Poor positional play confounded by an absence of pace meant I found myself on the wrong side of a challenge for a soccer ball on Sunday morning. I won the ball, but didn’t stay on my feet. My right hand met the ground before my body.

Twenty-four hours later, with discomfort and swelling unabated, I chose to visit the ER to find out what the unglamourous tumble meant for my right wrist. On my way out the door, predicting a long wait at the hospital, I grabbed Trevor Paglen & A. C. Thompson’s book Torture Taxi (2006).

Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal), Las Vegas, NV, Distance ~ 1 mile, 6:26 a.m. © Trevor Paglen

I’ve talked about Trevor Paglen’s work before (albeit inadequately), and still maintain the best education on Paglen’s work is his Google lecture from 2009.

Paglen and Thompson, through an arduous but publicly-available paper trail, uncover the use of civilian aircraft in the Bush administration’s Extraordinary Rendition Program. Over 200 terror suspects were moved around the globe, not to mention the staff, transport teams, interrogators and American torturers. That’s a big operation. So while best attempts were made to keep is secret, Paglen and Thompson found and depicted its traces.

Unmarked 737 at “Gold Coast” Terminal Las Vegas, NV. Distance ~ 1 mile 10:44 p.m. © Trevor Paglen

For me, the surprising thing was that this activity was, as Paglen phrases it, “hidden in plain site”. Military aircraft must gain prior clearance before entering another nation’s airspace, whereas civilian aircraft need not satisfy the same protocols.  Also shocking is the fact that the CIA out-sourced it’s torture to convenient and “friendly” nations whose poor human rights records allowed for the application of unrestrained torture methods.

The CIA preferred Morocco and Mubarek’s Egypt to host and brutalise their human cargo.

In one passage, Paglen describes a particularly sadistic regime of torture in which Moroccan interrogators armed with scalpels visited and revisited Binyam Mohammed’s penis at two week intervals:

On the 21st of January, 2004, the Moroccans told Mohammad he was going home. […] Mohammad heard the sound of an airplane, then of men speaking American-accented English. As they had done in Pakistan, the American’s stripped Mohammad’s blindfold and clothes off, and Mohammad saw that he was again surrounded by black clad Americans wearing face-masks. ‘There was a white female with glasses’, he recalled, ‘she took the pictures. One of the soldiers held my penis and she took the pictures. This took awhile, maybe half an hour. She was one of the few Americans that ever showed my any sympathy. She was about 5’6”, short, blue eyes. When she saw the injuries I had, she gasped. She said, “Oh my God, look at that,” then all her mates looked at what she was pointing at and I could see the shock and horror in her eyes.” But Mohammad wasn’t going home. The Americans were taking him to Afghanistan.

Mohammad suffered for eighteen months in Morocco and the same period in Afghanistan at the hands of America’s contractors of violence. Since he was picked up off the street in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002, Mohammed was transported across the globe through multiple jurisdictions and tortured to within inches of his life countless times. Your tax dollars at work.

In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme court rejected the case of Binyam Mohammed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a lawsuit brought by Mohammed and four other victims of the rendition program against Jeppesen a subsidiary of Boeing Aircraft. The plaintiffs claimed that Jeppesen provided the transportation that brought them to their respective places of torture.

The decision leaves standing  a federal appeals court ruling upholding the “state secrets'” privilege claimed by both the Bush and Obama administrations to prevent to testimony in matters regarding national security.

A defeat for human rights and the legitimacy of the law as it exists.

A man left with only two teeth in his lower jaw ­after being t­ortured with an electric truncheon, Chad, Africa, year unknown. Photograph: Courtesy Hermann Vogel

Paglen and Thompson interweave the horrific accounts of prisoner’s experiences with the mundane logistics of CIA front companies scheduling aeroplanes.

As I waited for the orthopedic’s analysis of my X-ray images, it was quite clear my injury, whatever it was, was is inconsequential.

Last year, I came across Brogdon, Vogel, and McDowell’s A Radiologic Atlas of Abuse, Torture, Terrorism, and Inflicted Trauma. This is a book centred on specialised imaging and imagery of political violence; it applies to the most pressing of basic global human rights and yet it is unlikely to be used or acquired by a photo enthusiast. The A Radiologic Atlas of Abuse, Torture, Terrorism, and Inflicted Trauma is an encyclopedia for use by medical and legal professionals likely involved in the investigation of war crimes or domestic abuse.

From the summary:

‘The results of aggression against humans can be hideously obvious, but may also be entirely concealed from casual inspection. Often […] only radiologic exploration of the inner recesses of the body can reveal the evidence of such violence. Victims of aggression range from the tiniest infant to entire populations. Hopefully you will never encounter every situation covered in this book. However, should you come across any, you will want a copy within reach.’

As I read Paglen’s horrific accounts of torture, it occurred to me a machine had just peered through my lower arm and a doctor was about to describe the exact nature of my injury. I wondered about the permanent marks left inside the tissues of torture victims and I wondered about the chances of these injuries ever being documented and, consequently, seen.

As with the extraordinary rendition program, one presumes the visual evidence will always be hidden, suppressed. Or non-existent.

Hermann Vogel, co-author of A Radiologic Atlas of Abuse, Torture, Terrorism, and Inflicted Trauma, has considered similar issues. Thirty years ago, Vogel began collecting x-rays of torture injuries. His collection now numbers 120 X-ray images. Vogel explains:

“X-rays reveal what the naked eye cannot see. A forensic investigation will reveal fractures, foreign objects and needles, but x-rays provide plausibility. Does the story match the pattern of injury? Does the age of the injury correlate with the time-span of when the torture occurred? Does the torture method correspond with the region, organisation, military or militia responsible?”

“In some countries, X-rays can be used as evidence in court and a few of my X-rays have helped prove that torture has occurred. They are also increasingly being considered as part of the [political] asylum process.”

The world saw the digital photographs made by soldiers asked to perform as prison guards at Abu Ghraib, but this was only a single prison (and the most audacious at that) operated by American forces in the global war on terror. Given that only lowly operatives were prosecuted for that shit-show, imagine what scientific X-ray images and the political will could achieve if they were delivered to a international court of law. And imagine George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee in the dock.

Sometimes, images with no author carry the most power.

But let’s not be blind. Torture in our name continues today. Vogel surmises:

“I can imagine that no one has access to x-rays from the American detention camps like Abu Ghraib, although I would also assume that American torture methods are so advanced now that any injury is undetectable. Pure psychological torture, which includes months of solitary confinement and days of sleep deprivation, is very popular worldwide because it does not leave behind any physical traces. Torturers have nothing to fear if nothing can be proved.”

There are some documentary photographers, namely Gilles Peress, motivated in their work by the prospect of their photographs doubling as evidence. Compared to Vogel’s collection of images, and compared to the thousands of X-rays that were never made of torture victims in America’s imperialist wars, this expected influence of their photographs is optimistic in the extreme.


This post was transcribed by Aline Smithson over Skype. During my recovery, we’ll collaborate once a week for six weeks on extended posts. This is done in the interets of shared learning and proof that the photo-blogging community is alive, strong and charitable. Thanks Aline!

Screengrab: Pete and Aline at work.