As a British person I both feel ashamed by the torture that has occured in Iraq, the cover-ups and the ensuing civil war resulting from Blair’s lie in aid of Bush’s vendetta on Hussein – and also that you were harassed and bullied for producing ‘anti-American documentation’. I am impressed that you bravely fought your corner to make a very important statement in a dramatic and effective manner.


  3. Hi Pete.

    Thanks for your comment.

    I just wanted to say that although the Abu Graib series is a critical statement of war and conflict, it is neither anti-American or anti-British.

    The work makes the point that when head of states decide to bring their country at war, it is also its image who goes at war. And this image is the image of its people. That is the whole controversy of the work. The aim was never intended to shame a nation.

    The Abu Ghraib photographs tell us something darker than what we understand. Man’s inhumanity to man, to the Other.


  4. […] laughable story is that the two FBI agents were dressed with back suites and black glasses.”read more | digg […]


  5. You were under suspicion for spreading Islamist propaganda. I’m very glad the security services noticed you because the use of ‘stamps’ would be consistent with the use of the internet for the same purpose, and it shows they are alert.

    Please refrain from hyperbole – “art versus the FBI”, having our freedom “annihilated”, etc etc.

    This is a serious matter that should be treated with the utmost seriousness and responsibility:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6195914.stm

    Spreading Islamist propaganda is a widespread practice – you made yourself suspicious, apparently innocently, but please acknowledge and address the more serious issues, instead of characterising them in terms of a personalised story about artistic freedom. Terrorism is a hundred times more of a threat to democracy than being investigated for an art project dealing directly with political matters in such a way that it would, legitimately, come under suspicion. The problem is not that the security services acted, but that they acted in response to this real threat: the threat is the problem, not the efforts to prevent it.


  6. THIS is a threat to democracy – and life, limb, intellectual and political freedom, and everything else for which we can be grateful in our relatively stable society:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6149806.stm


  7. In response to Pete McGovern

    Hi Pete.

    Although the Abu Ghraib series comment on photography and the way images are treated and consummed, it is also and evidently a critical statement about war and conflict. The work is neither anti American or anti Britis, as there are plenty of people out there, including in America and in Britiain, that do not believe in war and especially in the Iraqi conflict. The Abu Ghraib series makes a clear point that when head of states decide to go to war, it is also its image that goes to war, and the image of their country is the image of their people. This is the whole controversy around the work.

    The Abu Ghraib photographs may also reveal something darker about us: man’s inhumanity to man. Man’s inhumanity to the ‘other’.


  8. In response to Jackson

    You are free to read the work as you wish.
    As per the Abu Ghraib images themseleves, I should be bring to your attention that these images were globaly broacasted and published by the international press. Are they too then, as you say, spreading Islamist propaganda?

    You are also dismissing the intellectual discourse and context in which the work was produced for.


  9. Dear Jackson
    You poor deluded soul, I pity you. As I pity the rest of us as your views are probably shared by a large proportion of the UK and US general public. It is views such as yours that are the real threat to democracy, because they allow our secret (read: unaccountable) services to charge ahead unashamedly and with impunity. You are probably sick and tired of hearing words such as ‘civil liberties’ bandied about when protesting at yet another infringement of our precious constitutional rights, but before blowing more hot air you should do a little homework and find out what those words actually mean.

    You liken the use and dissemination of subversive stamps to the use of internet to spread what you call ‘Islamist propaganda’. Why on earth would you refert to it as ‘islamist propaganda’ when highlighting attrocities committed in our name. Yours and mine. You are as culpable as the soldiers pissing on a physically and psychologically abused human being, by proxy, because these soldiers were sent by our leaders. If that responsibility is too much for you to bear because you cannot find the compassion inside you to acknowledge it, then so be it, go put your blinkers back on, but don’t fall into the +real+ propagandist trap of referring to it as ‘islamist propaganda’.

    As for hyperbole in referring to ‘art versus the FBI’, I’ve got my own link to share with you:

    http://www.caedefensefund.org/

    When this happens in the UK, and we are fast heading in that direction, it’ll be too late for you to realise what is happening outside your Daily Mail and Sky News and BBC Online…

    Lets look at your statement «Terrorism is […] a threat to democracy». Do you konw what ‘terrorism’ is, outside the way the term is bandied about by our mainstream media? Do you know what ‘democracy’ is, outside the way the term is +always+ preceded by there being a ‘threat to it…’ in one way or another, by our blinkered, mainstream news outlets? We are at war, in case you hadn’t noticed. We are slaughtering thousands of innocent Iraqis, women, children, old people, families, on a +daily basis+. When Germany bombed London, we responded by bombing Dresden. Do you see where I’m getting at. We’re at war, my dear friend, and here’s the bad news: we started it.

    So before you go around shouting ‘Islamist propaganda’ without having any notion of the meaning behind the words you use, try to think compassionately about the lives we are ruining, the generations we are destroying, in a distant country, far away, in a reality outside your television set. Then ask yourself: what is the real threat to democracy – the destruction of an entire nation’s infrastructure, the wholesale looting by western multinational companies of it’s natural resources, the continuous killing of it’s people? Or a set of subversive stamps trying to highlight one of the countless atrocities committed in this ugly invasion?

    And for what it’s worth: try to think with compassion. Not just for your immediate family, or indeed, the population at large on a small, remote, euroskeptik island off the coast of France, but for +any+ human being, anywhere. Try to think of this: if someone is so desperate they would blow themselves up together with an unknown number of strangers, just to prove a point, there has to be a reason, however misguided. We will never stop the killings, here or there, if we don’t let ourselves open our minds and eyes to the reasons why people kill. I know my nation kills for oil. I’d like it to stop that. Maybe I’ll use my vote. Maybe I’ll picket Downing street. Maybe I’ll use whatever is left of my freedom of speech to say something about it. But I’ll start with the log in my own eye, rather than the splinter in someone else’s.

    Dear Jackson, I implore you to think. Long and hard. And I apologise for the somewhat patronising tone of this post, but the issue gets me fired up and I’ve let out some frustration on you. I hope it hasn’t been counter-productive.

    Compassionately yours,
    Richard


  10. It was not “my” interpretation. It was a commentary regarding worldwide conditions pertaining to the threat of Islamist terrorism, and how your “art” could legitimately be construed. I have little interest in anecdotal protests about the Freedom Of Art, in relation to that extremely grave subject. I am neither dismissing your “intellectual context”, nor oblivious to it; I maintain that this is a subject far more serious – grievous, in fact – than *you* appear to comprehend.

    As for Richard: you are neither “compassionate”, nor informed, nor morally superior as you like to affect, nor worth responding to when you are full of emotive, divergent, shotgun stuff that’s your problem, not mine.

    I didn’t “shout” Islamist propaganda I stated it factually, correctly, intelligently and pertinently; I repeat what I said as it applies to the art project in question, and suggest you respond to what I actually said if you wish to have any meaningful debate here, instead of using the blog for a personal soapbox. What’s counter-productive is your rather arrogant attitude.


  11. Why didnt you publish my response?
    Considering the sneering, condescending tone of the above poster (“poor deluded soul” etc), I was remarkably restrained.

    However, I will re-state the essence of what I said regardless, in a similarly restrained way:

    What I said is not “my” interpretation – its a comment about current politics and the heinous seriousness of Islamic terrorism, which is considerably more important than personal stories about ‘artistic freedom’ – an “intellectual context” which I understand perfectly and of which I am perfectly aware.

    Remarks like “You are as culpable as the soldiers pissing on a physically and psychologically abused human being” are highly offensive, inflammatory, and politically ridiculous – its just biassed emotion. I could respond with similar remarks about terrorism, and how Richard is ideologically complicit with the murder of thousands of innocent people. I could note that 9/11 preceded Iraq, that Islamist hostilities have existed for decades, that Iraq is just a convenient excuse. I have more “compassion” concerning the atrocity of 9/11 and, indeed, that perpetrated on hundreds of thousands by Saddam Hussein – now gone.

    Dear editor: if you wish to conduct a sensible, quality debate, don’t include biassed invective with a personalised sneering tone, presenting subjects like this in such a facile and emotive fashion – or block people from responding to such nonsense.

    However, to re state my essential point: this is not a personal soapbox on wider and complex politics. Its a blog about the ‘image’, and I commented specifically, logically and pertinently on the security services response to the art project. Denying or blocking the mention of Islamist propaganda implicitly denies its factual basis; I could, for example, provide examples of the widespread hatred seen in the Middle East – Jews are pigs, Christians are monkeys, the infidel is corrupt, etc. Excuse me for not having a social workers attitude to this – but if someone hates and wants to murder me on the basis of a religious creed, I’m kind of, you know, opposed to it.

    If you don’t post this, I conclude you are 1) only interested in a massively biassed polemic, 2) one that includes sneering condescension if it supports it, and 3) that allows for divergent stuff obscuring the more simple points.

    The art project was under suspicion for Islamist/terrorist propaganda. Mistaken, apparently, but understandable and legitimate.

    That is essentially all I said, and my support for the security services should not be treated with this censorship, while allowing rather abusive responses.

    I repeat: the problem is not that the security services acted, but that they acted in response to this real threat: the threat is the problem, not the efforts to prevent it. I find the reluctance to condemn terrorism, which is implicit in this blog, an alarming and rather despicable trend.


  12. I used to have a very good friend (a brother) called Gussepe Di Bella, he studied photography in London around the early 2000s. I lost touch with him. But since then I have nonstop been searching everywhere to find him. A search on the net with his name led me to this site. And the resemblances to the discription of the Photographer mentioned here left me hoping so much that it could be him. Unfortunately there is no pic desplayed to veryfy right away. So I thought of dropping this mail to say to Guseppe if its you please write me.


  13. […] stamps and mail them to people around the world and get the official seals. You can find a more complete explanation here if you desire. […]



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