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“We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy. Everything was very reactive. That’s how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don’t say, ‘What are we going to do with them afterwards?’ “

Former senior US intelligence officer. (Source)


Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania (RO) @ 44.36043300, 28.49149700

Mihail Kogalniceanu air base. Romania. @ 44.36043300, 28.49149700


Since 2001, the US has operated a program of rendition, illegal torture and operated a network of secret prisons and CIA “Black Sites”.

Men captured as part of the Bush and Obama administrations’ program were are interrogated, physically & psychologically beaten and denied human rights.

Images of these secret prisons are not common, but I’ve peppered this piece with a few just for the sake of the exercise.

At the top of this article is Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, Romania. It was used for “high-level” detainees from as early as 2005. Beneath is Kiejkuty Stare an illegal CIA prison just 20 miles away from Szymany airport, Poland. (source) It was used as early as 2005 and its function was confirmed in 2007. (source)

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “the mastermind of 9/11”, claims he was submitted to waterboarding 183 times over a one-month period. New evidence suggests he was interrogated in Poland. (More from Der Spiegel here and here).


Kiejkuty Stare



Khalid Shiekh Mohammed



Diego Garcia Island, Indian Ocean, United Kingdom Territory. Rendition Flights Refuelled on the Island in 2002.

Diego Garcia Island, Indian Ocean, United Kingdom Territory. Rendition Flights Refuelled on the Island in 2002.


The UK Government provided infrastructural support for America’s extraordinary rendition program allowing rendition flights to refuel on Diego Garcia (above), a British territory in the Indian Ocean. (More here and here).

– – –

Below is the plan of a cell used during the 19 month illegal detention of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni national. Salon reports:

Bashmilah’s story also appears to show in clear terms that he was an innocent man. After 19 months of imprisonment and torment at the hands of the CIA, the agency released him with no explanation, just as he had been imprisoned in the first place. He faced no terrorism charges. He was given no lawyer. He saw no judge. He was simply released, his life shattered.

In 2007, Salon did a thorough job in describing his detention and its aftermath, even presenting plans based on Bashmilah’s descriptions of torture and interrogation rooms. No-one knows for certain where these cells were, but it is suspected they were within Afghanistan.


Rendering of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah's first cell in Afghanistan (based on Bashmilah's own drawings). Courtesy of

Exhibit I: Rendering of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah's first cell in Afghanistan (based on Bashmilah's own drawings). Source:



Washington Post

In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above. (Space Imaging Middle East). Source: Washington Post


The most notorious Black Site in Afghanistan is referred to as ‘The Salt Pit’.

The Salt Pit brings us to Trevor Paglen‘s geography, photography and investigative academics, but first let me point out a couple more excellent resources.

When the details of rendition broke in 2007, Jane Mayer led the exposé with her book The Dark Side. Read a book review here and her extended New Yorker essay here.

FRONTLINE produced this astonishing interactive graphic showing all the illegal prisons and all the US aviation front-companies used for the rendition flights. That map is part of a larger presentation with interviews, time-lines and further resources.

More recently, Anand Gopal has revealed the US military’s still recent tactic against the Taliban in Afghanistan of by-night kidnappings. The result? The US has lost the support of the Afghan people toward the American project. Read America’s Secret Afghan Prisons here.

Just this month, Stephen Lendman summarised the January 26th UN Human Rights Council (HRC) report ‘Joint study on global practices in relation to secret detention in the context of countering terrorism’ which details practices by various countries “including America, by far the world’s worst offender in its war on terror.” The full report is here (Word) or here (pdf).

Lendman’s words The truth is shocking:

“Besides Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, HRC said the CIA runs scores of offshore secret prisons in over 66 countries worldwide for dissidents and alleged terrorists – in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, India, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Ethopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Poland, Romania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Thailand, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere.” (Source)

More summary at Talk Left.

Onward. Now, Paglen …


The two images below are by Trevor Paglen. The first is the Salt Pit and the second is a military jail in Kabul. They are also his most ordinary of images … the only images he could capture in the circumstances.

Paglen isn’t primarily concerned with prisons; he is concerned with all the unseen activity of the military industrial complex – aviation companies, air strips, covert ops, air bases, Pentagon annual budget projections, spy satellites, shadow NASA reconnaissance agencies … the list goes on.

After meeting Emiliano Granado last Summer, he posted a good one-stop description of Paglen’s work. Granado also posted some good examples of Paglen’s Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky series. Check those out and then skip to Paglen’s lecture at the foot of this post.


The Salt Pit is located in an old brick factory a few miles northeast of Kabul, along an isolated back-road connecting Kabul to Bagram.

The Salt Pit, Shomali Plains Northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan. Trevor Paglen: The Salt Pit is located in an old brick factory a few miles northeast of Kabul, along an isolated back-road connecting Kabul to Bagram.



This site was brought to my attention by Afghan journalists and human rights activists in Kabul. The code name of this site remains unknown.

Black Site, Kabul, Afghanistan. Trevor Paglen: This site was brought to my attention by Afghan journalists and human rights activists in Kabul. The code name of this site remains unknown.



I have waited for a long time for an online presentation of Paglen’s oeuvre to which I could refer PP readers. (Thanks Alejandro!)

It’s quite the thrill to be brought in on Paglen’s sleuth work, as he walks us through the various public records used to piece together the rendition program. If you can spare an hour this weekend, you’ll be thankful for the education!


Paglen’s work is to be published by Aperture in a book titled INVISIBLE. You can see Paglen and publisher Lesley Martin discussing the project here.

Spurred by the wonderful news over at The Impossible Project that Polaroid Film is getting a second chance, I delved (via its “friends” links) into Whereupon, I found this small and particular photo-series by Lars.blumen.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The Hohenschönhausen Memorial in Berlin is an active community/museum organization that fosters education and understanding with regards political imprisonment. The refreshingly transparent website even concedes crucial gaps in knowledge. “The history of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison site has not yet been researched in sufficient detail. There is, as yet, no general overview detailing the social background of the prisoners, nor the reasons for their imprisonment, nor their length of stay. In fact, we do not even know exactly how many prisoners were kept here over the years.”

I am given the impression a precious sense of purpose & justice drives this shared project. Elsewhere on the site, their call for research is inspiring.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The reason this set fascinated me so much was that it seemed so immediately incongruous. It is wonderful incongruity. With Polaroid one expects sanctified family portraits (60s, 70s) or blurred disco memories (80s, 90s). Polaroid of the 21st century has been largely an indulgent affair. Lars.blumen has given us a rare treat. He ‘captured’ the most infamous site of Soviet Secret Police interrogation and detention within 10 single polaroid frames.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Lars.blumen’s project, done without fanfare nor nostalgia, uses the visual vocabulary of the past. Just to make things interesting, the prison (at he time of Polaroid) would never have been observed, nor documented, in this same manner.

The polaroids are remarkable for what they aren’t. They aren’t actual images from the era of the Stasi. And this era is that to which now all energy – as a Memorial – is focussed. The photos are a requiem for the stories and faces of the prisoners never recorded. I think this is why the Hohenschönhausen Memorial has such an emphasis on documenting oral testimony and experiences of prisoners.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

No people, no prisoners, no players in these scenes. The hardware of the site and the illusion of time passed. Understated.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

The texture reminds me of old family portraits in front of the brick of Yorkshire and Merseyside. In front of churches and on door steps.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Outside are cameras, inside is bureaucracy. Still lured by Polaroid nostalgia, the sinister reality of the images creeps up slowly. The minimalist composition of the Frankfurt school is at use here, but Lars.blumen uses a medium that predates the movement. It’s all very disconcerting.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Why do I respect these images? Because they are unique and, even to some degree, challenging. I cannot celebrate these images because of their history – they have no history. I cannot celebrate a familiar style – they are recuperations of contemporary German photography. They are idiosyncratic one-offs.


Hohenschönhausen. Credit: lars.blumen

Is it really this intentional? I wonder now if Lars.blumen just had a reel of Polaroid film to burn and that day he happened to be at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial?

If anyone cane help me with Lars.blumen’s identity I’d be grateful!

Official Blurb: The site of the main remand prison for people detained by the former East German Ministry of State Security (MfS), or ‘Stasi’, has been a Memorial since 1994 and, from 2000 on, has been an independent Foundation under public law. The Berlin state government has assigned the Foundation, without charge. The Foundation’s work is supported by an annual contribution from the Federal Government and the Berlin state government.

The Memorial’s charter specifically entrusts it with the task of researching the history of the Hohenschönhausen prison between 1945 and 1989, supplying information via exhibitions, events and publications, and encouraging a critical awareness of the methods and consequences of political persecution and suppression in the communist dictatorship. The former Stasi remand prison is also intended to provide an insight into the workings of the GDR’s political justice system.

Since the vast majority of the buildings, equipment and furniture and fittings have survived intact, the Memorial provides a very authentic picture of prison conditions in the GDR. The Memorial’s location in Germany’s capital city makes it the key site in Germany for victims of communist tyranny.

One last thing. May I recommend you spend time with the lovingly assembled staff portrait gallery at the Impossible Project.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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