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04 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 3

The following is the third installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

To read the first installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click here.

To read the second installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click

JRM: I wish I’d asked you [why the subjects were so cooperative] when we first met, because the key phrase is “THEY don’t understand the power of the camera.” That’s crucial in understanding why you were able to get away with it.

RR: I did one singular image of a chair which I thought was pure Josef K. Kafka, and they approved it digitally at Guantánamo. And I happened to be there when the military was accused of flushing Qur’ans down the toilet. It wasn’t proven positively or negatively, I think. But the image went to AP, it was picked up by Time, and a great art director there took the image and desaturated it, made it black and white, and had it as the opening spread to the special issue in Time of [Detainee 063] at Guantánamo.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

[See the image as it appears at Time’s website by clicking here.—ed.]

And it became one of those rare events in my world, where I had a visual idea of what I wanted, I was able to convince someone to give me access to it, and I got the image that I wanted and it appeared in print, probably, ten days later. It rarely happens like that. It’s always post-justification or some miracle if something like that actually comes to be.

But they did not understand the power of the photograph. They were too concerned with not wanting two landmarks on a hilltop that would compromise fort security and tell some foreign power where this building is versus that building. And I didn’t say to them, ‘Well, pardon me, but this base has been here since the Spanish Civil War. I could go to Google Earth and look at it.” [Laughter.] “If you think it’s gonna compromise something…” Psychologically, they didn’t get that this was a more dangerous photograph for them.

JRM: I just have one thought, which I had before, but has come back to me, that the American military is not obviously monolithic any more than any other big bureaucracy is. And I don’t want to suggest that the Army which Americans, I’m sad to say, …believe is the only redeemable institution left in American society. “It’s the only place you’re gonna find straight shooters.”

But that being said, it has been my experience, in my limited reporting with the military—because I was never a war correspondent—but also in speaking at WestPoint, that the military intellectuals that I’ve met over the years—and this doesn’t necessarily filter down into the lower ranks—are much more intellectually curious and open-minded than a lot of university intellectuals that I’ve met, or rank and file journalists. And I am supported in this thesis by Marjane Satrapi, the author of Persepolis, who had precisely the same experience at WestPoint. She was shocked at how open-minded and interested, conversational, up for any kind of discussion were the teachers and the cadets.

So I’m not suggesting that we pin our hopes on the U.S. Army, but there are elements in the military—in the Marines, too—who are more democratically inclined than you might think. However, I’m still amazed that you got away with what you got away with. Especially with all the bad publicity.

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