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Guantanamo As Seen Through Still-life Imagery of Personal Space and Possessions

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyHome. This was my room when I came back from Guantanamo. I felt very comfortable in it, even though it was so small and the ceiling came down so close. It felt like I was sleeping in my cell, but I had control. I was able to turn the light on or off when I wanted, to wake up or sleep when I wanted. It was small like my cell but there was no harassment, no knocking on the door, no searches and no fights or beatings. Outside I had other problems but here in this room I was completely serene, comfortable, calm. —Omar Deghayes, ex-detainee

London-based photographer Edmund Clark is best known for his award-winning work on the representation of control and incarceration through the monographs “Guantanamo: If The Light Goes Out (2010)” and “Still Life Killing Time (2007)”.

His work has been exhibited widely and acquired for collections including the Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and National Media Museum in Great Britain; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the George Eastman House Museum, Rochester, USA.

We asked him some questions about his project, “Guantanamo: If The Light Goes Out”, which opens tomorrow and runs through January 12, 2013 at Flowers Gallery in New York.

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyGuantanamo Issue Calendar. Until 2004 or 2005, we weren’t allowed to know anything about days or dates or time. I remember writing many things for my lawyer about the events going on and most of the time I got the dates wrong. Suddenly, in 2007, we were allowed to know the date and I was given this calendar with a picture of a building in Afghanistan. This was a big gift because it became possible for me to plan. I wrote things I wanted to do on certain dates. Down the white sides of the calendar, I’ve written down small things that I aim to achieve within the year. We had lots of time in prison cells to think about how to improve ourselves. —Omar Deghayes, ex-detainee

Tell me about your Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out project.
“This is a study of home, of a very particular idea of home at a very particular time in our history, and the lives of people whose paths crossed on 45 square miles of Cuba, cut off from the rest of the world by razor wire and water.

“Rather than attempting to monumentalize the historical fact of the Guantanamo camps, these images explore three notions of home: The naval base at Guantanamo, home to the American community and of which the prison camps are just a part; the complex of camps where the detainees have been held; and the homes, new and old, where the former detainees now find themselves trying to rebuild their lives.

“The series’ disjointed narrative aims to convey the sense of disorientation and dislocation central to the daily experience of incarceration at Guantanamo, and to explore the legacy of disturbance such experiences have in the minds and memories of these men, as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life, from life outside to the naval base and back again; from light to dark.

“At its most primal, light brings security; darkness, a fear of the unknown. At Guantanamo the diurnal rhythm is disrupted and associations of light and dark are more complicated. Aside from the use of light in interrogations, former detainees speak of constant exposure to bright cell lights and of immersion in total darkness for prolonged periods of solitary confinement. These techniques were routinely used to disrupt sleep and induce paranoia and instability.”

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyChains. First you heard the guards coming onto the block rattling the chains. No one knew whose cell they were going to. Then your would hear your number: “Number five, number five, interrogation.”

You were chained before you left the cell, with shackles on your hands running down your stomach to your legs and ankles. The shackles were not padded like these in the picture, they were like metal handcuffs which cut your ankles as the guards on either side made you walk at whatever speed they wanted. —Tarek Dergoul, ex-detainee

You wrote that this project explores the notion of home. Explain your approach to working with that concept.
“The starting points for this work were the post-prison homes in the UK and abroad. The imagery I had seen from the camps contributed to the stereotypes of Guantanamo: Defenders of freedom against pitiless terrorists; torturers against the abused; national revenge against human rights’ outrages. No one seemed quite human. I wanted to redefine men who had been demonised and dehumanised – then released without charge – through our shared experience of domestic and personal space. Each of us has somewhere to sleep, eat and wash, no matter where we come from or what we believe in.

“Still-life imagery of personal space and possessions follows a long tradition of symbolism and metaphor in European art, and within scenes of domestic ordinariness I was drawn to motifs of confinement, control, trauma and memory. These reverberations of past experience led me to the long process of gaining access to Guantanamo to contrast the domesticity of the homes with the spaces of the prison camps and to explore the American experience of Guantanamo.

“The U.S. Naval Base in Cuba is the last enclave of the Cold War. This is small-town America surrounded by razor wire, with a high school, golf course, bowling alley, shopping mall and familiar fast food chains. It is a small town chosen precisely because it is not America, a place where in the 21st century hundreds of men have been held because they were thought to be beyond the jurisdiction of US law.

“It is home to a community where I found echoes of a wider America traumatised after 9/11 by a new post-Cold War threat from a religion and cultures it does not understand. A trauma which led, arguably, to a mindset trapped by a determination for revenge and protection at all costs, and to the policies of demonisation, detention and ‘enhanced’ interrogation at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. I found motifs of entrapment in the domestic spaces here too, together with iconography redolent of religiosity, military order, commercialism and the reassuring simplicity of cartoon culture.”

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyCamp 5, Detainee and Guard. Anyone who enters the surreal world of Guantanamo is forced to play the inhumane game of master and servant. The law that operates in Guantanamo is the law of insanity, instability, chaos, injustice, and frustration. The individual inside the cell has no authority, no control, and no say on how he lives, what he eats, when he wakes, when he sleeps, when he showers, or what he will do each day. He merely exists and survives and is expected to perform and act under the absolute direction, control, and fear of the individuals outside the cell. —Yvonne R. Bradley, Esq., Former military defense counsel of released detainee.

How were you given access to the prison?
“I got access to Guantanamo by applying to the head of Public Affairs for the region at the Pentagon. He put me in contact with the media team at JTF (Joint Task Force) Guantanamo. I explained that I wished to look at the overall American experience of Guantanamo. I had the backing of a national magazine which helped.”

How did you get connected to the former detainees and the professor you feature?
“Initially via one of the lawyers who had represented them in Guantanamo. Then it came via contact from one ex-detainee to another.”

What kind of limitations did you have while photographing in prisons?
“While working on the naval base I was always accompanied and guided as to what was sensitive or off limits to photograph. In the detainee camps I was escorted everywhere and subject to far more control and censorship. Communicating with detainees and identifying them was prohibited. Camp personnel could be identified if they gave permission. Proscribed subjects included security cameras, radar domes, empty watchtowers, two watchtowers in the same frame, identifiable landmarks or camp infrastructure and both sea and sky in the same photograph.

“For security purposes only digital imagery is allowed. This meant changing from my usual 5×4 inch film camera to medium-format digital equipment. The censorship process entailed security personnel examining images at 100% magnification on the LED on the back of the camera, because the Hasselblad files were too big to download onto their laptops, a process which added hours to the end of every day. The reason for any image being deleted was explained, occasionally debated, and officially recorded with the deleted file numbers. I signed a form acknowledging the reasons and promising not to try to restore the deleted files.

“I understood the parameters and did not feel unduly restricted, although a number of files were deleted. I have avoided including situations that were obviously staged like show cells or food preparation tours and concentrated on objects or spaces that spoke for themselves. I did include a prison hospital display of the tube and product used for force-feeding, but also a mobile force-feeding chair, which was certainly not part of the original itinerary. Each day was a constant process of negotiation.”

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyHomeNails sticking out of the wall of a Guantanamo returnee’s home, put there by the returnee. Peanuts compared to Guantanamo protection, but pretty vicious. After however many years away he feels he needs the protection of a barrier from the world, or perhaps it is just that he doesn’t want them to come and get him again. —Michael Koppelman, Professor of Neuropsychiatry, advisor on cases of torture and abuse.

Explain the lack of people in your images.
“Representations of the human face or form in the context of places and subjects like Guantanamo are problematic. The image of Asian or Arab men with beards has become so toxic through the representation of the ‘War on Terror’ that it would be counter-productive to use such pictures. They would serve only to reinforce stereotypes about terrorism. At Guantanamo you cannot record faces and I did not want to repeat the dehumanised imagery of shackled hands or ankles – the ‘torsos of terror’ we are so familiar with.

“By taking people out of the images I can focus the viewer on the home spaces they can identify with and on the spaces and objects of detention. Having no distracting people in the pictures (apart from one..) also makes the three notions of home and the use of narrative clearer.”

Edmund-Clark Guantanamo photographyCamp 6, mobile force feeding chair.In 2005 I first saw the affidavits from prisoners alleging mistreatment by the medical staff and the deliberate use of over-size tubes to force them off their hunger strikes. I was, however, much more interested in the affidavit of Dr Edmondson, the doctor in charge of the hospital in Guantanamo refuting the allegations and stating that he had permission to force-feed the prisoners as he was following the orders of a “higher military authority”. These words exactly mirrored those used by the Nazi doctors charged with war crimes at Nuremberg. —Dr. David Nicholl

You often work with themes of “control and confinement”. Why are you interested in these topics?
“Apart from taking away life, the act of incarceration is perhaps the most fundamental form of control or punishment one human can enforce on another. Why, how, in what way and for what reasons a society incarcerates its own – or its aliens – are barometers for the politics of that society.

“In relation to the ‘War on Terror’ incarceration and interrogation have been used without normal legal process. This has been both displayed as a type of PR message of toughness and retribution and denied due to reasons of security and fear of prosecution. There has been a shift in legal and moral ‘norms’ and, as a historian, I am interested in the politics, spaces and experience of this change.”

This post was contributed by photographer Greta Rybus.