History is written (or recorded) by the victors, or so the saying goes. Today I saw an art installation from Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar which really illustrates that idea.
For some background, here’s what the BBC wrote about Jaar’s installation in 2014:
Jaar chose not to show us any pictures but instead blinded us with a blaze of projected light. Rather than a despairing nihilist gesture, Lament of the Images was integral to a strongly held argument that images mattered.
Jaar’s installation was a response to the increasing political control, erasure and suppression of images. Our encounter with Jaar’s field of light was preceded by three glowing panels of back-lit texts presented in a darkened room, all musing on different forms of blindness and erasure: beginning with Nelson Mandela being dazzled by the light on his release from prison and how prisoners were blinded by the glare of the sun on the limestone as they broke rocks in a quarry on the centre of Robben Island.
Texts two and three considered the loss and control of images in relationship to two significant events: the burial of 17 million photographic images from Bettmann and United Press International, purchased by Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, in a limestone mine, and how before launching airstrikes against Afghanistan, the United States Defense Department had bought all rights to satellite imagery of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, creating an “effective white-out of the operation”.
And here is the final panel, the one related to the “white out” of our bombing of Afghanistan:
It’s powerful stuff. Presented in an art context, it was more than powerful: it was enraging. As a reasonably engaged American, I wanted to know why I hadn’t heard about either the Bill Gates or Afghanistan incidents of image suppression. Especially Afghanistan. I remember much uproar about the Bush Administration censoring photographs of coffins arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t remember anything about this.
Pictures are powerful, a picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes. No wonder the Bush Administration wanted to make sure nobody saw the devastation our bombs wrought on Afghanistan.
Today if you Google this story, you find this, from the New York Times:
The Pentagon contract, concluded on Oct. 7, also means that news media and other organizations outside government will not be able to obtain independently their own high-resolution satellite images of the Afghanistan region.
In addition, the contract effectively allows the Pentagon to keep the images it bought out of the public eye forever. None can be released without Defense Department approval.
The old disputes between the military and news media centered on access for the media pool. The new dispute is about access to images collected in the nonsovereign territory of space.
The Pentagon has also taken a more subtle approach to the fight. Under the law, the Bush administration could have blocked news media’s access to the satellite on national security grounds by invoking a never-used provision, “shutter control.” Such a move would have quite likely set off legal challenges and heated protests. Instead, the Pentagon achieved its desired result through its contract.
For some reason, this story basically disappeared. And that’s exactly how the Bush Administration wanted it. By using economic power instead of legal power, they made sure there was little if any knowledge or protest about their actions.
The power of the pocketbook — be it the U.S. government’s or Bill Gates’ — is not new. That these are the people who can control our history by controlling what information the world sees is scary, indeed.
I recommend that someone in the news media petition the Obama Administration to release these images, much as President Obama allowed the photographing of coffins arriving home from war. We need to see what we have wrought. We bought this war, we need to see the damage we caused.
And let me add a final word of caution: we can petition the government to release these images. We can use FOIA requests, the news media can make an argument about the First Amendment. We have no such recourse with the Bill Gates images. None.
Next invasion, wait for Son of Dick Cheney to get Bill Gates to buy (and bury) satellite images on the government’s behalf.