You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Detainees’ tag.

Rendition. Photographer Unknown

Last week, Eliza Gregory at PhotoPhilanthropy got knee-deep in speculations about prison photography.

Eliza was spurred by NPR’s On the Media which “did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.”

Eliza contacted me and asked me to leave some comments.

I rounded off my comments with a question I think is very important: Could an American photographer complete a project with the access, familiarity and story-telling-verve as Mikhael Subotzky did in South Africa for his project Die Vier Hoeke?

Not wanting to funnel my diatribe down just one web avenue, I copy my comments here …


I’d like to talk about two issues that you point to in your post. First, the general absence of prison imagery in contemporary media and secondly the urge to judge the subjects of the imagery that does crop up.

I doubt highly that Guantanamo would’ve been closed if more photographs had come out of there. While there is no question visuals out of Gitmo were controlled stringently, the MoD had proven itself impermeable to even the most reasonable requests by human rights advocates and legal watchdogs.

The point you make about smiling detainees instantly changing ones perception could be applied to all prison populations. Phillippe Bazin, Luigi Gariglio and Dread Scott have each used straight portraiture to cause audiences think about the individual character of prisoners.

I recommend books by Douglas Hall Kent, Morrie Camhi, Bruce Jackson, Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ken Light. I recommend work by Carl de Keyzer, Joseph Rodriguez, Steve Liss and Andrew Lichtenstein for imagery of prisons beyond the press shots of tiered-cells and orange jump-suits.

More than any of these though I recommend photography of self-representation. I have speculated on it before, and it has been done by Deborah Luster in Louisiana, and by the inmates of Medellin prison, Bogota, Colombia.

All of these photographic interventions are inspiring but barely make it into the mindshare of media consumers. I believe the unforgiven monster who deserves no thought is the predominant version of “the prisoner” in the minds of most Americans and many others in the Western world.

Of course, the invisibility of prisons is a collective tactic. We are molly-coddled by zealous enforcement agencies to whom we’ve outsourced management of transgressors. We have no interest in dealing with the difficult issues surrounding mistakes, mental health, inequalities and human frailty … this is where the “lock ’em up” mentality comes from.

Prisons and prisoners are not scary places because they are threatening and violent, they are scary places because they are wasteful, boring, soul-sapping warehouses. This is the document we never see. America’s prisons are a human-rights abuse.

Photography will play its part, but it’ll take a monumental cultural and media shift to change sentencing and prison policies in the West.

In the meantime, It’d be interesting to see if a long-term project similar to Mikhael Subotzky’s could ever be completed in an American prison?

© Mikhael Subotzky, from the 'Die Vier Hoeke' series.


I just keep coming back to Edmund Clark‘s work. And his book isn’t even out yet. It doesn’t help when venerable folk like Jim Casper and Colin Pantall are spending time and energy on his efforts – most recently from Guantanamo.

(BTW, Pantall has been posing some really good questions and posting some really good photography these past few weeks.)

Anyway, upon returning to Pantall’s site I picked up this quote by Clark:

“There is a lot of long lens imagery of Guantanamo showing the prisoners in their orange boiler suits, but I don’t know what that’s telling me.”

It seems to touch upon many of my frustrations with photography from Guantanamo. Many inventive photographers will find manouveurs to draw out a novel image at Camps Delta, X-Ray, Iguana and others. Of course it is worth remembering that the majority of photos coming out of Gitmo will be consumed by the masses through media served by newswire coverage relying on long lens images of faceless orange boiler suits.

Clark has widened the scope of Guantanamo imagery by following the detainees to their homes and picking up on the underwhelming details of their “free” lives. The sterility and parallels between incarceration and home are sometimes frightening.


With Pantall’s permission I reissue Clark’s words here. Pantall interviewed Clark for the British Journal of Photography. (Underlining for emphasis is mine)

My last book was called Still Life/Killing Time and was about a prison in Britain. I’m interested in the themes of confinement and entrapment. Guantanamo Bay stands out as a symbol of confinement and my imagery is about the symbolism of that confinement. The starting point was going out with detainees who had been released and seeing how they were surviving. These people had been in prison for years, had never been charged but still had this massive label of being the worst of the worst stuck on them. I was interested in what their personal spaces said about them and if they were any traces of what they had experienced in Guantanamo.

Access was very difficult but started with their lawyers and slowly progressed to the point where I could photograph their homes. Once this was done, the second part was getting into Guantanamo itself. I applied to the Pentagon and made it clear I wanted to photograph both the American Naval Base side and the prison side. It took me 6 months to get clearance and then it was another 2 months before I went. Once I was there I was fortunate enough to get paired up with Carol Rosenberg, a journalist from the Miami Herald who had been reporting on Guantanamo since it opened as a prison. She knew how to deal with the Guantanamo media team (who were new in their jobs) and how to get past their obstruction.

I spent 8 days there in total, including 4 days on the naval base. It was like so many expatriate places, more American than America itself. It was interesting to look at the schools, the shops, the restaurants. It was like a little bit of America in Cuba, with reflections both of America and of entrapment; models of old refugee camps, a shrine to the Virgin Mary where she almost seems to be imprisoned, A Ronald MacDonald statue surrounded by fencing and wire. It looks like he’s banged up.

I don’t have any images of the detainees except for one – which shows a guard reflected in the cell window. But that’s not what my work is about. There is a lot of long lens imagery of Guantanamo showing the prisoners in their orange boiler suits, but I don’t know what that’s telling me. My work is about the spaces and what they evoke and how they relate to the spaces people live in once they have been released.

The work is about memory and control and dragging the work out of Guantanamo into where people are living now. I’m doing that through the edit of the 3 different spaces I photographed: the homes, the American Naval Base and the prison. When I got back, I started to edit the pictures in sequence as a narrative, but then I began to mix them up so you’re never quite sure where you are. I juxtaposed images, put one things together so one image sets off ideas that enriches the idea of what it is both to have been in Guantanamo, but also to have that experience inside you.

There are also strange details that I’m not sure off, such as the picture of the Duress button. We were told this was in an exercise room but we think it was one of the interrogation rooms and this was a panic button for the guards. Another picture shows a row of Ensure jars with a plastic tube next to it. Ensure is an energy drink they used to force feed hunger striking prisoners and the Americans had it on display to show their ‘duty of care’.

The detainees brought home and kept the strangest of things, a red cross calendar with the days ticked off. Only the best behaved prisoners would get this because there was a strategy of total disorientation. When prisoners first arrived they had no idea of where they were, what day it was or what time it was.

Then I looked at other bits of people’s homes, especially windows because in Guantanamo they have no windows with a view. There are no views. Being released and being able to choose what to look at, to have a view, is quite a thing. Sometimes people chose not to have a view.

I’m working with Omar Deghayes on an edit of all the letters he received at Guantanamo. When people received letters, they didn’t get the original, they got photocopies or scans of every page, even blank pages, including the front and back of the envelope, each page bearing a document number and a Guantanamo stamp.


All Images © Edmund Clark

On Thursday, 28th May, photographs of prison conditions and detainee custody from six facilities other than Abu Ghraib will be released to the public.

Reports over the weekend suggested a figure of 44, but the Guardian has stated over 2,000 photographs are to be made public. Images of Bagram Air base in Afghanistan are included in the cache. Critics will surely scan for similarities in detention/torture methods used in Afghanistan as in Iraq to argue against the ‘few bad apples’ logic that railroaded earlier attempts to bring military and government commanding authorities to full-accountability.


ACLU’s advocacy deserves international acclaim. Not only have they forced the release of photographic evidence they won a ruling to prevent the destruction of audio tapes that record torture scenarios.

This is an interesting counterpoint. I presume we all assume we’ll see the images in the printed press. Would we expect the tapes to play on our televisions and radios? That scenario makes me uncomfortable.

Continuing with issues of format, it will be interesting to see how the media presents the-soon-to-be-released photographic documents in contrast to the recent torture memo’s. WoWoWoW set the bar low with the tabloid inquiry “How Bad Will They Be?” and the Los Angeles Times allays fears with a dead-pan assessment, “examined by Air Force and Army criminal investigators, are apparently not as shocking as those taken at Abu Ghraib.

No doubt these images will be contested and a ‘Meaning-War’ over the images will ensue, but I think people for and against the Bush administration’s interrogation policies are not going to change their position now – whatever the evidence.”

But, I guess it depends who’s looking.


Lefties want more weaponry in the push for prosecution of Bush and his cronies for war crimes. The right is debilitated and otherwise occupied by the economy, stocking guns before the “Obama-ban” and the latest Meghan McCain slur.

Politicians from both parties seem to want this to go away, snarking on about how the release of yet more Un-American activities will only fuel the burning hate toward the US. This position is an insult.

Did Bush care what Iraqi’s would think when he bombed them out of house and home? Did Bush care to think how American’s would react in the face of diminished civil liberties? Yet here, politicians of both parties are scrambling to avoid the negative reactions of entrenched, fundamental opponents INSTEAD of anticipating the beneficial good-will and return to mutual trust provided by honest disclosures of a transparent and constitutional government. Why cover-up a cover-up?

Maybe, the Democrats are shy to see these documents because they may implicate their top brass?


One concern I will air, is that all this could move toward some bizarre show-trial scenario, where lawyers bargain, Bush is spared, the American public settle for a conviction of Cheney, and careers and reputations lie in waste on both sides of the aisle!?!

I certainly didn’t expect the incriminating documents to flood as they have in recent weeks. I have no idea how all this is going to shake down. Obama doesn’t seem to have control of this. That doesn’t bother me. No-one can hold back the truth.

So, as wise at it’d be to remember the date, 28th May, you should bear in mind the photographs of abuse could well leak earlier…


First Image lifted from Gerry May.

Cartoon courtesy of the Nation.

Final Image by Takomabibelot.

Author’s Note: If there exist any photographs of the violence described below I wouldn’t want to see them, only trust that photographs were used to bring high ranking US officials to justice for crimes against human rights.

I have been familiar with Mark Danner‘s work since reading the excellent Torture and Truth. It dealt commandingly with the Abu Ghraib scandal, putting it into the procedural context of the Bush administration and US operations during the War on Terror. Not to be distracted by the available Abu Ghraib images, Danner continued his fervent document-trawling professionalism and pursued the truth with regard to other Black Sites and detainee torture & interrogation.

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Last month, Danner published an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times (to accompany an extended piece for the New York Review of Books) that laid out the details of an International Red Cross report of detainee testimonies. I have only read the shorter NY Times piece and strongly urge you to take 10 minutes to do so. It is a succinct presentation of facts detailing US torture procedures.

Men were tortured in America’s name.

Indeed, since the detainees were kept strictly apart and isolated, both at the black sites and at Guantánamo, the striking similarity in their stories would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely. As its authors state in their introduction, “The I.C.R.C. wishes to underscore that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the 14 adds particular weight to the information provided below.”

Danner deals with the circumstances of three high ranking Al Qaeda prisoners, one of whom is Abu Zubaydah (pictured above following his 2002 capture). Judging by the Red Cross report which used separate chapters – “suffocation by water,” “prolonged stress standing,” “beatings by use of a collar,” “confinement in a box” one can assume Zubaydah looked significantly more broken after his months of early detention and beatings.

Danner concludes;

What we can say with certainty, in the wake of the Red Cross report, is that the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact.

The use of torture was a decision made by the US government. Danner’s conclusion is ominous;

The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.

Update: Prison Photography collated a Directory of Photographic & Visual Resources for Guantanamo in May 2009.

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Sarah Cleveland
A detainee kicks a soccer ball around the central recreation yard at Camp 4, Joint Task Force (JTF) Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, June 10, 2008, during his daily outdoor recreation time. Detainees in Camp 4 get up to 12 hours of daily of outdoor recreation, including two hours in a central recreation yard. Photo Credit: U.S. Army 1st Lt. Sarah Cleveland

Just gratefully recieved a nudge from an urban conspirator to check out these 30 vetted photographs posted on the Boston Globe website. Obviously, many were taken during the same media tour I mentioned in the last post. Enjoy!

Holding cells, general population area, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, California. Richard Ross

Holding cells, general population area, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison, Crescent City, California. Richard Ross

In this response to Richard RossArchitecture of Authority I’d like to discuss two pictures – the first, Interview room, Abu Ghraib prison (“hard site”), Abu Ghraib, Iraq and the second, the Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq.

There is rich discussion to be had with Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority. Political footings jockey with ethical inertia, jockey with instructional histories, jockey with considerations of the soul. Readings thick and fast. No less, these meta-narratives are deformed by one’s own emotional interruptions. One recollects perhaps passages and interrogations through border controls, transport hubs, reception rooms and state corridors. One recalls school, streets and flaking paint.

Random knowledge bombards the equation, – Raves at Ansthruther’s decommissioned nuclear command centre during university days; A deliberate detour made during honeymoon to locate Pelican Bay maximum security prison; An introduction at San Francisco International.

My good friend, and Hesitating co-conspirator, Keith Axline recently featured Richard Ross in a Wired gallery. Keith explained to me that it is Ross’ ability to rattle shutter and catch the necessary shot every time that impressed him most. Ross’ manipulations are in spite of the unpredictable (and sometimes unexpected) access to the different sites. Ross prevails with perseverance; “No never really means no;” and aggressive networking (Ross’ chances of accessing Abu Ghraib depending largely on the trust and recommendations of military personnel he liaised with for his Guantanamo work).

Ross gets the shot he needs, even when he has only a limited number of exposures, and a limited amount of time. More surprising, Ross achieves this with almost perfect tonal harmony throughout the collection of prints. This said, Ross’ technical prowess is not my concern here, rather the gaps and routes between the images he has assembled. Ross consistently presents isolation, the viewer consistently seeks human incidence.

Holding cells, Metropolitan Police, Collingwood Road, Hillingdon, London. Richard Ross

Holding cells, Metropolitan Police, Collingwood Road, Hillingdon, London. Richard Ross

One is compelled when looking at Richard Ross’ starkly depicted environments to search out the signs of life. On a few occasions one is rewarded, a curious tourist looks back at us from atop Syria’s Craq de Chevalier Crusader Fort; a heart shaped paperweight and polystyrene cup sit on the judge’s bench in Santa Barbara’s superior court; an open bag, that will travel home with its owner, sits at the foot of a movie executive’s desk. The loose blanket left in the cell at Hillingdon Road Jail presses us to fleetingly wonder if the person who unfolded and used the blanket in the cell earlier, will be back in the cell later, possibly to use the blanket once more.

The praying figure in Istanbul’s Blue mosque is representative of the building’s purpose. He is a motif of religious expression. The security guard at Topkapi is frozen rigid behind the glass, which serves to separate him from the viewer and present him as a part of the larger observing machinery. How different the shot would be if the guard stared straight down the camera lens? I imagine Ross made a few exposures in which the man did face the camera, but Ross prefers to keep attention on the environment. It is temperate and logical for Ross to choose an image in which the guard looks like a wax model – like a construction.

The austerity of The Architecture of Authority as a collection is hard to deal with. The geographical and institutional reach of the project is impressive. Inconceivably, across this wide subject matter Ross seems to have control in all the locations. Ross distills the form of each site and presents that bare form as the key to understanding the sites function.

Segregation Cells, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Richard Ross

Segregation Cells, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Richard Ross

To my mind, Ross has control in all the locations bar two. The old Abu Ghraib “Hardsite” and the new Abu Ghraib prison. In both forms, Abu Ghraib was a site of photographic desperation for Ross – he was forced briefly to compromise the overall tonality of his project.

The interrogation room is disordered. This room was not designed for interrogation purposes by the American military. It has inconvenient features such as two windows (one barred and boarded), an electrical box, a dusty fire extinguisher, exposed wires, a fallen map, makeshift furniture and used soda cans. There is also a plugged-in laptop, unidentified hold-all bags and what appear to be loose wire on the floor. There is a can or tub of something half-concealed behind the nearest chair. It seems to get more ridiculous the closer you look. There are two camp beds, one folded against the wall with a bag of belongings at the foot. What filled the bookcase? Why did Ross’ guides show him here? Is this an interrogation room? It looks like a sparse room for visiting guests. Is every room at the old Abu Ghraib, de facto, an interrogation room?

Interview room, Abu Ghraib prison ("hard site"), Abu Ghraib, Iraq

Interview room, Abu Ghraib prison ("hard site"), Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Richard Ross

There has been much made of the juxtapositions between photos presented in the Architecture of Authority book and exhibitions; between schools and prisons; between barracks and mental asylums. It is Ross’ right and responsibility to guide his audience in ways of seeing. But there is enough information, memory and rituals of communication embedded in any of Ross’ individual images to warrant singular assessment.

Humans in Ross’ pictures never threatens to steal attention for very long. The narrative of the building or structure dominates the narrative of the individual. There are moments when Ross’ photographs effortlessly adopt the surveillance philosophies of each object – bank, London tube station, hotel phone booths, or the confessional. This is part the photographers skill but also the unavoidable disclosure upon sight of the modes of each disciplining, single-purpose site.

Some sites are more difficult to read than others. Ross was in new Abu Ghraib as a guest, he had a guide. The fact he included a second image counter to his over all vision reveals, not unsurprisingly, that Ross would take what he could get from his tour of new Abu Ghraib, also.

Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, ABu Ghraib, Iraq. Richard Ross

Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Richard Ross

Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq is a fierce image. It is at first glance still and linear but under a paper-thin surface it is simmering with tension. There are four detainees in this image. In Ross’ depopulated world, that is akin to a cacophonous arena crowd. The two clearly visible men are curiously peering at Ross’ activities and make a mockery of Ross’ attempt to mimic the prison’s personless eye of surveillance. A third man sits in the shade to the right of the image reading and otherwise oblivious. A fourth man sits on the left side of the image obscured by a water tank.

The sheepish glance of one detainee and the craned neck of the other come to dominate this image the longer one looks at it. The man at the door of the tent has no shoes on. Has he just emerged in response to the photographer’s presence? These two men brilliantly illuminate the unnatural and inflexible relationships that exist across and through chain link and barbed wire. They are merely curious at this point and do not gesture or ask anything of Ross, at least not in this exposure. They have been briefly distracted from house-keeping routines by another human that is as foreign to them as any other. Proximity means nothing here for Ross and his inadvertent subjects.

The most remarkable thing about Detainee housing unit, Camp Remembrance, new Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Ghraib, Iraq is not the clarity with which Ross communicates the apparatus of power, but rather how that drains human interaction of meaning or purpose. Does this mean I’d like to see more people in Ross’ photography? Absolutely not, there are plenty of documentary photographers who are trying to convey the spectrum of human existence, and it is not Ross’ charge. It just means that upon the appearance of non-typical images the audience’s attention is gripped. The two anomalous images from Abu Ghraib draw to attention Ross’ otherwise effortless manipulation of his audience. Ross shapes and prepares his viewer for a cold interaction. His manipulation of the audience’s eye is fitting for a project that studies dominance over subjects and imposed order of authorities.

Further investigation: Good text interview. Better audio interview. Best video presentations


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

Prison Photography Archives

Post Categories