Book review - Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out
Dewi Lewis Publishing writes: For eight years the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba has been home to hundreds of men, all Muslim, all detained in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on suspicion of varying degrees of complicity or intent to carry out acts of terror against American interests. Labeled 'the worst of the worst', most of these men were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many fell prey to a US military policy of paying bounty money for anyone the Pakistani secret service, border guards or village leaders on both sides of the blurred Afghan-Pakistan border considered a possible or potential 'suspect', thereby becoming currency in the newly defined 'War on Terror'. Held in legal limbo for years and repeatedly interrogated, almost all have been released without charge and only a very few have been tried in the special military commissions set up for the purpose.
Guantanamo: If the light goes out illustrates three experiences of home: at Guantanamo naval base, home to the American community; in the camp complex where the detainees have been held; and in the homes where former detainees, never charged with any crime, find themselves trying to rebuild lives. These notions of home are brought together in an unsettling narrative, which evokes the process of disorientation central to the Guantanamo interrogation and incarceration techniques. It also explores the legacy of disturbance such experiences have in the minds and memories of these men.
Barack Obama promised to close Guantánamo Bay within a year of taking office in January 2009. Two years later, not only is the naval base still open, but the U.S. President has also authorized to resume military trials of terror suspects detained in the infamous detention camp. He has also signed an executive order that moved to set into law the already existing practice on Guantánamo of holding detainees indefinitely without charge.
Guantanamo is the oldest overseas U.S. Navy Base, the only one in a country with which the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations, the only one located in a Communist led country. Gitmo is also the host to Cuba's first and only McDonald's restaurant, a fast food joint not accessible to Cubans though. Since 2002, the naval base has gained the attention of the public for its military prison where persons allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban are incarcerated. The mistreatment of the detainees, and their denial of protection under the Geneva Conventions, has been a source of international controversy.
You have seen the pictures. Inmates wearing orange jumpsuits, long lens views, cages, fences, etc. When he embarked on his project Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, photographer Edmund Clark knew he didn't want to go that way. He approached Guantanamo through 3 paths: the space where prisoners are confined, the areas where the American military community lives, and the houses where former inmates reside. The images come intermixed. The photo of a a detainee's cell is followed by one of an exercise bar hanging in a home, then comes a view of the prison worship center, then a detail of the naval base museum, a close-up on an interrogator's call button, etc. It's disorienting and aimed at reproducing the physical and mental confusion that the prisoners are made to experience.
But what is most striking in the image is the almost complete absence of human beings. All we have to reconstruct the tension, the narrative, the abuse are mundane objects and spaces.
In Guantanamo, Clark was escorted everywhere he went. He had a list of what he wasn't allowed to photograph. Such as an empty watchtower. Or two watchtowers in the same frame. He also had to switch to digital photography so that his shot could be analyzed at the end of each day. Some had to be deleted. Some were allowed to remind in the memory card after long discussions.
The book also reproduces some of the mail Omar Deghayes and other people received while they were in prison. During the first years, Deghayes didn't receive anything. In 2005, lawyers followed his case and letters started arriving. He didn't get to see the original letters. All he had were photocopied of the censored version of the letters, drawings and postcards, with a stamp "Approved by US Forces."
Deghayes (who lost sight of his right eye after a guard stuck a finger in his eye) also helped Clark photograph the homes of former prisoners.
Apart from the photos, the book contains three essays. The one written by Julian Stallabrass is particularly fascinating with its focus the legal, historical and political context of the detention center. His text reminds us as well that prisoners at Guantanamo might be abused, tortured and humiliated on a daily basis but at least they have a name which brings them under a limited protection that the unidentified people detained in the US black sites can only dream of.
The photographs from the Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out series are touring art spaces. I saw them back in November in London at Flowers East Gallery. The gallery had also dedicated a small space to listen to the music played at Gitmo and other military prisons during interrogations and to cause sleep deprivation. Then i saw the photos again in February as part of the exhibition Mutations III, at the Berlinische Galerie, in Berlin. I'm glad the book gave me another opportunity to spend some time with these images.
'When you are suspended by a rope you can recover, but every time I see a rope I remember. If the light goes out unexpectedly in a room, I am back in my cell.'
More on the project mini website, Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out and at Lens Culture.
Related book review: Book Review - Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret.