Othering, Torture, Political Consciousness in the works of Leon Golub and Fernando Botero

Izdehar Afyouni



‘Art is a permanent accusation’ – Fernando Botero

This essay is concerned with the psychology of images depicting government-sanctioned torture and human suffering in the forms of documented photography taken at Abu Ghraib prison as well as painted visualizations of the subject matter by two very different artists, Fernando Botero and Leon Golub. I will contextualize the images by tracing the motives behind their creation and describing the means used in their making. What messages do these images bring forward? Do they work in raising political consciousness? Are they successful in their representation of the essence of torture and pain and if so, why?

In the first chapter I will raise such questions such as what is torture? I will place contextualize this subject matter within the 21st century while concentrating specifically on the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq from where the shocking documentation of prisoner abuse and torture had to come to light. I will also look into the conditions in which torture can continue to exist in the modern-day

In the second chapter I will look into Fernando Botero’s painted depiction of Abu Ghraib, and determine whether it was stylistically successful as its intended function as a political statement

I will also study Leon Golub’s painted depictions of torture in the following chapter and then go on to draw parallels between the paintings and the Abu Ghraib images as well as compare the two artists stylistically in the following chapter as well as relate it to the Foucaulian concept of ‘othering’’ and place it within a historical context of American photography.

By the end of this essay I hope to determine whether art informs political consciousness and the historical and social value of painting as a political statement.


Torture in Abu Ghraib


According to 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment the definition is,  “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”[1]

In the case of Abu Ghraib, the detention centre and prison facility controlled by U.S foreign occupation forces and Iraqi government in Baghdad between March 2003- August 2006[2] the location of which we would come to know as the ‘Abu Ghraib Scandal’ torture transcendedit’s historical function as a means to derive information and as an inherent part of the sociology of the prison itself. The site was formerly controlled by the deposed leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s a torture site which hosted weekly executions, mostly of political prisoners and ‘enemies’ of the regime. It was taken over and refurbished by U.S coalition occupation forces in Iraq and became a detention centre which housed many as fifty thousand Iraqi men until 2006[3]. Most of these prisoners, as many as 70­80% were civilians incarcerated for minor offenses and rounded up as part of raids. They were made to endure horrific living conditions and subjected to the same ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques used on suspected high-level terrorists in other penal sites such as Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay[4].  Not only had the physical space of the prison itself been redefined but also the internal world of the prisoners. In torture, the victim is reduced to the physicality of pain and by subjecting them to torture, the prison wardens succeed in what Elaine Scarry describes as, ‘unmaking (their) world[5]


In the photograph (figure 1.)  a man stands arms outstretched on a flimsy box with electric wires dangling from each arm.  He is an Iraqi prisoner placed in predicament bondage, told that he would be electrocuted if he fell from the box. The man is hooded and unable to see his torturers or engage with the viewer looking at his photograph. The image itself is one of many depicting the sexual humiliation and torture of prisoners which were initially broadcasted on CBS ’60 Minutes 2’ in early May 2004 and subsequently covered and circulated in countless American and International media outlets[6]. Other images show clusters of nude prisoners piled on top of each other (figure 2) and various other depictions of sexual humiliation, rape and torture. If we are to take Sontag’s claim that the Western museum memory is a visual one[7] than it can be said that this image of faceless, nameless man standing on a box with electrodes hanging from his arms has now become the one most people have come to immediately associate and visually define the Iraq war with. 

As Slavoj Zizek explains in his essay Between Two Deaths the presence of the American soldiers and their facial expressions, the glee that is inherent in their construction of the images are all elements that contribute elements to the ‘theatre of cruelty’[8], their torture is not one of a direct infliction of pain but rather a slow and drawn out psychological process.  The staged nature of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib suggest that the wardens taking the photographs were actively creating and refining their ideal of war, celebrating and achieving the stark reality of oppression, constructing the narrative of the prisoners’ lives within the prison and establishing themselves as unequivocally dominant within that space. InDiscipline and Punish, the French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault explains that physical pain and torture are catalysts for power[9]. The Abu Ghraib images possess an inexplicable divide between perpetrator and victim. Subjecting the prisoners this form of humiliation repeatedly brutally establishes and re-establishes hierarchy and re­defines the population within the prison as one of humans (the prison wardens) and objects (the prisoners). 

 If in torture physical pain is converted into a feature of power, then act of photographing torture is the physical proof that acts as a ‘trophy’ of the narrative created by the wardens. Photographing the prisoners, however, served an additional purpose that the photographers had not foreseen. One of the ideological justifications for torture and deprived living conditions facilitated by U.S forces in both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib was that the abuse of prisoners of war was ethically acceptable as they had been essentially ‘missed by bombs’[10]Therefore the prisoners exist in a morally ambiguous vacuum state that Zizek describes as ‘between two deaths’ and they have been declared ‘legally dead’ upon imprisonment[11]. Therefore the prisoners exist in a constructed reality which means that western concepts of morality were not transferrable into that space and so the atrocities committed against them existed in moral vacuum that allowed torture to be normalized.  However, the existence of the images proves the existence of the prisoners and in turn, the very real suffering they endured. As Scarry puts it ‘Torture usually mimes the killing of people by inflicting pain, the sensory equivalent of death, substituting prolonged mock execution for execution’.[12] It’s undeniably real to the person experiencing torture but completely alien to anyone else[13]. Torture is a continuous act of confronting the victim with their own mortality without allowing them the finality of death.

The so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ clearly depicted in the photographs, were a two part direct infliction of pain and psychological humiliation applied by prison wardens in complete disregard for the Geneva conventions.[14] With this taken into account it can be said that the photographs represent documented proof of corruption[15] of the Bush administration’s policies of the handling of both prisoners of war and civilians in war-torn countries.

The revelation of the Abu Ghraib images and the resulting political implications outraged contemporary artist Fernando Botero, driving him to deviate thematically from his usual depictions of comical, rotund figures making merry to create a body of work depicting the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib.[16]

Botero’s depiction of Abu Ghraib


“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” 
― Susan SontagOn Photography


Fernando Botero was born in Medellin in 1932 and grew up in poverty. As a young man he bore witness to an act of police brutality during Lo Violence- Colombia’s deadly civil war which resulted in over 200,0000 casualties. Struck by the scene, Botero would go on to paint what he described as a‘young wailing man bound to pole and carried by two policemen’ (image not available) and entered it in a national art competition which he won and used the winnings to help fund his educational trips around Europe, where he closely studied the old-masters.[17]  He would later develop his namesake style ‘Boterismo’, that of exaggerated round figures clearly influenced by Baroque representations of the idealized female form[18]. His subject matter, possibly in ideological retaliation to his difficult upbringing, became more light-hearted and farcical, painting prostitutes and café scenes. He would go on to become Latin America’s most celebrated multidisciplinary artist. His paintings and bronze sculptures can be found in 46 museums, sidewalks and parks and he’s recognized and loved worldwide.

Botero’s return to the theme of torture and violence came with the breaking of the Abu Ghraib story. He was initially made aware of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker and did not use the images themselves as reference points until later on in his project. Over the course of nine months he created about 100 narrative paintings and drawings, many of them large in scale and employed his trademark style which he had developed in New York in the 1960s[19].

Botero worked obsessively on the paintings, he painted his figures in his trademark style and then added the elements of blood and the backgrounds and reworked them over again as opposed to employing direct painting methods. It can be argued that what he sought to achieve with this method of seeing and re-seeing to show more depth and emotion­ and centralize the experience of pain as opposed to an afterthought of torture as it may be gathered from the original photographs. Unfortunately, Botero’s commitment to his own aesthetic meant that his rotund figures are generic; there is no testament to the body in pain other than surface motifs such as blood in (figure 3). The paintings are closed off in his own style which does not stylistically depict pain or awkwardness in the positioning of the figures themselves. It can be argued that in their generic aspect his paintings achieve a humanity that the photographs do not afford us; they establish the prisoner in pain and the pain itself as the primary subject of the work. The figures, larger-than-life in their claustrophobic frames and fully realised in colour are a far cry from the grainy, soulless figures stacked like objects beside the grinning faces of the prison wardens of the photographs of the actual torture. In contast and where Botero works well is his compositional decisions are slightly more in tune with the theme of imprisonment: the claustrophobic nature of the oversized figures’ positioning within the frame is a direct reference to captivity within the prison cell (figure 4).

Another generic element of the Abu Ghraib works is the fact that the paintings are numbered rather than titled. This works well thematically as it hints at the prevalence of the torture methods used over the years at Abu Ghraib and argues the right-wing discourse that the images depicted ‘isolated instances’[20] as opposed to a complete code of behaviour undertaken by the wardens at Abu Ghraib.

In (figure 5) and (figure 6) it is evident that biblical martyrdom imagery prevalent in some of the images. However, Botero insisted that the references to biblical martyrdom were unintentional. To quote him: “You have this Christian tradition of martyrs and Christ (….). All this is in the back of your mind, and then you recognize that this was very present at the moment you were painting. But you don’t realize it until you’re done. When you are painting, you don’t realize it.[21] He intuitively works with a specific style and then rationalizes it afterwards; his biblical references can therefore be attributed more to an accumulative pictorial consciousness than as contemporary biblical references.

Additionally, there are no interpretative elements that can be attributed to the psychology of torture or the prison itself. From this I can conclude that Botero’s permeable fixation on his own aesthetic of the human form as opposed to distortion or any attempts to marry his stylistic approach to the subject matter does nothing to visually describe the subjugated state of the victims. His approach to the subject matter is in no way seditious and is only farcical due to his retention of his original style. To quote Golub- who this essay aims to establish was thematically successful in the ways that Botero failed in depicting torture practices, “It is impossible to export fascism and destruction, to burn and drive peasants from their homes, and maintain the dream of the perfectibility of art.[22]


 Leon Golub and Representation of Torture


Leon Golub (1922 – 2004) was an American figurative, historical painter and activist whose body of work showed a clear commitment to his anti-war sentiment and whose manifesto ‘Critique of Abstract Expressionism’ championed the importance of content-driven painting and the social and political responsibility of contemporary art.[23]Although Golub’s work spans several decades, this essay looks at his political paintings which spanned the late 1970s into the early 80s. Leon Golub’s late work is transdisciplinary and multi­faceted in its approach to the state of government sanctioned torture as his visual research delves into historical, psychological sociological function of torture. He was involved with a group of post-war Chicago based artists who called themselves the Monster Roster group who believed that, “an observable connection to the external world and to actual events is essential if a painting is to have any relevance to the viewer or society.[24]

Golub’s representation of the figure and the figure-in-movement is informed by research of roman sculpture and Etruscan art, in addition to a huge database he started compiling in the late 1950s of old master drawings, journalistic images, gay pornography, body-building magazines and war images, [25] and whose visual approach to the figure is rooted in observation and created as a result of an ‘information bank’ (accumulative information on the human condition). In his later body of work- which we will look at in this chapter, he is concerned with the body in pain, within that historical context and various representations of human triumph and suffering contributed to his depiction of soldiers and mercenaries as hypermasculine, rugged athletic figures with exaggerated garish expressions. A direct inspirationfor Golub’s Interrogation/Mercenaries paintings was the illustrated magazine Soldier of Fortune[26], a long­standing publication dedicated to documenting mercenary and covert action around the world as well as providing a platform for ex-veterans to offer their ‘combat skills’ (i.e. Guns for Hire).[27]  The prevalent dominant elements of machismo, gun toting patriotism and badly concealed homoeroticism coupled with the patriotic nature of the publication.

 Mercenaries, White Squadand Interrogation series are large mural paintings that depict scenes of violent subjugation and themes of power and violence. The paintings are frieze like and unadorned, depicting a narrative space in which the divide between perpetrator and victim is clearly defined. The figures-in-power in these paintings are oversized and looming, with slack jawed, grinning mercenaries and soldiers whose presence is as immediate as it is sinister.

Interrogation I (fig 7) II (fig 8) III (fig 9) the Mercenaries and White Squad series were all painted in acrylics, which Golub had been experimenting with since the lacquer paint he had been using for over a decade had been discontinued[28]. Golub’s approach to painting is direct and is explicitly violent and the quick drying element of acrylics allowed him to layer the paint and scrape it away, often using unconventional tools such as a meat cleaver and grinding the paint directly into the canvas[29]. Golub’s aesthetic is that he does not concern himself with aesthetics but takes active measures to reject them. By leaving his paintings to sag on the walls he not only inserts the viewer into the scene directly by removing the security of the frame but also asserts that there is no place for the frivolity of a frame to begin with when the subject matter in question is violence. This ideological rejection of preciousness and adornment asserts that his paintings are not framed works of art to be admired. They depict ugliness and a violence that is inherent in both the torturer figures themselves and the western societies that refuse to acknowledge their compliance in what his paintings depict. 

The paintings depict moments in time, almost like holiday snaps and random film stills. The soldiers are not, ‘caught in the act’ but are actively confronting the audience, the direct gaze of the soldiers assumes the viewer­as­a­camera narrative[30], the soldiers are in control of what is being seen, they are posing for the viewer. In several instances such as in Interrogation I and Interrogation II their feet and legs are ‘cut out’ from the image as they would be in a photograph which in addition to the lack of a frame remove essential barriers between the viewer and the painting itself and give a sense that they are in the room with us. Torture as a whole is an intimate affair, and we (the viewer) are pulled into the painting as though we are active participants in the scene. These paintings depict individuals actively involved in psychological warfare and yet their boastful presence goes against the private nature of torture. In Interrogation IIthe mercenaries/soldiers look directly at us, inviting us into the narrative of the image[31], they are untroubled by the atrocious nature of their actions and they don’t expect us to be either. By creating this direct relationship with the audience, the scene becomes participatory and the audience is compliant with the scene unfolding: we’re in on the joke. 


The initial, decontextualized viewing of Interrogation III or Interrogation II does not establish a sense of place or time but it is plain to see that the denim clad, hyper masculine torturers are of an American sensibility. The lack of a background contributes to his ambiguity of time and place­ and certainly the sheer volume of Golub’s works that specifically depict torture of POW can be read as a statement about the prevalent use of these ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques by the U.S government. 


The snarling soldiers and mercenaries in Interrogation IIreak the fourth wall and engage the viewer directly, creating a bond that suggests the immediate compliance and participation of the viewer. This motif is reminiscent of the film Funny Games, in which the two self-styled torturers repeatedly break the fourth wall and engage the audience, asking them what they should do to their victims and to place bets on how long they will remain alive before they eventually kill them[32]. Engaging the audience like this makes it clear that this is just a game for the perpetrators and the lives they are amusing themselves by torturing are disposable.

In Frames of War, Butler questions how the ‘presentation’ or framing of human suffering affects our responsiveness to it[33], and how the frames designate the familiarity of the figures themselves, which in turn links back to what informs our perceptions of the suffering humans, i.e. race, ‘ethical’ standpoint (for example if our perception of the suffering human is that they are a terrorist, or generally a ‘bad person’). This then informs our decision of whether the life in question is grievable. In this context we are faced with the ethical conundrum of responsiveness to Golub’s subjects­in­pain. Golub’s bodies­in­pain are either hooded or looking away, they do not break the fourth wall as his perpetrators do and they do not form a relationship with the viewer, therefore the only ‘frame’ we are given is the materiality of the painting itself and the perpetrators who’s hooded faces (fig 8) and act of looking away (fig 9) deprive them of looking at us with blame.  

Implicit with Golub’s style there is a form of violence, in Botero’s style there is a form of non-violence; his figures-in-pain remain chubby and friendly. Golub’s work is transgressive as it surpasses representation and busies itself with exposure via interpretation Leon Golub was not precious with his paintings, refused to frame them and critiqued abstract expressionism as putting the artist forward, more concerned with theme whereas botero’s style shines through his paintings of Abu Ghraib, it’s almost like a celebrity commenting on a political event; it might get the message across a little bit further but ultimately works more towards the artist’s favour and garner him notoriety via controversy.  He will not be remembered for this work nor will this work be remembered as a jarring political message, whether it was intended or not, and this essay does not concern itself with answering that question, the images come off as a self-righteous visual testament to the artist’s own anti-war sentiments as opposed to a political statement.

Botero’s prisoners and torturers (fig) are painted in the same generic style whereas Golub’s paintings depict violent people in power committing violent acts against faceless, nameless prisoners of war.




According to Michel Foucault, othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we “other” another group, we point out their perceived weaknesses to make ourselves look stronger or better. It implies a hierarchy, and it serves to keep power where it already lies. The concept of ‘Othering’ was initially used to describe colonialism and alienation within societies[34] and the difference between race and nationality and establish group identity. In this format I’m using Foucault’s definition and overlaying his perspective of othering on the two painters’ depictions of torture and the photographs depicting the torture and humiliation of Arab and Muslim detainees at Abu Ghraib by the U.S military police.

The photographs taken by prison wardens at Abu Ghraib were staged to make the victims look as though they were compliant in their own oppression by positioning to look as though they were masturbating (fig 11) and engaging each other sexually. These acts of psycho-sexual torture and humiliation all abuses virtually curated to attack Muslim values by US intelligence officials[35]. Chip Fredrick was the highest-ranking of the seven U.S military police that had been charged with torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, in (fig 12) he is seen sitting on two prisoners made to squat in a stress-position. Gary Myers, who was one of the attorney’s defending Fredrick said that his client’s defines was that his superiors had ordered him to torture the victims using sexual humiliation. He said, “Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own? Decided that the best way to embarrass Arabs and make them talk was to have them walk around nude?”[36]

From these sexually-charged images we can ascertain that the victims’ bodies not only become another tool in political exploitation but provide fetishistic fodder for the perpetrators. These images bring to light the sexually sadistic aspect of violence[37]. In another image, England is seen standing over a nude prisoner on a leash, a classic reference to the dominatrix (fig 13). In Golub’s painting Interrogation I retains a perverse edge as there is emphasis on drawing the eye towards the suspended prisoner’s genitals[38]. The prisoner is upside down with a rope hanging between his legs and tension clearly represented by blue veins around his groin.

The ideological suggestion is completed with the warden’s act of pointing: look at these barbarians and what they are willing to do. The act of staging images of the subjugated ‘other’ to seem barbaric in comparison to white captors/masters is not unique to the Abu Ghraib images and is part of a long-standing colonial tradition of war photography[39] and racist postcards and caricatures. For example (fig 15) is one of the racist ‘joke’ where black slaves were forced to act as though they were scrambling for money dropped by white men.  The image of course is staged by the perpetrators and the implication here, as with the images depicting homosexual acts or the (strikingly similar) image showing clusters of nude prisoners clumsily piled on top of each other (fig 2) is that barbarism is inherent in the ‘other’s’ psychology and the hand gestures of the guards is a way of pointing at the ‘spectacle’ of the other[40]. The guards’ pointing and laughing also indicates that the guards do not view the suffering of the prisoners as ‘real’ and instead view it as ‘just a joke’. This recurring motif of regarding the ‘other’s’ suffering as humorous can be identified in Golub’s work Mercenaries 5 (fig 10)where four black victims are made to crouch in front of a female mercenary who smiles and gives the viewer a ‘thumbs up’. Another example of this lack of sympathy and the ideological rhetoric of dehumanising the ‘other’ can be found in the photographs of black bodies being lynched[41] and hung from trees (figure 16) [42]with the white perpetrators gawking and grinning at the scene were distributed as postcards and collected as souvenirs[43]. Sontag explains the ideological correlation between the photographs, stating that ‘(both the lynching photographs and Abu Ghraib images) are, “souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done”[44]

The themes of power and self-documentation and representation in Golub’s Interrogation, White Squad and Mercenaries paintings, which were created in the late 70s and early 80s, would become fully resonant years later in 2004 with the circulation of the Abu Ghraib photographs. Pointing, smiling and giving a ‘thumbs-up’ to the camera are all recurring motifs in the Abu Ghraib images but one picture bears a striking resemblance to the positioning of Golub’s figures. In one of the images one of the wardens, Lyndie England, grinning with a cigarette hanging from her mouth points at the genitals of a prisoner who has been forced to masturbate. In Interrogation II a denim-clad torturer casually smokes a cigarette. These recurring motifs of grinning, casual smoking, pointing at the ‘other’ and easy, friendly interaction between the wardens are prevalent in both the Abu Ghraib images and Golub’s paintings and create an inexplicable divide between perpetrator and victim.

Clothing and uniform are also representational elements that aid in the recognisability of dominance and subordination in both the Abu Ghraib images and Golub’s paintings. The disparity created by painting the victims as nude and emaciated while the perpetrators are clad in denim (fig) and shiny boots (fig) call to mind fetish fashion. The prisoners in almost all of the Abu Ghraib images are made to strip and in more than one instance, for example (fig) we clearly see their clothes in the background. This occurs in Golub’s painting (fig) as well and is a clarification that the victims have been stripped and declothed,a symbolic initial act of stripping them of their identities and increasing their vulnerability. Declothing the victim while the dominant body remains clothed is a very quick psychological method of establishing hierarchy. Doing so creates the disparity between Dominant and victim, this is a technique often used in consensual BDSM practice to symbolically establish a Dominant/submissive dynamic. The discarded clothes of the female victim in (fig) is an active removal of a ‘civilized’ aspect remind the viewer that the prisoners are not considered ‘human’ in the perpetrators eyes.

Botero’s tryptch ‘Abu Ghraib 43’ has a clear compositional compositional reference to Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Crucifixion. The figures turn away from us in Botero’s work much like Bacon’s tryptychs is one example. But in my belief is despite the awkward positioning of Botero’s kneeling figure and the act of brutality depicted in the second frame it does not achieve the purpose of conveying the body in crisis. Bacon’s blurred and distorted figures describe the mutilated body in agony. The flesh is produced in blues, reds and blacks that suggest open wounds and the splayed-out positioning of the figures suggest broken bones. Botero’s figures have plump, relaxed skin, there is no tension or discoloration of the skin, the only indicative element of the body under stress are a few cartoonish drops of blood. In contrast, Golub’s representation of (nude) bodies-in-pain, such as in Interrogartion I and Interrogation III are distorted but remain well within a directly representational framework. The suspended figure in Interrogation I is not abstracted and therefore cuts close to the bone as it manages to represent the pain and revulsion that is explicit in Bacon’s figures-in-pain while remaining confrontational to the viewer and brings them closer to the bodily crisis of torture.


The only agency that the Abu Ghraib victims occasionally have over their own representation is represented in the act of looking away from the camera and in that act destroy the narrative that the perpetrators intent to create as painting them as non-instigating participants in their own oppression. This can be traced back to the Botero’s figures that are either hooded or turn away from the viewer with their backs to us (cite images). In Golub’s Interrogation III the female victim’s eyes are duct-taped and she keeps her head pushed down, there is a visible struggle between her and one of the perpetrators attempting to pull her head upright. If looking away is a desire to be invisible and absent then in contrast showing the victim’s face is what brings humanity to the body-in-pain and creates the element of engagement with the victim as a human being. If consciousness exists in the head then everything else is something to be subject to. In (fig) the victim has a hood on his head. Hooding takes away the victim’s ability to confront the perpetrator- and in the case of images and paintings depicting torture, the viewer with what is being done to them. It removes the need to see them as human beings. This is another element in stripping them of their human and social identities. Hooding the prisioners erases their human identity[45].


The Abu Ghraib prison was described as having been one of ‘intimidation and torture’ [46](during Saddam Hussein’s rule) suggesting that after being taken over by the U.S military it had become a ‘corrections’ facility This use of language and line of thinking creates a moral and ideological divide between the ‘civilized’ western ‘detainment’ of prisoners and the barbaric torture that prisoners had been subject to under the Hussein regime. In this same vein, when interviewed, Lynn die England said o said that, for many of the Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib, “living conditions now are better in prison than at home. At one point we were concerned that they wouldn’t want to leave.”  This perfectly exemplifies the disconnected aspect between what is considered ‘ethically acceptable’[47]behaviour towards the barbaric other'.

It would become evident with the release of the photographs that this was not the case- that the moral high ground that coloured the perception of western intervention was entirely false and fabricated. U.S military have been honing their own psychological brand of torture and subjecting the ‘other’ to it. The US Military police are made up of the disenfranchised, the uneducated and the poor who have been beaten down by their army training system so that they can do the patriotic work of a country that relies on their, and our, compliance and active participation to keep creating the gap between ‘Us’ and ‘them’ and establish and hone these hierarchies of race and the narrative of ‘othering’, distance themselves from the ‘other’.

When speaking on the eventual cultural impact of both the lynching photographs and the Abu Ghraib photos, Dora Apel argues that, “two sets of photos which are that both came to function as sites of resistance against the very acts they represent.”[48] It seems to me that this analysis is all too positive and disregards the nature of where the language of othering and the upholding of western morality. There may have been international ideological outrage sparked by the release of the images but their release ultimately did not affect American politics or how the war prison system works

Neo-colonial policies, the "War on Terror" rhetoric and the fearmongering media coupled with extreme patriotism made it easier for the (military) and Bush administration to justify subjecting presumed terrorists to these brutal but "necessary" forms of torture. 



Elaine Scarry explains that torture of the ‘other’ is fundamentally an attack on civilizations. She explains that, “War and torture have the same two targets, a people and its civilization (….) the much greater reliance on the symbolic in torture exists on both spheres.”[49]

Torture is a very personal and extreme example of what humans are capable of doing to each other in the process of othering. As a result of Abu Ghraib England served two years in jail and Charles Green served six. Golub’s prison wardens and mercenaries know this.  The easy stance and knowing smiles of Golub’s figures answer the question that these soldiers and mercenaries, and in turn the figureheads that condone and facilitate these acts of bodily violence, are beyond accountability. But what Golub achieves with his directness and commitment to interpretive and thematically relevant approach to painting is a complete lack of ambiguity to the hierarchy that he depicts. There is a clarity and social and historical context in Golub’s work that is missing from Botero’s; Golub’s mark making and compositional decisions are informed by his subject matter, unlike Botero whose aesthetic direction overshadows the subject matter and whose motifs as subconscious rather than intentional.

 “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.” 
― Susan SontagOn Photography



Bird, J. (2011) Leon Golub: Echoes of the real. 2nd edn. London: Reaktion Books.

Butler, J. (2009) Frames of war: When is life grievable?. New York: Verso Books.

Eisenman, S. F. (2007) The Abu Ghraib effect. LONDON: Reaktion Books.

Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.

Francis, S. T. (2013) The psychological fictions of J.G. Ballard. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hersh, S. M. (2004) Chain of command: The road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. United Kingdom: Allen Lane.

Scarry, E. (1987) The body in pain: The making and Unmaking of the world. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. United Kingdom: Penguin, [1979].


Essays and Articles

Apel, D. (2005) ‘Torture culture: Lynching photographs and the images of Abu Ghraib’, Art Journal, 64(2), p. 88. doi: 10.2307/20068386.

Botero, F. (2007) ‘BOTERO AT BERKELEY: A Conversation With the Artist’. Interview with Robert Hass for Centre of Latin American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 29 January, .

Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings at Berkeley (no date) .

Bowden, C. and McConnell, G. (2014) ‘Extraordinary Renditions’, GQ Magazine (September), p. http://www.gq.com/story/charles–bowden–fernando–botero.

Di Stefano, E. (2014) ‘What can a painting do? Absorption and aesthetic form in Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib as a response to affect theory and the moral utopia of human rights’, MLN, 129(2), pp. 412–432. doi: 10.1353/mln.2014.0015.

Hersh, S. (2004) ‘Torture At Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker (May), .    Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/torture-at-abu-ghraib

Kathuria, P. (2012) ‘Fernando Botero’s grievous depictions of adversity at the Abu Ghraib’, art etc. news & views (April), pp. http://www.artnewsnviews.com/view–article.php?article=fernando–botero–s–grievous–depictions–of–adversity–at–the–abu–ghraib&iid=33&articleid=977.

Reed, F. (1984) ‘Life with Bob: A Sordid But Instructive Interval At Soldier of Fortune Magazine’, Playboy (March), .

Slowik, M. (2007) ‘The ethics of audience positioning in the paintings of Leon Golub and the prints of Sue Coe’, Narrative, 15(3), pp. 373–389. doi: 10.1353/nar.2007.0020.

Sontag, S. (2004) ‘Regarding the torture of others’, The New York Times Magazine, .    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/23/magazine/regarding-the-torture-of-others.html?_r=0

Taylor Martin, S. (2003) Her job: Lock up Iraq’s bad guys. Available at: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/12/14/Worldandnation/Her_job__Lock_up_Iraq.shtml (Accessed: 15 January 2016).

Translated, Barnes, H. E. and Sartre, J.-P. (1983) Being and nothingness; an essay on phenomenological ontology. New York: Washington Square Press.

Žižek, S. (2004) ‘What Rumsfeld Doesnt know that he knows about Abu Ghraib’, In These Times (May), pp.1-3 http://inthesetimes.com/article/747/what_rumsfeld_doesn_know_that_he_knows_about_abu_ghraib.


Additional references

Haneke, M. (2007) Funny games. .


Further reading

Brintnall, K. L. (2011) Ecce homo: The male-body-in-pain as redemptive figure. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Sontag, S. (2004) ‘Regarding the torture of others’, The New York Times Magazine. p.1

[2] Hersh, S. (2004) ‘Torture At Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker p1   

[3] Ibid p3

[4] Hersh, S. M. (2004) Chain of command: The road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. United Kingdom: Allen Lane. P.22

[5] Scarry, E. (1987) The body in pain: The making and Unmaking of the world. New York: Oxford University Press, USA. p23

[6] Hersh, S. ‘Torture At Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker p2   

[7] Sontag, S. ‘Regarding the torture of others’.

[8] Žižek, S., 2004. Between Two Deaths. London Review of books. p2

[9] Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books. p83

[10] Žižek, S. Between Two Deaths. p1

[11] Ibid. p2

[12] Scarry, E. The body in pain: The making and Unmaking of the world. p61

[13] Ibid p51

[14] Žižek, S. (2004) ‘What Rumsfeld Doesnt know that he knows about Abu Ghraib’, In These Times (May

[15] Sontag, S. ‘Regarding the torture of others’,

[16] Botero, F. (2007) ‘BOTERO AT BERKELEY: A Conversation with the Artist’. Interview with Robert Hass for Centre of Latin American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 29 January.


[17] Bowden, C. and McConnell, G. (2014) ‘Extraordinary Renditions’, GQ Magazine (September), p1

[18] Kathuria, P. (2012) ‘Fernando Botero’s grievous depictions of adversity at the Abu Ghraib’, art etc. news & views (April), p1

[19] Botero, F. (2007) ‘BOTERO AT BERKELEY: A Conversation with the Artist’.


[20] Žižek, S. ‘What Rumsfeld Doesnt know that he knows about Abu Ghraib’ p3

[21] Botero, F. (2007) ‘BOTERO AT BERKELEY: A Conversation with the Artist’.


[22] Golub, L. & Obrist, H. 1997, Do paintings bite?: selected texts, 1948-1996, Cantz, Ostfildern p163

[23] Golub, L. & Obrist, H. 1997, Do paintings bite? Selected texts. p5

[24] Ibid p9

[25] Ibid p19

[26] Bird, J. Leon Golub: Echoes of the real. p107

[27] Reed, F. (1984) ‘Life with Bob: A Sordid But Instructive Interval at Soldier of Fortune Magazine’, Playboy (March).

[28] Bird, J. Leon Golub: Echoes of the real. p35

[29] Golub, L. & Obrist, H. 1997, Do paintings bite? Selected texts p28

[30] Bird, J. Leon Golub: Echoes of the real. p103

[31] Slowik, M. (2007) ‘The ethics of audience positioning in the paintings of Leon Golub and the prints of Sue Coe’, Narrative, 15(3), p308

[32] Haneke, M. (2007) Funny Games.

[33] Butler, J. (2009) Frames of war: When is life grievable?. New York: Verso Books. p64


[34] Translated, Barnes, H. E. and Sartre, J.-P. (1983) Being and nothingness; an essay on phenomenological ontology. New York: Washington Square Press.

[35] Eisenman, S. F The Abu Ghraib effect. p29

[36] Hersh, S. ‘Torture At Abu Ghraib’, The New Yorker p3

[37] Bird, J. Leon Golub: Echoes of the real. p94

[38] Ibid p124

[39] Eisenman, S. F. The Abu Ghraib effect. p97

[40] Ibid p97


[41] Sontag, S. ‘Regarding the torture of others’ p11

[42] Eisenman, S. F. The Abu Ghraib effect.p38

[43] Ibid p38

[44] Sontag, S. (2004) ‘Regarding the torture of others’ p11

[45] Eisenman, S. F The Abu Ghraib effect. p29

[46] Taylor Martin, S. (2003) Her job: Lock up Iraq’s bad guys.

[47] Žižek, S., 2004. Between Two Deaths. London Review of books. p1

[48] Apel, D. (2005) ‘Torture culture: Lynching photographs and the images of Abu Ghraib’, Art Journal, 64(2), p. 88

[49] Scarry, E. The body in pain: The making and Unmaking of the world p61