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He went back every year for four years. Between 2007-2010, photojournalist Louie Palu made six trips to Guantanamo. Not quite a compulsion, but more of a requirement, Palu had to go. He’d photographed in Afghanistan and it made sense that he’d take opportunities to document America’s chosen *homeland* site for its Global War On Terror (GWOT). Guantanamo is another piece in the puzzling puzzle of war against an expanding list of enemies. It is more contained and less flash-bang than any theater of war, but no less violent. Inside Gitmo, coercion and so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques do the damage, replacing mortars and EIDs.
Why did Palu go? We know Guantanamo is so controlled that a photographer’s work is compromised. And yet, he returned time and time again. Perhaps he though he’d be the one reporter who’d see the nugget, catch the frame and get out of there with the shot? Not so. After every visit, all photographers are required to hand over their DSLRs. A member of the Joint Task Force will look over all images and delete any that don’t meet military rules. The photographer is given forms with each digital file number listed individually. The procedure is called an “Operational Security Review.”
Palu’s latest publication GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is a 24-page conceptual newsprint publication. It combines his Gitmo images with scans of the official forms. It is available at Photoeye Books.
GUANTANAMO: Operational Security Review is abstract, elusive and slippery … which I think is the point. I asked Palu a few questions about it.
Scroll down for our Q&A
[Click any image to see it larger]
Prison Photography (PP): Why did you ever want to go to Guantanamo?
Louie Palu (LP): The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is one of the most infamous results of the “War on Terror” — the most internationally known detention facility of our time. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between history, political events and the human experience. Especially, I am engaged by events or issues that define our time politically.
9-11 and Guantanamo will forever be connected. I am also fascinated by the legal and morale paradox that Gitmo, as it is known, represents in the face of the U.S. Constitution with regards to detaining people indefinitely without trial.
PP: You went many times. Why stop?
LP: Relatively speaking the access went from good, to getting better, to very poor and finally I gave up. I follow Carole Rosenberg’s reporting in the Miami Herald, she is perhaps the best source of reporting on Gitmo there is.
LP: In a recent report she did, it seems the current military public affairs unit there has become exceptionally difficult to work with. I would like to go again, but it looks impossible to work there right now.
Normally each trip lasts four-days.
Day 1: Fly in and get settled. Day 2: Tour various parts of the detention center. At the end of each day everyone goes through what’s called an “Operational Security Review”, also known as an OPSEC Review. In my case as a photographer this involves the deleting of certain photographs right off my memory cards. Basically anything that reveals security features of the prison or direct frontal views of the detainees faces is deleted. Day 3: More touring the facility and more photography and one more OPSEC Review. Day 4. Fly home.
I did do two special photo tours years ago. Most tours have writers as part of the tour group and you can spend hours in areas of no interest to photographers. One of these special photo tours in particular was I think the best access ever for a civilian photojournalist. I think I hold the record for longest OPSEC Review ever, it was an all-nighter! I don’t think they’ll give a tour like that ever again and a number of areas in the prison are now closed and access to the detainees is very limited and basically everyone gets the same photographs now.
PP: You’re a wisened, experienced photojournalist. What did you expect from Gitmo? What did you get?
LP: I try not to expect anything from any assignment, subject or project except that I will do my best and that I am personally engaged in the subject matter. Beyond that, I hoped to make pictures that would last as documents to an important subject in our history.
I think that the manner in which we are forced to take pictures with extreme control should be a part of the history. The control on how I took pictures and the limited access made the images and approach unique. That is what my concept newspaper is partly about.
PP: We’ve stopped taking about Guantanamo ever since we realized Obama couldn’t/wouldn’t close it down. Why is that? Where does it leave your work?
LP: When you say “we” I would take that as mostly the general public, many journalists keep talking about Gitmo and it’s impact and implications. Though relatively speaking I agree people seem to have disengaged from the issue.
However, we have to understand that Guantanamo Bay is a recruiting poster for many extremists and terrorists and it will continue to be especially while it is open. Take for example the video ISIS (aka ISIL, IS) made of journalists they are executing in Iraq/Syria. The journalists are on their knees in orange jumpsuits. In my mind it’s a copy of the same imagery of the first images released by the U.S. government of detainees in Guantanamo in orange jumpsuits right after 9/11. The image the detention center at Guantanamo Bay paints of America goes against every value the United States stands for in my opinion. So long as the detention center at Guantanamo remains open and the detainees are not given a trial, the United States will have a hard time holding any moral high ground on human rights. It makes it a very serious issue to continue to try and find a solution to. If I interest only a handful of people to keep talking about it I did my job.
The reason I think that we stopped talking about Gitmo is also limited access to the detainees by journalists being one reason and right now there is no shortage wars and disasters of all kinds to deal with, plenty of “fog of war” to keep us off the issue that challenges one of the core value systems of the United States, which is the constitution.
The eyes of history will judge my work years from now. For now, I am satisfied to have published the work and kept the issue in the public’s eye, no matter how small a contribution I have made. From the point of view of a photojournalist the newspaper is a part of that.
PP: Briefly, tell us about your decision to go with a newspaper format to publish the work from Guantanamo.
LP: Well, I had a fellowship with a think tank in Washington DC called the New America Foundation, which involved covering the Mexican drug war. I created a concept newspaper called Mira Mexico. I created it so you could take it apart and re-edit the order of the pictures and also hang it as an exhibition. It was meant to directly engage the viewer to understand how our images are controlled by governments and the media. It’s about the manipulation and our perception of an issue. It’s explained in this video.
Creating an object as something that goes beyond the news cycle is important to continue to engage the public in on important issues. The newspaper format is important in challenging not only traditional formats of news, but also the manner in which we consume information and the platforms we see them in. You can also hang it as an exhibition as each spread is a poster and you can turn it into an educational lesson in editing or controlling pictures. GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review is the part two to my first concept newspaper on Mexico. I am also making a statement in making a newspaper in which the only content is Guantanamo Bay. No advertising or competing content. I edited out every other story.
PP: What do you hope people take away from GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review?
LP: Well the project has a two-fold purpose. One, obviously it is meant as an artist’s concept fused with journalism to continue to engage the public in a dialogue on the issue. Second, it is meant to challenge the modes in which we are delivered our content and who the gate-keepers are to our news. We need to always ask, who are the editors, curators and or censors we don’t see or ask enough about that shape the way we understand the world through photographs?
I am about to go on a workshop/lecture tour through universities in Canada and the U.S. just as I did with the Mira Mexico newspaper. I’ll be using GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review in classes teaching visual literacy to students. It will be a workshop format where students will each have a copy of the newspaper and re-edit and present to the class why they selected the images they did on Guantanamo. I think empowering young minds to understand how their opinions are manipulated by the use or misuse of photographs is critical to our future.
PP: How does GUANTANAMO Operational Security Review relate to your other bodies of work and areas of interest?
LP: I try to create multi-platform uses for my work and always engage a topic over a long period of time, and usually beyond any news-cycle. My average project lasts between 3-5 years. My first one lasted 15-years. But that won’t happen again!
PP: You must have looked at plenty of other photographer’s work on Gitmo. Who else has done it well?
LP: Actually, I haven’t! I have seen a handful of wire photos from there that are not my style of work, but gives a base of understanding of how news photographers have had to work there. I also have seen numerous art based documentary photographers do bodies of work there, in the end they have all taken many of the same photographs because of the strict control over access. I don’t think anyone has done it “well” including myself since the access is so controlled and photos are deleted. There are sections of the newspaper that deals directly with that issue — the *age of extreme image control* is one of the main layers of meaning in the newspaper. The newspaper is, an object and document that says my access and images were controlled on this issue.
I can’t show you how Guantanmo really is. However, with the newspaper maybe I can show you how it was for me. That is why I created it.
PP: Have you any thoughts (regarding visibility, perhaps?) about how Guantanamo relates to America’s extrajudicial prisons around the globe?
LP: Digital photography is a blessing and a curse. Media campaigns and disinformation operations are easier now than ever. The newspaper is also about photojournalism. You know photojournalists control what we see as well, editing can be seen as censorship by some media critics.
Let me explain, it’s about interpretation of what we are doing, right? If I take 1000 photographs on assignment and I edit only 15 for you to see, what do you call that editing or censorship? This newspaper questions photojournalism as a whole and everyone involved in it including me.
PP: How will Guantanamo end?
LP: I don’t know how Guantanamo will end. Even if it does end as a physical structure, it has become visually symbolic for extremists, they have turned government released visuals linked to the detention center into a disturbing propaganda tool. Events and places like the detention center at Gitmo are never looked at very kindly through the eyes of history.
PP: Thanks, Louie.
LP: Thank you, Pete.
Black Book of Aggressors I 17 THE HEAVY CABLE WIRE. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
“The perpetration of violence takes away an individual’s humanity, abuser and victim are locked in one energy field, that is like sex, they join together with energy, but in [Waldman's] energy field, they are killing and being killed.”
– Susan Noyes Platt (Source)
Selma Waldman (1932-2008) is one of the great American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Unfortunately for the American public, her work has been more widely exhibited in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany.
Just as I insisted when I wrote about Daniel Heyman’s Portraits of Iraqis, it’s often worthwhile to look non-photographic work. As with Heyman’s work, I was introduced to Waldman’s work through Susan Noyes Platt’s vital book Art and Politics Now.
One of her final projects, Waldman’s Black Book of Aggressors explores her life long exploration of personal abuse between humans set in the milieu of widespread terror. The work is clearly to be understood within the context of the Abu Ghraib images but Waldman’s use of pastel extends the horror and successfully creates something significantly different and more nuanced. (I point people towards Antonin Kratochvil’s Homage to Abu Ghraib as an example of how photography can fail in it’s response to atrocity.)
Waldman conjures violent sexual depravity that represents any torture scenario, but because of global events, we know she is passing commentary on the U.S. military. It is difficult work … even for the art establishment.
Of Black Book of Aggressors Noyes Platt says:
“No museum will touch her potent work that exposes the intersection of sex, war, and torture. Her most recent series is on black paper with chalk lines in blue, red, yellow. It is a tangle of passionate fury that ensnarls interrogators and victims in a process that has no moral parameters. She declares in the brochure “War is the Crime, Naked/Aggression is the work”
In as much as the artistic process can mimic the mayhem of torture, I think Waldman succeeds and viewers are mired in what she described as “the pornography of power”.
I don’t repeat the phrase “the pornography of power” lightly. Particularly in photography circles there have been recent re-examinations of what it actually means to describe an image as pornographic. See David Campbell’s excellent essay The Problem with Regarding Photography of Suffering as ‘Pornographic’ as an introduction to the topic.
But with Waldman’s work we’re dealing with pastels and not photos.
One of the challenges to the lazy use of the term ‘pornography’ is that it is often applied specifically to photography, and as such infers something innately violating about photography. Susan Sontag is the often quoted name when people want to discuss photography and violation.
To determine what Waldman achieved with her work and also what we experience as viewers, it is worth considering Campbell’s summary of the term ‘pornographic’:
As a signifier of responses to bodily suffering, ‘pornography’ has come to mean the violation of dignity, cultural degradation, taking things out of context, exploitation, objectification, putting misery and horror on display, the encouragement of voyeurism, the construction of desire, unacceptable sexuality, moral and political perversion, and a fair number more.
Most of these are present in Waldman’s work and yet because she has created a scene and expressed it in pastel, the artworks are essentially invitations to join the artist in protest.
We know that Waldman was not present as the torture and perversions occurred. With photography, on the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that along with the camera there is (usually) the camera operator.
Photography “places us” in the violent space of the original act, whereas painting often puts us in the artist’s imagination. When we engage with a photograph and substitute the camera operator with ourselves, we are repulsed. Often we’ll look away and often we ask, how could they take such a photograph?
Painted art is rarely in the position to be so closely associated with the violence of the act it depicts. When we note Waldman’s violent brushstrokes we celebrate them as conceptually consistent. When we note that a button on a camera was pushed, we may think, “Why didn’t the photographer intervene.” The answers are many and the interventions not as easy as we might hope.
Under the Websters entry for ‘pornography’ the third of three definitions reads:
The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction, i.e. the pornography of violence.
So, the issue is not that depictions of violence shouldn’t be referred to as pornographic, the issue is that too often images – and particularly photographs – of violence are referred to wrongly as pornographic.
Perhaps the most licentious element of pornographic photos is that of voyeurism. As much as people who consider photography like to discuss the contradictions and layers of meaning within photography, it seems to me, in this comparative case at least, that Waldman’s simpler direct pastel-works are a more substantive experience for the audience. They cannot be dismissed as cheap voyeurism.
Think about it. If we are shown photographs of violence then we must automatically denounce the violence. Simultaneously, the presumption is we are also repulsed. Yes, we can be made to look away, but does that mean we never look back?
A photograph holds within it a never-ending capacity for voyeurism. It is a literal depiction and (I might get in trouble for saying this) it is closer to representational truth than any painting is.
Waldman’s pastels truly are the pornography of power; it is an appropriate phrase for her work. It’s a pornography we can look at and possibly learn from. Waldman depicts the perversions of imperial power without implicating our perversions. Her artwork severs the view of the aggressor from our own view.
In Black Book of Aggressors, you don’t find the voyeuristic tension that exists in photography. It’s powerful, relevant and persistent art.
Black Book of Aggressors, NAKED/AGGRESSION. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors I. CHAINS OF COMMAND. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 35 WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of aggresors IV WATERBOARDING. Selma Waldman Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Black Book of Aggressors IV 39 WATERBOARDING PROFESSIONAL. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
GITMO JACK, NAKED AGGRESSION. Selma Waldman. Black Book of Aggressors 2005 – 2007, charcoal, pastel, on black paper, 8 1/2 x 11″
Last week, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, 36, the first suspect transferred from Guantanamo military prison to stand a civilian trial was found guilty of only 1 of the 285 charges brought against him – a charge relating to involvement in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prosecutors branded Ghailani a cold-blooded terrorist, but the defense portrayed him as a clueless errand boy, exploited by senior al-Qaida operatives and framed by evidence from contaminated crime scenes. Ghailani was convicted of one count of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property. He faces a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison at sentencing on Jan. 25.
Only one charge was successfully prosecuted because civil courts don’t look kindly upon the involvement of torture in extracting testimony for evidence.
From the New York Times:
Many observers attributed any weakness in the prosecution’s case to the fact that the Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of United States District Court in Manhattan, who presided over the trial, refused to allow prosecutors to introduce testimony from an important witness, who was discovered after interrogators used coercive techniques on Mr. Ghailani.
If this trial is a precedent for other trials of Gitmo detainees to follow, prosecutions are going to have a tough time of it.
The extent of torture used by American powers across the globe is picked apart in the ACLU’s ‘Torture Report’.
Experts have dissected govt. documents (released under the Freedom of Information Act) to piece together the practice of enhanced interrogation techniques; practices that have ultimately derailed the prosecution cases against hundreds of GWOT detainees.
Ed’s nuanced work from on Guantanamo began with his documenting the domestic interiors of released British detainees. As Ed progressed he realised he needed to go to the US base on Cuba. The project deliberately jumps between these environments of “residence”, forcing the viewer to consider the personal as opposed media representations we otherwise rely on.
Ed’s work deliberately excludes portraits of detainees, partly because he feels those images are widespread but also due to a belief that audiences react to “images of bearded men” with unavoidable prejudice.
Ed also looks at the leisure spaces on Guantanamo that US military personnel inhabit during down time. The juxtapositions are poignant.
The photographs in the book Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out wrap around letters received by detainee Omar Deghayes during his time in Gitmo. Except they are not letters, they are copies, processed, redacted, re-processed, copied again. If he received a colour copy it was a rare treat. Some of the correspondence is so bizarre, Deghayes wondered if the were genuine or if they were props to the mind games played by his captors.
My family has been urging me for years to talk more quickly, and having heard myself here I get their point. The only excuse I have is that it was early in the morning here on the Pacific Coast when we sat down for the webinar.
Ed, on the other hand, talks wonderfully about the images and their situation in our shared GWOT visual landscape.
PHOTOGRAPHS AS IMPLEMENTS OF TORTURE
Al-Qahtani was repeatedly shown photographs of scantily dressed women, along with images of 9/11, particularly pictures of children who had died that day, had the pictures taped to his body, and to ensure that he had paid them close attention, he was induced to answer questions about them.
This is a practice of interrogation of which I was not aware and is obviously troubling; a deliberate use of imagery to vex and agitate and an example of the power of photography as applied in an abusive context.
Thanks to OPEN-i coordinator Paul Lowe for inviting me back once again. It’s an honour to speak with a photographer at the top of his game. OPEN-i is a global network hosting monthly live discussions on critical issues relevant to documentary photography and visual storytelling.
Edmund Clark is winner of the 2010 International Photography Awards (The Lucies), 2009 British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, and the 2008 Terry O’Neill/IPG Award for Contemporary British Photography for his book ‘Still Life Killing Time’. His work is in several collections including The National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
GITMO – OTHER READINGS
Prison Photography archive of posts referring to Guantanamo.
The Prison Photography Guantanamo: Directory of Photographic and Visual Resources (May 2009)
I greatly admire Broomberg and Chanarin‘s work and I’ve followed Massive Attack since their debut album Blue Lines. So, I was stoked to see them pair up and meditate on the tortuous capacity of sound, mix in an interview with former Gitmo prisoner and UK citizen Ruhal Ahmed, and then get Damon Albarn in on the act too.
Saturday Comes Slow was recorded at Cambridge University’s anechoic chamber (designed to create total silence). It is neither film, photography nor journalism; the video is part activism, probably art and definitely a call to thought.
Sometimes the name of this weblog-journal means that I simply cannot overlook certain stories or acts of publishing.
In the past couple of hours, the Guardian website ran a nine image Guantanamo photo-gallery. The gallery launches from the largest and most prominent rectangle of the new Guardian redesign, i.e. it is the top story on the home page.
I can only assume that this is an editorial decision to keep Guantanamo in people’s minds? After all. we’ve been distracted by healthcare reform in the US, the chancellor’s TV debate in the UK, Israeli obstinacy in the Middle East and a new guise of terrorism in Russia for which our numbed minds must recalibrate.
I can only assume this is the Guardian’s decision because the essay is totally non-descriptive – in that it is nothing new. We know there are Uighurs, Chinese separatists, who shouldn’t be there; we know they play soccer in cages, we know there are well-cushioned shackles bolted to pristine concrete floors; and we know detainees on hunger strike are force-fed Ensure by tube.
All I want to say is that you should look elsewhere for Guantanamo imagery. My Guantanamo: Directory of Photographic and Visual Resources is a good place to start.
I’ve also provided the previous insights which go beyond Dirven’s nine illustrative images:
Suicide at Guantanamo?
Justice Denied: Voices of Guantanamo
Bruce Gilden once went to Guantanamo
Interview: “Jane Smith” Former Gitmo Guard
Paula Bronstein: Guantanamo Detainees Young and Old
“There is a lot of long lens imagery of Guantanamo prisoners in their orange boiler suits, but I don’t know what that’s telling me.”
A Dozen Visits to Guantanamo
‘Guantanamo’ by Paolo Pellegrin
Guantanamo Photo Essay
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None of this reflects on Tim Dirven. Dirven is a good photographer and photojournalist (check out his work on Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia).
It’s simply impossible to produce a novel photo-essay when the Joint Task Force of Guantanamo walks you around the camp … and they do it every week … with different journalists.
The US military’s media detail is as well-drilled as any other detail at Guantanamo. In fact, I’d go as far to say that the media-liaisons are, at this point, the most critical employees on the base.
“I am trying to see through the eyes of these men to look for images in their surroundings in Guantanamo and their post-prison homes … which explore themes of imprisonment or entrapment, and which contrast the humanity of domestic life with the demonised representations of them that were used to justify their treatment.”
“The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again … [and] to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.”
© Edmund Clark. Ex-Prisoner Home: Censored letter from daughter brought back from Guantanamo.
Salman Rushdie made a statement yesterday attacking Amnesty International‘s decision to partner with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, Begg’s advocacy group for Guantanamo prisoners.
“Amnesty International has done its reputation incalculable damage by allying itself with Moazzam Begg and his group Cageprisoners, and holding them up as human rights advocates. It looks very much as if Amnesty’s leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy, and has lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. It has greatly compounded its error by suspending the redoubtable Gita Sahgal for the crime of going public with her concerns.”
Gita Sahgal was the former Head of Amnesty Internationals Gender Unit. Sahgal had described Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban” and contended the partnership severely brought into question AI’s ethics. Rushdie is a long time friend of Sahgal and supports her position.
From the Times:
Amnesty’s work with Cageprisoners took it to Downing Street last month to demand the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Begg has also embarked on a European tour, hosted by Amnesty, urging countries to offer safe haven to Guantanamo detainees. This is despite concerns about former inmates returning to terrorism.
Of course, one’s thoughts on this affair depends on whether or not you think Begg is seditious as his critics state.
If we are looking for impartial perspectives then Fahad Ansari, spokesperson for Cageprisoners is probably not the best source (although he states important facts about Begg’s past). I prefer to rely on British journalist Andy Worthington who has devoted his past eight years to researching and writing responsibly on Guantanamo.
Worthington looks at every angle, but states at the outset that Sahgal and the Rupert Murdoch owned Times may have been pursuant of an “editorial policy”:
That Sahgal also chose to air her complaints in the Sunday Times, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is also significant, particularly because the Times first attempted to smear Begg and Cageprisoners a month ago, in connection with the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in an article by the normally reliable Sean O’Neill, entitled, “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group.” To me, this suggests that Sahgal may have been used as part of an ongoing attempt to vilify Begg that was part of a specific editorial policy.
The danger here is that people will dig in their heels on previously staked ground; that legitimate criticism of the illegal Guantanamo will be eclipsed by accusation and counter-assertion about the character of Begg.
One to watch ….