The reaction to today's release of the Torture Report has certainly changed since the Abu Ghraib images blew the lid off America's torture tactics, despite the fact that Major General Antonio Taguba had written a damning report that sat gathering dust on Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld's desk.
My exhibition was about to open in San Francisco, and I had decided to test out Zazzle, who was boasting a proprietary archival ink and process that I had tested, liked and used for an exhibition a month prior at Axis Gallery in Manhattan.
Zazzle, at the time, didn't approve visual discussions about torture, (even without their name anywhere) and certainly not imagery, which it claimed was against its Terms of Service and might offend Christians. Enough to physically destroy two large prints the night before the opening. (Except for images of Jesus on a cross. Maybe if the Iraqis had virgin mothers the outcome would have been different). Zazzle also threatened to sue for defamation if I publicly chastised them.
Here's what Annoy.com said back then:
Fein learned of the last minute decision after a company representative informed him that two of his images had been deemed inappropriate, and Zazzle did not want to be associated with the images. The abrupt decision by the printing company altered the presentation of the exhibition and damaged the integrity of editions already released by the company.
The one image, recently reviewed at Chelsea’s Axis Gallery by New York Times’ Ken Johnson, who described it as “an American flag with the stars and stripes made from the text of the official Abu Ghraib report is accompanied by fifty representations of the iconic image of a hooded man teetering on a box with wires trailing from his arms comprising the stars.
The second image depicting President Bush on a crucifix entitled “Who Would Jesus Torture?” was also withheld by the printing company.
Company spokesperson, Matt Wilsey, claimed the image might “offend Christians,” and threatened to sue Fein for defamation after Fein warned he would publicly criticize the company’s actions.
Clinton Fein is a prominent First Amendment advocate successfully fought former Attorney General, Janet Reno, in a challenge to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that was heard before the United States Supreme Court.
Needless to say, Zazzle was about to learn what negative publicity looked like. Some examples:
Zazzle agreed that the Abu Ghraib picture had been published many times elsewhere. However, they still believed that it represented human torture. Zazzle management insisted that the prints violated the site’s user agreement on the grounds of being both offensive to religious believers and excessively violent.
While the user agreement is usually specific to those who publish images on the Zazzle website, Matt Wilsey, director, Business Development, Zazzle, said the agreement also applies to cases such as Fein’s where the customer is using Zazzle exclusively as a private printing service.
Wilsey said the company had refused to print other controversial images, including those of Jews in German concentration camps and the Japanese Americans in US internment camps. He added that being associated with pictures such as Fein’s was at odds with the image the company wanted to project and that it was not obligated to print the pictures.
In South Africa,Kresta Tyler Johnson from Art Throb tackled it thusly:
In an attempt to disassociate themselves from these images, Zazzle declared them inappropriate and failed to print them for the artist. Little did they know who they were defying when they chose this course of action.
Noted for successfully challenging former Attorney General Janet Reno in a case that went to the US Supreme Court, Fein was not deterred. Instead of avoiding publicity, Fein ensured that is exactly what Zazzle got - particularly negative.
The artist brought into question the ethical nature of Zazzle's actions and the problems that arise when printers exercise editorial control. As Fein said, 'It's unfortunate that a printing service felt it was more important to apply a bizarre, inconsistently applied standard to an image that nobody ever would have associated with them anyway.'
And of course, in my home town of San Francisco, it was to San Francisco Chronicle art critic, Kenneth Baker, to whom Zazzle admitted printing and then destroying the images.
The Palo Alto printing company Zazzle scrapped two pieces respectively titled "Like Apple F -- ing Pie" and "Who Would Jesus Torture?" "Like ... Pie" makes a U.S. flag from lines of the Taguba report in red on white and a blue field with white "stars" clearly recognizable as the Abu Ghraib torture victim photographed standing atop a tin container, hooded, with arms outstretched and wired.
"This is one of the most widely published images of the day," Fein told The Chronicle by phone. "For that to be the reason [Zazzle] refused to release it is beyond me." The second contested image shows George W. Bush on the cross, sporting a missile erection, beneath the words "Who Would Jesus Torture?"
"They said they didn't want their name associated with my images," Fein said of Zazzle. "And I said the only way that would happen is if they refused to print it. They said, 'Is that a threat?' and I said, 'No, it's an unequivocal promise.' " Matt Wilsey, speaking for Zazzle, told The Chronicle by phone, "We're an e-commerce site where we don't see the images until they're printed. Clinton had uploaded some images to our site and after we printed them, we notified him that two of them violated our guidelines, and we issued a credit and destroyed them."
Even Los Angeles Times thought the behavior of a printer destroying art works was news worthy at the time. But with the exception of Arab News, where ironically the content could not even be shown, there seemed to be an understanding inherent in the media coverage that seemed to give Zazzle more sympathy than they deserved.
Matt Wilsey, director of business development at Zazzle, said company guidelines ban images of excessive violence as well as derogatory references to religion. Fein's flag image "contains the image of torture," while the other image is "offensive to Christians," he said.
I checked in with Zazzle today. The company is still around, bragging about affiliations with everyone from Google to Disney. And while I don't know if they would print my images depicting torture today -- either my piece containing the Taguba Report detailing the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, or my Who Would Jesus Torture? image which they thought would offend Christians -- the one torture image you can still buy on Zazzle's site is an image of a man brutally nailed to a piece of wood.
That remains the one torture image we seem to be able to live with that doesn't offend sensibilitites.