What do smiles, or photos, really tell us?

We’ve all seen those films in which someone goes undercover and does what it takes to blend in with a group, and then they get caught or arrested and the very things they did to “blend in” become evidence that is used against them. Did something like that happen to at least one of the “bad apples” at Abu Ghraib? Errol Morris, director of the recent Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure (my review), seems to think so.

To wit, in his newest blog post, he asks what reaction people have had, and what reaction people should have had, to the photo below, which depicts Sabrina Harman giving the thumbs-up and smiling for the camera while standing over the body of a man, Manadel al-Jamadi, who died during an interrogation:

What do we really learn, just by looking at the photo? Anything? What about the other photos that were taken that night? What about the letters that Harman wrote home to her “wife” around that time, describing her relationship to the other soldiers? Does context matter here? And what do we do with the smile on Harman’s face? Morris gets into all sorts of interesting material here, even speaking to a psychologist who specializes on how to distinguish genuine smiles of enjoyment from polite, faked smiles:

PAUL EKMAN: Well, here’s what I think happens when the typical viewer looks at this picture. One, you’re horrified by the sight of this dead person. Most of us haven’t seen a dead person. Certainly not in that state. If you’ve seen a dead person, you’ve seen them in an open casket where they’re made to look like they’re alive. Do you know how “horror” is defined?


PAUL EKMAN: “Horror,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the combination of disgust and terror. So I think “horror” is the right word. It’s a horrible sight, and it instills horror. And then you see, right next to that, someone having a good time. Most people will not realize that’s a “say cheese” smile. They’ll think, because of the broadness of the smile and the thumbs-up gesture, they’re having a good time. That’s what makes this a damning picture to the typical viewer.

I’ll add one more thing. When we see someone smile, it is almost irresistible that we smile back at them. Advertisers know that. That’s why they link products to smiling faces. And when we smile back, we begin to actually experience some enjoyment. So this photograph makes us complicit in enjoying the horrible. And that’s revolting to us.

So why it is such an upsetting photograph is not just because we see someone smiling in the context of the horrible, but that when we look at her, we begin to have to resist smiling ourselves. So it’s a terrible, terrible picture for that reason alone.

Morris sums up Ekman’s argument, and builds on it:

Here is Ekman’s mechanism: Harman is smiling. We see her smile and can’t help smiling ourselves. Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Smiling is contagious. But when we see the dead man, we recoil in horror. Our “almost irresistible” need to smile makes us feel complicit in the man’s death. We “transfer” those feelings to Harman. We think her smile makes her complicit. . . .

Ironically, when the army was looking for a scapegoat for its crimes, it was precisely this “false image” that they chose to exploit to their advantage. In a sense, Harman was deliberately falsifying the evidence of her own photographs to seem more at home than she was. Then the military turned her strategy on its head, saying that her “exceptional” depravity was deplorable, and something that they needed to weed out and punish. And thus Sabrina Harman’s photographs became part of the evidence used against her in military court.

The whole blog post is well worth reading, whatever you make of Morris’s film, or his argument that knee-jerk reactions to this photo “aided and abetted a terrible miscarriage of justice.”

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  • I am just wiping the smile off my face, how true this be the case. Very interesting read thanks.

  • there’s a really interesting paul ekman dialogue with daniel goleman which you might find interesting. you can listen to free samples of it http://www.morethansound.net

  • Anonymous

    what a load of shit…her smile does not make me want to smile back. when i first saw these photos, i was disgusted and not because of the corpse. i was disgusted that a soldier/woman seemingly enjoyed killing a person. her apparent disregard for human life is was was revolting.