‘Hooded Prisoner’ in 3D – a discussion between Julian Stallabrass and Alan Warburton

June 2019

Alan Warburton is an artist, animator and researcher whose work critically reflects on CGI software culture.

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Alan Warburton

This is Hooded Prisoner.zip, by Spiracy, retailing at $44.99 and it is constructed in 3D Studio Max which is one of, maybe, five different programmes that create 3D animation and 3D models. This one is geared towards games in particular, so the people that use 3DS max, generally are making models for games. And the tags on the model are: 3D model characters, people, military people, and prisoner, while the key words are: Abu Ghraib, lies, war, neo-common games, Middle East, Bush, Blair, PNAC, America, Britain, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, 9/11, torture, rendition and Iran. And the description is the infamous Abu Ghraib prison from the pictures that shocked the world. Also, ‘High res, polygon model’.

Julian Stallabrass

What’s the scale of it? That was something that was puzzling me…

Alan Warburton

It is whatever scale you want it to be. But initially, when you download it, depending on the program, it might come out tiny, life size or it may even be the scale of a huge statue. We won’t know until we have downloaded the model.

Julian Stallabrass

There’s a lot of material about the figure’s original references, as well as about the photographs that surround the Abu Ghraib events. Abu Ghraib was very unusual but not because of what went on there.

As Errol Morris and Philip Gourevich describe in their book Standard Operating Procedure what happened in Abu Ghraib was a common practice in the many jails that the US intelligence forces were running. Photography of prisoners was also a standard operating procedure but what was unusual in that case was how the Abu Ghraib photographs became the subject of a criminal investigation by the US Army, so the images came into official channels. Since the images were subject to forensic investigation, were also in a sense validated by US authorities and only then did it become all right to speak about them in the public domain, and they then made it into the news. But the Bush regime, very successfully, spun this event as being an exceptional act; they presented it, as something like hazing done by a few bad apples, this was the story.

Julian Stallabrass

And after a substantial controversy in the press, which ran for some weeks, things died down and the use of the word torture, for instance, pretty much dropped out of the media. So, why was this kind of treatment ‘standard operating procedure’? The idea was to expose prisoners to interrogation techniques, which were meant to break down their sense of identity and worth, especially through sexual humiliations of various kinds. Photography was an integral part of that because obviously if you’re being photographed while being obliged to simulate or perform a sexual act, it’s much worse if the act is being recorded. Another reason was that the resulting photographs could be used to blackmail prisoners. If they were shown to in the prisoners’ communities, one could be subject to perhaps death or ostracisation. And for women it was particularly bad; there are a number of cases of women who killed themselves because they couldn’t face the shame of what they had been obliged to do and certainly, the idea that these photographs could be in circulation.

The guards at Abu Ghraib, Graner, England and Harman and so on, the ones who notoriously came to trial and took the pictures, were doing it partly for their own entertainment but also under the instructions of shadowy private and CIA operatives who were running the interrogations. They don’t appear in the pictures, many of them were anonymous, they wore uniforms without identification, and we know little about them except what we know about the system as a whole. And as I say, the cases were similar from jail to jail.

Julian Stallabrass

I suppose it’s worth saying something about why this image is the best known, at least in the West, as I don’t think it is the best-known elsewhere, especially in the Middle East. There is for example a picture of Harman giving a thumbs-up sign over the corpse of an Iraqi who has been tortured to death by these operatives and that’s the image that has had the most traction = among Iraqis and in the Middle East in general.

The image of the hooded prisoner that we are discussing here has religious echoes, which is a very common element of iconic photographs. Compared to some of the more sexualised imagery, compared to the images of people being threatened with dogs or with guns, being held in much worse stress positions or being beaten up, this image has this sense of accidental religious association.

Alan Warburton

What stuck out for me from this is the role of photography in accelerating this idea of shame; these stress positions, and the sexual humiliation. Obviously, the image of a hooded prisoner is about shame, and an image of a dead body, for example, is not, so there’s very specific nuance to this image. Another thing that I noted as you were talking was how the photographic evidence, where you can see skin texture, lighting and the environment that this person was in, is all rendered in one hospital-gown-blue in the 3D model. So when photography gets converted into a 3D model, the shock value that the original image has, transitions into something else. What are your thoughts on this transition, between the photograph’s ability to induce shame and various other human emotions, to this 3D object, which has a different currency?

Julian Stallabrass

The images taken at Abu Ghraib were mostly taken on cheap, portable digital cameras, which back then had only two or three megapixels’ resolution. In Hito Steyerl’s sense, they were poor images, and especially those taken in the jail in poor lighting were low res and grainy. The images were certainly sufficient for the purposes for which they were taken but there’s a sense in which often you find yourself trying to read details into them, which perhaps are not quite there. They are often blurry; the colours are poor, blurry and murky. What strikes me about this 3D version is partly that there is a reduction, as you say: the colour is stripped out but at the same time, there seem to be additions too. The result is obviously 3D, but it also seems a very sharp image and very well defined, and there are all sorts of details, which I’m not sure you can see in the original photo.

Alan Warburton

Like the tassels on the blanket?

Julian Stallabrass

Yes, exactly. You can notice very sharp folds and very sharp lines in the 3D model, which means it has been very crisply rendered. And that is not what the original looks like.

Alan Warburton

It would be very difficult to replicate the original. The gap between the skills of the artist in 3D and the detail of the original photo introduces some interesting variables and simplifications.

Julian Stallabrass

There are a number of these variables actually, while this 3D version focuses primarily on the figure. The original photo has one variant that Judith Butler, in particular, has commented on as a being a very complete image not only because of the abuse that went on in the jail, but also because in it you can see, the guard—I believe this is Graner—at one side getting ready to take the picture which becomes notorious.

These tassels though seem to be an interpretation. One thing that the 3D model does is that the arms are raised much higher, which makes it look more like a crucifixion compared to the original.

Alan Warburton

It is also interesting to think where this 3D model goes and how it’s now got a different life to the original image. The way I would work with something like this is -I mean I probably wouldn’t work with something like this for a start- but if I was to download a model, which I often do for the films that I make, it will come with its own set of limitations and material conditions.

The figure was probably imported from a software package where you can get an off-the-shelf figure and then position it in the way that you want. The blanket might have been created separately, in another piece of software as part of a cloth simulation. The artist might have modelled a flat blanket, then draped it over, watched it fall on this figure, running the simulation until the point it looks good… and that’s the result that we’ve got.

So when you download this 3D model, you’ll get all these elements as different parts. You can take it apart, reconfigure it and so on, but I think crucially what you’re then able to do is drop it into whatever software you’re using and “re-skin” it, re-texture it, version it to your own ends.

Alan Warburton

But while a model like this looks to you quite crisp, to me it’s doesn’t look like a great model. I’ve seen better (and certainly better-documented) 3D models. To use this model in production, I would probably have to upgrade it - but what gets interesting then is the ability to take this model as a basis and integrate it into whatever kind of realities I’m creating in software. This could quite easily end up looking photo-real, if you dropped some textures on it, a nice skin texture for example. You could paint the right blanket texture and it could integrate into a game engine or a photo-real animation. So my thoughts go to the malleability of this model and its meaning at the point it hits the software package.

And this is something that I’m still trying to work out, how does 3D animation as a medium affect its subject, like this Abu Ghraib model, in comparison to photography? 3D animation uses photography, manipulates it, collages sources together, but full CGI goes a step further because we can build another world around this model - you can walk through that world and that world can stay fixed in software or it can be given to someone else and they can tweak it. So you can construct something that is a lot more fluid in many ways.

Julian Stallabrass

Do we know anything about how successful this model is, can you tell how often it’s been downloaded?

Alan Warburton

I think only the artist can see their download stats. But we can see what else he has made, and having already looked at this, it’s quite an interesting mix of objects that this guy has uploaded. For example, the face of Osama Bin Laden, a memory stick and an England flag. He is possibly a student or an amateur; it seems like somebody cobbling together bits and pieces for their own animations. The name is Spiracy, which I guess is piracy but also conspiracy, I don’t know which way to take that. There’s an interesting idea here about how you can build conspiratorial universes, this user in their very username is indicating that they have a belief system and that they are able to build a world, a potentially photo realistic world around this belief system.

Julian Stallabrass

The disembodied face of Osama Bin Laden was interesting and also creepy. It seems to be geared into the control of the image world in the sense that when Bin Laden was assassinated, the operations team that did it ended up shooting him in the face. This was something they were asked not to do but it happened, and then of course they did photograph the corpse before his body was disposed off… but these photographs were never released to the public. It was something that Obama was asked about…

Julian Stallabrass

When I was curating the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, which was along similar themes of war and photography, I did spend some time tracking the Abu Ghraib image across various websites. In this process you could find some extraordinary things: toy versions, dressing-up versions, even for kids. This example just shows you that there are many strange and often invidious uses of these images. And in their analysis of iconic images, Hariman and Lucaites in their book 'No Caption Needed’ trace one of the ways in which an image becomes iconic, which is not through mere repetition, but by getting reused and collaged and made into cartoons and all kinds of other images and objects over and over again.

And of course then you think of more honorific images, which have a lot of currency, say Joe Rosenthal’s ‘Iwo Jima’ picture that gets made into statutes and postage stamps. Or, for example, of a similar picture of a fireman at the 9/11 scene taken by Thomas Franklin that was also made a into postage stamp and was printed onto bombs dropped on Iraq…there’s a huge wave of merchandising on which this image appears.

So the oddity and disturbance of the Abu Ghraib image is not that it gets used in this way but simply this is an image that the authorities would rather not have circulated so widely.

Alan Warburton

Here’s where I start thinking about post-photography, because there’s a nuanced difference between what you’re talking about, the editioning of this photo into various different sculptural forms and forms of mass culture, and what this 3D model facilitates. In a very crude example, if you wanted to upscale the original photograph for an 8K TV or something, you’d probably want to turn it into a 3D model, reconstructing the whole scene with a level of detail not in the original. Maybe machine learning will soon allow us to upscale the resolution of archive images (or maybe even create 3D scenes from photographs), but as it stands the professional way of upgrading this image would be to start with the kind of asset Spiracy has created and flesh it out. So in that way, I think the 3D model supplants the original image, and this is why I’m thinking of post-photography.

Julian Stallabrass

You were talking about gaming and the use of these 3D models in gaming where they become programmable elements within the scenario and I’m thinking about how the military have been using gaming.

Lisa Barnard, for instance, did a book about it. Obviously games are used in military training, they’re used in recruitment, to some extent, through America’s Army and they’re also used in post-PTSD therapies where they’re sometimes combined with real objects as well. So there’s a gaming environment, which bleeds into the physical environment. The other thing that really fascinates me is the speed of culture cycling between games, movies, TV and photojournalism. All of these media are feeding off each other very rapidly today whereas if you compare Vietnam, for instance, the convincing cinematic renditions of Vietnam didn’t really come out until the ‘80s.

Alan Warburton

I can remember being very struck after 9/11, that September was actually when I started art college, and I remember being really shocked that they had released this film with Nicholas Cage about the attacks, only few years after it had happened. I was 20 at the time and maybe I hadn’t seen how the Vietnam War had been incorporated or replicated through culture but that felt new to me: to see something so huge get fictionalised so quickly.

Julian Stallabrass

I think there was some controversy at the time partly because 9/11 was seen by Americans as such an exceptional event over which, how and even if, it gets represented became contentious issues. The issue of the Iraq Wars is different because I don’t think it was subject to the same kind of censorship, except when it came to the corpses of US soldiers. But then what you do get is a situation where the soldiers fighting in that war can potentially go back to base and play games, simulations of what they were actually doing. These things look increasingly realistic, they look like a cleaned up photojournalism and I think they start to have an effect on what photojournalism looks like and feels like.

Alan Warburton

This is making me think of cinematic universes; the idea of these soldiers in conflict areas coming back and re-training in virtual environments based on those conflict areas.

Julian Stallabrass

Indeed there is this idea that these films are based on models re-used over and over again, there is a feeling of utter-familiarity: knowing exactly where you are and where this thing is going to go.

Alan Warburton

These worlds are procedurally built in a lot of ways. They’ll have some sort of modular generative algorithm that will generate buildings based on the stylistic templates that the designer has programmed in.

But I wonder: maybe this kind of discourse about virtual worlds is old news? There’s many people like me who over the past 20 years have been excited by the possibilities and politics of the virtual world, so I sense that maybe I’m repeating familiar positions… but maybe now is the right time to see theory in action? The writing of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio were taken up in the late ‘90s and early 2000s as de rigeur theory and then they fell out of favour but I think actually now we are seeing their thought manifest in phenomena like fake news or filter bubbles. And the relatively new idea of the ‘cinematic universe’ demonstrates a new cohesion across media, the integration between live action footage and virtual 3D models; the building of extensive and durable 3D model libraries. And then we see this one artist, Spiracy, creating the baby steps towards his own counter-universe, all this adds up for me to the idea that right now there is real currency in the idea of the virtual universe becoming more magnetic, more important, and more influential.

Julian Stallabrass

I think that is reflected in debates about photography as well. Thinking of the moment when digital photography came into circulation, and there were few of digital cameras around that were incredibly expensive, and of very poor quality compared to what we are used to now. Almost immediately you get theorists like Baudrillard issuing grand pronouncements about the end of photographic truth and many of which, as you say, went through the same kind of cycle. They were influential for a while, but they were very much based in an idea of what digital photography might be, and not at all what it did in practice. And then they came to seem rather silly, especially when digital photography got used quite a lot for photojournalism and it became obvious that the trust in the image was as much to do with trust in institutions as much as it had to do with trust in technologies.

Paradoxically, newspapers became much more conservative about the way that they would manipulate images. If you read accounts of photojournalism from the 1970s, they were allowed to do all sorts of things, including collage images as long as you weren’t travestying the meaning of the scene. Whereas now you would definitely get fired immediately for using montage, even if only very minor manipulations were discovered. However, I think that as digital photography develops and becomes, especially for in-camera or camera-phone, much more deeply programmed and an artefactual medium, some of those theories, or some of their pronouncements may be re-adopted.

Julian Stallabrass

When you look across those Abu Ghraib photographs as a whole, you are seeing something, which is extremely sordid. It’s interesting to hear those who were there, both prisoners and guards speak about the reality of Abu Ghraib, a lot of which doesn’t come across in the photographs: the fact for example that it stank so much because it was built on top of a graveyard from the Saddam era, so they were constantly finding body parts emerging from the soil. You can see from the photographs that it’s filthy and bloody, it’s a deeply repugnant place and in a sense there’s a way in which the low quality of those early digital images powerfully suggest that murk and contamination.

Alan Warburton

Introducing murk and contamination into 3D worlds is really difficult, I would say that’s the biggest challenge: how to simulate the endless filth of the world. I think that’s maybe a challenge specific to 3D animation and 3D modelling, the fact that it becomes too clean and it sanitises everything.

Julian Stallabrass

But, as you say, that’s part of its very attraction especially in the entertainment industry.