Author Sarah Sentilles Gives Talk on Art, Violence

Sarah Sentilles, a writer and scholar of religion, gave a presentation on her book “Draw Your Weapons” last Monday night at the Lundring Events Center at California Lutheran University. The presentation titled “Draw Your Weapons: Photography, Blind Spots and Otherness” touched on issues such as theology, pacifism, photography and critical thinking.

The presentation reflected on how the media uses images to shape the public’s understanding of the world using various methods like editing photos and staging events.

Sentilles was invited on campus by Pearson Library Head of Undergraduate Instruction and Outreach Yvonne Wilber and Samuel Thomas, professor of religion at Cal Lutheran. The event was part of the artist and speaker series and was partially funded by the Sarah W. Heath Center for Equality and Justice.

Sentilles discussed parts of her book, which used two fictional characters based on real-life examples of men that turned to art during times of war. The first was named Howard, a conscientious objector that spent his time learning how to make violins during World War II. The second was a prison guard named Miles at Abu Grahib who returned home after the Iraq War and created paintings of the prisoners he saw.

“I thought the use of two different people under different situation affirmed the belief that differing to something positive is transcendent,” said Jerry Thompson, a community member in attendance.

Sentilles said the book started out as a novel and then was switched around in different styles during the 10 years it took to complete.

“I had to figure out what the form was going to be and how I was going to weave together the story of Howard and his violin with Miles and the Abu Grahib torture photographs,” Sentilles said. “Some books are easy to write and some books are hard – this one was hard.”

While completing her doctoral degree at Harvard University’s Divinity School, Sentilles said the Abu Grahib torture photos affected her so much, it made her change her whole thesis.

Abu Grahib was a prison complex in Iraq that was known for torture and prisoner abuse. In 2004, The New Yorker published an article detailing torture being carried out by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi citizens. One of the photos featured a hooded man balancing on a cardboard box who was told he would be electrocuted if he fell off of the box.

“There was something about the fact that they were described in religious terms. They were being called crucifixion images and I was studying religion… that’s why I felt an obligation to respond to them,” Sentilles said.

Sentilles said photographs can be used to discriminate against people and can spread misconceptions. Photographs can be easily altered or staged to push a certain kind of narrative.

“We almost can’t believe our eyes anymore. I’m a Photoshop artist and I can do anything with those shots,” Wilber said.

During the presentation, Sentilles showed altered iconic photographs such as the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, the Little Rock Nine and the John F. Kennedy assassination, which do not show any violence.

The missing violence was intended to get the audience to pay attention to the surrounding area and raise questions about the intended purpose of the photo.

“The altered photos really made me pay attention to the surroundings of the photos. I think we never pay attention to the people in the background, but those faces changed the perception of the photo,” Thompson said.

Sentilles said artists should be praised for a number of reasons, including that they are open to critique and have the ability to create emotion out of their work.

“We’ve been trained to look at the world objectively and empirically. The world is much more mysterious than we can see, touch and feel or even rationalize about,” Wilber said.

Sentilles said her hope was that audience members left with a better sense of knowing the importance that “photography plays in othering human beings and how those images are used to justify violence.”

After the presentation, audience members were invited to talk with Sentilles where she was selling and autographing her book.

Manuel Lira