William F. Schulz on the representation of torture

Library, Women Artists & Hybrid Forms

March 14th, 2010


Here is one the paradoxes associated with torture: words, essential as they are, can never entirely capture the experience but photographs capture it too graphically – too graphically, that is, for many people to bear.

When I was executive director of Amnesty International USA (1994-2006), we were intrigued by reports from our counterparts in Amnesty UK that their direct mail solicitations had included explicit photos of the wounds suffered by survivors of torture and that those mailings had generated far more income for them than usual. Our mailings had contained only word descriptions of brutality. Would pictures generate more sympathy and hence more revenues? Much to our surprise, exactly the opposite happened. Perhaps Americans are more squeamish than the British but those mailings were a disaster. “I know what is going on is horrific and I bless and support you for your work but please don’t send me any more photographs,” was a typical response. “I can’t stand to look at them.”

Part of the genius of Nancy Spero’s work is that she has given us the words – we need them to record the facts in hard-nosed black and white – but she has done far more than that. She has given us startling, compelling images – not photographs that may repel us but powerful images – that capture both the terror of the violation of our flesh but also the power of survivors. Yes, women may be subjected to the most hideous crimes but they are not victims, this masterpiece says; through their genius and their grit and their grace they take a world turned upside down and right it.

I have been privileged to know many survivors of torture, a majority of them women, who are just like that—determined not to let the perpetrators win. Nancy Spero’s book speaks for them and, in doing so, to and for us all.

—William F. Schulz, executive director, Amnesty International, 1994 – 2006




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