The Captured Image
What do pictures of a top al-Qaeda terrorist being arrested in Karachi on 11 September 2002 actually show?
On 11 September 2002, Ramzi Binalshibh was arrested in Karachi. He was a room-mate of Mohammed Atta’s from the ‘Hamburg cell’ and the only surviving ‘mastermind’ of the attacks on New York a year before. His arrest unfolded less than two kilometres from the house where I had been staying as a guest the previous year and where I – like him – had followed the attacks live on television. I had been spending the evening with Pakistani art students whose emotional reactions to the events differed sharply from my own – which only increased my horror. This coincidence and my persistent feeling of dread in the face of ‘the historical uncanny’ (W. J. T. Mitchell) were what prompted me to begin studying the photographic material that went round the world after Binalshibh’s arrest.
During a series of raids carried out by Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, together with the Sindh Police and the Pakistan Rangers, leads had emerged to an apartment on the third floor of a free-standing house in a side street – House 63C, 15th Commercial Street, Defence Housing Authority, Phase II Extension. Police moved in during the night and when two men left the house at 9am, they were seized. The arrests of the two men were followed by a three-hour siege, during which hand grenades were thrown from the building at short intervals. Hundreds of police and many curious onlookers were on the street, until the apartment was finally stormed. In the end, two terrorists were killed, five arrested, and several policemen wounded.
The photograph of Binalshibh that appeared most often in media reports shows the terrorist blindfolded with a pink and white cloth (nose, mouth and beard remain visible) and being marched through a crowd by heavily armed police. His body is arched in resistance, his mouth open in a scream. His blue T-shirt, which a man is pulling from behind, ripples decoratively across his chest. Rifles held by moustached police officers frame him as a set of geometrical lines that trace his movements. A pistol points directly at the camera.
This dramatic scene, captured by the photographer Zahid Hussein, shows only heroes: the police aggressively parade their catch, the captive struggles as a martyr – witnesses heard him screaming ‘Allahu akbar’. Both sides can use the photograph as propaganda material. This bivalence of the image already points to an unutterable enmeshment between state and enemy of the state for which the photographer’s unconscious has seemingly created a visual outlet.
The political today presents itself as impenetrable, terrifying, appealing to strong emotions – this is how Boris Groys describes the new culture of violent political images in his essay ‘Art at War’ (2008). These images no longer serve purely as historical documents, for the more deeply entrenched the violence becomes, the more they are permeated by monstrosity. Today’s image production machine brings forth universally identifiable icons of what Groys calls ‘the political sublime’ – and the more horrific they are, the bigger their impact.
Even without supervision through theoretical concepts, I had always been aware of the impenetrability of political space – a perception that generated a wish to desublimate it and turn it back into a space that could at least be entered. I wanted to worm my way back into insane world history, into something that had slipped from my grasp as a result of an outrageous and outsized abstract event – and I wanted to do so with the help of my ‘non-linear subjectivity’, consisting of unexpected physical reactions, qualms, kitschy fantasies, preconceived Eurocentric views, investigative tactics, and knowledge of art history. Late in 2008, I travelled to Karachi again to make a piece for the ‘embedded art’ exhibition at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste (2009), using photographs and texts to focus on the neighbourhood around the conspirators’ apartment.
The house on 15th Commercial Street, local people told me, was still under surveillance by the secret services, and I was advised not to go there. After much hesitation, I nonetheless had a taxi driver drop me off nearby. I jumped out, took a few photographs of the building, which had car workshops on the ground floor, and quickly succumbed to the expected anxiety attack. I returned to the main street on foot, and after a Rangers patrol car had passed me very slowly, I took refuge in a western coffee outlet.
I had long since abandoned my plan to look for Hussein, the man who took the famous photograph of Binalshibh’s arrest. The situation in Karachi struck me as too confusing, more than I could manage. But while I was taking a stroll near the art academy, a young photographer approached me and asked about my analogue compact camera. We chatted about photography. He told me there were no training courses for photojournalists in Karachi and that he learnt all he knew from his mentor, Hussein. This is how I established contact with the author of the Binalshibh photograph.
Hussein is one of Pakistan’s most renowned photojournalists and has been documenting the country’s political history since the 1970s. I met him at work in the editorial offices of the Daily Jang newspaper, where, on his computer screen, he showed me all of his pictures from the hours of the raid on 11 September 2002. Looking through the images, I was overcome by a vague sense that something was amiss – they looked like stills from a film set, not pictures of a tumultuous event in reality. I asked Hussein if we could include these photographs in the exhibition in Berlin. He gave me a CD with 167 image files. Back in Berlin, I selected 75 of them for the show and presented them in vitrines, arranged into sequences.
Early in 2011, I returned to the photographs, still sure there was something wrong with them. They had come into my possession by chance: somewhere out there, there had to be a wish that corresponded magically with my own wish to establish contact with these events. Conspiracy fantasies played out in my head: the pictures were a staged event with paid spectators and invited journalists; the man being arrested, whose face is only half visible, was not Binalshibh at all; the al-Qaeda conspirators received logistical support and safe houses from the Pakistani secret service, and on the first anniversary of the attacks, while President Musharraf was attending the commemoration ceremony in New York and speaking in front of the United Nations, one of the terrorists was presented to the world as a fall guy. Can one make a plausible case based on feelings that reflect a blend of inner wishes and moods sensed in the outside world? Can such feelings be used, through a precise analysis of inner experience, as pattern-recognition tools that might reveal whether the scenes portrayed in a photograph show a real event or a contrived one? According to the literary scholar Eva Horn in her book Der geheime Krieg. Verrat, Spionage und moderne Fiktion (2007; forthcoming in translation as The Secret War. Treason, Espionage and Modern Fiction, 2012), secret political knowledge is characterized by an area of blurriness in which definitive answers and solutions must remain open. Because I constantly suspect that material is being withheld, I generate new, coherent narratives to fill out the gaps in the real.
I studied closely the digital image material. 11:25am. One sequence shows policemen surging out of the stairwell pushing a prisoner ahead of them. They clutch onto the man’s almost naked upper body. Then the tumult seems to freeze: a constable of the Sindh Police rests his head on that of the prisoner, long enough for the photographer to take five pictures. A moment of tenderness.
11:35am. A different man, in a blue T-shirt, the man later named as Binalshibh, is lead through an agitated crowd. His left arm is gently gripped in the crook of a policeman’s arm, his left hand is free and he waves it in the air among the pistols and Kalashnikovs. A plain-clothes officer has his arm round Binalshibh’s shoulder like a friend while his other hand holds up a pistol. 11:46am. In front of the house, Hussein shoots eleven close-ups of the man in the blue T-shirt. A constable, clearly visible next to the prisoner, smiles mischievously at the photographer. The fourth image in the sequence is the image that went round the world (although with several days delay, on 14 September, once those arrested had been handed over to the FBI and identified). A length of pink curtain has been tied round Binalshibh’s lower arm, hanging almost down to the ground – that wasn’t there when, according to the digital timeline, he was led through the crowd for the first time. Was this shackle added later, after his alleged arrest in the apartment? If one follows the timeline, the man is brought from some other location, photographed in the police truck, taken into the house, held out of the window and photographed, and then driven through the street outside the house, where he is photographed again at close quarters.
Beginning on 24 April 2011, Wikileaks published the files on 779 Guantanamo inmates – including those of the ten men arrested in Karachi. These were the missing pieces of the puzzle needed to make up a plausible version of the story. The so-called Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) clearly show that Binalshibh had actually been arrested the night before during an operation on Tariq Road, while the house on 15th Commercial Street was the hideout of a group of six Yemenis who were planning suicide attacks on hotels in Karachi. This means that either Binalshibh was taken there after his arrest, or the person in the photograph is not him.
The Wikileaks publications put an abrupt end to my speculative fantasizing – and conclusively undermined the status of photography as a historical document. The photographer, as he told me in an interview, worked in complicity with the policemen, amongst whom it is common to wish to be seen in photographs with prisoners in order to obtain a bonus payment or a pay rise in return for their visible success. The representation of their personal wishes – to be photographed, to show themselves, to be proud – stands in peculiar contrast to the cruelty of their operations. At the same time, and although they appear in an Islamic context, the photographs resonate with Christian iconography (the hunched body of another arrested terrorist reminds me of Jesus in Caravaggio’s Flagellation, 1607). In Islamic culture, portrayals of martyrdom are less common in painting than in scenes staged with real bodies, like the ritual flagellations in Shi’ite Ashura processions. The passion of the martyr, physical pain, convulsions – what Hussein’s digital photographs evoke is the violence and the heroics of a bygone age. All of this against the backdrop of a very real enmeshment of state and terror. Just as the house in Abbottabad, where Osama Bin Laden was shot dead by American special forces on 1 May 2011, is located in the immediate vicinity of Pakistani military institutions, so the house in Karachi is in a neighbourhood owned by Pakistan’s army. Taken together, these details raise suspicions that groups within the military secret service could have provided logical support to the terrorists and known where they were hiding. In their pixellated snuff aesthetic, the pictures from Abbottabad that entered the public sphere were subject to the total control of the American government. What appears unclear in the photographs from Karachi produced by the Pakistanis – the theatricality, the overdesign, the excitement – mirrors the conflict they embody between complicity and compliance. As classics of Jesus eroticism, these images were dispatched via Reuters back to the western world.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 3