Errol Morris: “The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us”

My interview with Errol Morris is now on GreenCine. Here’s a clip from the piece:

You mentioned that you had once been a private investigator yourself. Pack is the detective part of the movie, sorting through the evidence to piece together the timeline, but it’s what the evidence reveals that is most interesting, the parts of the story that are not being covered in the media. Your film keeps returning to the photos.

Yes. They’re at the center of the story. Absolutely.

What I think is so amazing about that is that, through the course of the film, you deconstruct the photos. You interview all these people, you uncover all this evidence from these witnesses, yet the only crimes that were prosecuted were those that were photographed, the ones that had the visual evidence, the ones that were seen by the public.

But it gets even worse than that. I have this essay coming out in the New York Times this week on Sabrina’s smile, the photograph of her with her thumb up, the smile and the body of [Manadel] al-Jamadi. Now I remember seeing this photograph for the first time and thinking, “God Lord, what is this? It’s monstrous.”

Sabrina Harman

She didn’t kill him. A CIA interrogator either killed him or was complicit in his death. The brass of the prison was involved in a cover-up. In the log, he’s described as Bernie, from Weekend at Bernie’s, the body which people have to get rid of. It’s an inconvenience because they don’t want to be, in any way, implicated in his death. He’s the hot potato being shuffled about.

Sabrina takes these photographs as an act of civil disobedience, to provide evidence of a crime. In her letter to Kelly, immediately following this whole deal, she says, “The military is nothing but lies. I took these pictures to show what the military’s really, really like.” And here’s the weirdness of it all. The people responsible for al-Jamadi’s death, the people responsible for covering up a murder, skate. Sabrina spends a year in jail.

I think this is the heretical thing. It’s not just that the photographs direct us in a certain way, but they actually hide things from us. They make us think that we know a story when in fact we don’t know the story at all, or we know the wrong story. It’s endlessly fascinating to me and I would like to set the record straight. That represents to me an incredible miscarriage of justice. Taking a picture of a body to expose the military and to expose a crime, to me, is not a crime. Murder is a crime.

And, of course, none of the trials dealt with that. They were concerned solely with the abuses that were photographed. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, only those crimes seen in the photos that made their way into the media, that had been exposed to the public, were pursued in the prosecutions.

That’s correct. They became very effective symbols, scapegoats, and the photographs helped.

They became symbols, too.

That’s absolutely true.

The complete interview is here. I also review the film here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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