Guantanamo: If The Light Goes Out

By Conor Risch

© Edmund Clark
A familiar sight on the grounds of the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In April 2009, two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, English photographer Edmund Clark traveled to Cuba to photograph the Guantanamo Bay prison and the century-old U.S. Naval base there. Clark had already begun his project about Guantanamo at home in the UK, photographing the living spaces of British detainees who had been released from the prison uncharged after lengthy incarcerations.

The photographs of the homes of ex-detainees, Clark thought, would make an interesting comparison to the stereotypical imagery of shackled men in orange jumpsuits that pervaded the media coverage of the prison camp. “On the one hand was the exotic, demonized reputation of these people as the worst of the worst,” Clark explains. On the other was the ordinariness of the places where they eat, sleep, relax. “Part of what I was interested to see was how looking at [their home] spaces would re-humanize people who had been through that process of dehumanization.”

Later Clark would carry his spatial investigation further, documenting both the prison camp and also the interiors and landscapes of the military base. Clark has combined this work in exhibitions in the UK and Europe, and in a book published late last year by Dewi Lewis. The book, Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, will be released in the United States in April.

Clark sequenced the images in the book—and in the audiovisual installation he has created—to allude to the forced disorientation that characterized the daily lives of the prisoners at the camp. The reader jumps from the bedroom of a freed prisoner, with a floral bedspread, sparsely decorated walls and handmade “Welcome Home” pillow, to the odd, pale green of an isolation cell, to the screen of an outdoor movie theater, located on the naval base, which shows an image of a woman in some type of distress. The book also includes a series of letters and postcards sent to Omar Deghayes, a detainee who became well known for his public struggle for release. Deghayes never received the original documents; instead the military would give him color photocopies, many with portions redacted. The documents show “a lot about the experience of the individual [prisoner] and the process of redaction, documentation, archiving and control that the military went through at Guantanamo,” Clark notes.

Clark developed his method of photographing spaces rather than people while working on a previous series, “Still Life Killing Time,” which looked at the environs of a prison wing at Kingston, Portsmouth, UK, where elderly inmates served out long-term sentences. Clark found that portraits of inmates distracted viewers. “All people wanted to know about was the criminality of the people they were looking at,” Clark relates. “Was he a murderer? Was he a rapist? What was actually more interesting was that the environment they lived in spoke about the nature of long-term incarceration and the segmentation of time and space, and the motifs of the passage of time, which were all around these people.”

For his series on Guantanamo, Clark again considered showing the innocent ex-detainees, but decided, “people are going to look at those images and think, ‘Oh, that’s what a terrorist looks like,” which would have the opposite effect to the humanizing one he was after.

To gain access to the repatriated British detainees, Clark began by introducing himself to a lawyer who represented many of them and explaining his work. His book on the Portsmouth prison helped the lawyer see that he was serious. Eventually the lawyer gave Clark contact information for a couple of the men who had returned home. “He thought it was going to be very difficult, but he gave me one or two phone numbers,” Clark remembers.

Clark was eventually able to talk with some of the men, build relationships, and explain what he was interested in doing. They were receptive, he says, because he wasn’t interested in photographing them or interviewing them, and because as people who had spent a prolonged period living in a cell, they understood the significance of one’s space.

Turning his attention to the prison camp and naval base, Clark asked for a letter of support from the Sunday Times and applied via the Pentagon for a visit. He had to submit samples of his work, agree that there would be certain things he could not photograph, and agree to work “in a fair and objective way,” he recalls, with a chuckle. After roughly six months he was granted permission to photograph the camp. Photographers at the base have to shoot digitally, so rather than using his normal 5 x 4 field camera, he shot with a Hasselblad and digital back.

“I was interested in the fact that the naval base had been there for 100 years, and I wanted to look at the spaces where the American military lived, look at the domestic spaces where the [American] families live,” Clark says. “I wanted to see the traces of history in the landscape, and working in the prison camp was part of that story, because obviously it is a key issue for Guantanamo today.”

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