Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out – Photos by Edmund Clark


I’m not sure quite how long I’ve known photographer Edmund Clark. I think we met in 2008 when he had published a book of photographs, Still Life: Killing Time, taken in British prisons, which captured the essence of his work: objects or places, beautifully photographed, with seemingly effortless clarity and composition, that provide an insight into aspects of prisoners’ experience. Mundane in many cases, or metaphorical, or, in other cases, dream-like, they seem to allow room to reflect on the human beings whose lives are marked out by these spaces, or are reflected in these objects.

At the time we met, Ed was beginning a new project, visiting Guantánamo and juxtaposing the photos he took there with photos taken at former prisoners’ homes in the UK. Some of these images were published by Lens Culture last year, around the time that Ed won the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award for the project, and I’m delighted to announce that the photos will be published as a book in October and are also being exhibited in two venues in London, in Bradford and in Sydney, Australia.

From October 1 to November 26, there will be an exhibition at Photofusion, 17a Electric Lane, Brixton, London, SW9 8LA, with a private view on Thursday September 30. Please phone 020 7738 5574 for details. This exhibition also includes letters of support sent to the British resident Omar Deghayes, some of which can be seen in this short film on Amnesty International’s website (which was made during the filming of the documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” directed by Polly Nash and myself).

The book, which also includes Omar’s letters, is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, and will be launched at Flowers East, 82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP, on Thursday October 14. It comprises 70 colour photographs, 63 letters, an essay by Dr. Julian Stallabrass of The Courtauld Institute of Art and texts by Omar Deghayes and Edmund Clark. The exhibition at Flowers East runs from October 15 to November 13. Please phone 020 7920 7777 for details.

From September 17 to November 14, there is also an exhibition at Impressions Gallery in Bradford and from November 5 to 20 at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, with related talks and events. Ed’s work is also part of the European Month of Photography ‘Mutations III’ exhibitions in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Bratislava, Luxembourg and Moscow, showing into 2011.

To mark the occasion, I’m posting below a selection of Ed’s photographs and two of the letters sent to Omar Degahyes, plus the text Ed wrote for his Lens Culture exhibition last year, and a recent interview for the online listings magazine Spoonfed. I hope that he can forgive me for taking liberties with his work and producing my own mini-edit of some of his photos, but I know that he knows my heart is in the right place.

Guantánamo: If the Light Goes Out
Photographs and text by Edmund Clark

“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 I am back in my cell.”

— Binyam Mohamed, Prisoner #1458

“I went down to the basement and turned on the light. I wanted to see my room which was exactly as I had left it … It was a strange feeling — seeing my black leather couch, my blue sofa bed, my glass fronted wardrobe, and my model shop again. I’d decorated my room when I was thirteen and had never changed a thing.”

— From Five Years Of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo by Murat Kurnaz, Prisoner #061

These images are from three places associated with the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay.

Rather than documents to monumentalize the historical fact of the camps, these images illustrate three experiences of home: the naval base at Guantánamo which is 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 post-prison homes illustrate the contrast between the shared humanity of their domestic interiors and the spaces of the prison camps. Motifs of imprisonment and entrapment are present in both, resonating with the prisoners’ experiences — and coming to terms with them. Glimpsing the evening sun through a window is a simple thing but readjusting to having the freedom to do so may not be so simple. Like a net curtain, memories can obscure the view.

On the naval base an American community lives surrounded by razor wire in the last enclave of the Cold War. This is small-town America with a high school, golf course, a mall and familiar fast food chains. It is home to a community where I found echoes of a wider America traumatized after 9/11 by a new post-Cold War threat from a religion and cultures it does not understand.

The narrative is confused and unsettled as the viewer is asked to jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life to naval base and back again.

This disjointed edit is intended to evoke the disorientation of the process of incarceration and interrogation at Guantánamo and to explore the legacy of disturbance such an experience has in the minds and memories of these men.

Guantanamo Camp 1 recreation area (Photograph © Edmund Clark)

A child’s playroom at the home of a former Guantánamo detainee (Photograph © Edmund Clark)

Guantánamo Naval Base Fellowship Room (Photograph © Edmund Clark)

A plant at a former Guantanamo detainee's home (Photograph © Edmund Clark)

A stool in a cell in Camp Delta, Guantánamo (Photograph © Edmund Clark)

A letter to British resident Omar Deghayes, while he was held in Guantánamo

A letter to British resident Omar Deghayes, while he was held in Guantánamo

An interview with Edmund Clark
By Loredana, Spoonfed, September 24, 2010

Directly addressing ideas of incarceration and control, photographer Edmund Clark has spent his artistic career photographing sensitive issues through the use of stark, controlled photography. For his latest series, Clark travelled to the Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay to photograph the prison camp, as well as the spaces reserved for the community that work there.

In a fascinating twist on Clark’s already unusual photography, the artist has also photographed the homes of ex-detainees once imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Clark has made a point of intermixing the photographs of the three areas in the book and exhibition in order to disorientate the viewer and evoke interrogation techniques. These photographs make you think, sit back and assess your stance on the situation.

Q: What made you want to photograph Guantánamo?

A: It was the idea of what it was like to go through a process of dehumanization … looking at the domestic spaces of people that have been through that kind of experience and re-identifying them through the normality of domestic space. We all have somewhere that we eat, sleep, wash, relax so I find that interesting. What do they look like? What would you expect? You know the bedroom of someone that’s supposed to be a threat to human civilisation — what’s that going to look like?

Q: In your book you mention how you were heavily censored by guards who examined your work and were able to delete anything they wanted. How did it feel to be censored like this?

A: It’s a very full-on experience — working in Guantánamo is a really pressurised time. It’s a constant process of negotiation. You start at five in the morning and go all the way through and then you literally have to sit down for two to three hours to go through all these pictures.

Q: Why didn’t you include any portraits in the series?

A: I find that a lot of photographic portraits, you’re not really saying anything. All that’s going to happen is that the viewer’s preconceptions are going to bounce back at them. Some of the ex-detainees wouldn’t have taken part if I wanted to photograph them. I was absolutely adamant that this wasn’t journalistic; I just wanted to work in their homes.

I also think if I produced a set of portraits of ex-detainees from Guantánamo, most of whom are of Pakistani, Middle Eastern, African origin, I think a lot of people would look at those and say, “ooh look that’s what a terrorist looks like”. The portraits would be completely dehumanised. They wouldn’t actually say anything about the individual — the spaces are much more evocative.

Q: Did you ever get any sense of the effect the base, or atmosphere in general, had on the people that work and live there?

A: What I find interesting about the naval base is that it is small town America. It is cut-off living behind a big razor wire fence. It is literally a microcosm. As a non-American I was struck by the motifs — the reflections of spirituality, of militarism and icons of American culture — the cartoon simplicity that we associate with American culture. I felt I could see a lot of the mindset post-9/11 which in a sense maybe led to that knee-jerk reaction of retribution and revenge.

Q: Did you ever feel you were being fooled in any way?

A: You can never really believe anything … that’s true with most prisons. It’s what they’re not telling you that’s the thing. They do try and steer you down a certain path, like going on the food preparation tour, meeting the guards and talking to the guards, going to the show cells rather than the real cells …

Q: What do you think you’ve brought to the debate about Guantánamo?

A: I don’t think there’s enough debate at the moment. Hopefully I have in a sense re-humanised some element of it because a lot of the imagery I’ve seen of Guantánamo does just contribute to those stereotypes — depending on what side of the fence you’re on. I hope just by doing something unexpected it will help people think of the subject again. And I hope that people that do look at the work get a sense of the experience …

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Facebook:

    Anna Jordan wrote:

    Just shared via facebook. This exhibition should travel to as many places worldwide as will have it — God willing.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Spencer Spratley wrote:

    That’s brilliant Andy. The bloody force-feeding chair is very unnerving to say the least. I’ve really enjoyed your work as of late Andy. Top-notch stuff in my humble opinion. Good article on Mr. Clark.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Spencer.Your support is much appreciated. By the way, readers looking for the force-feeding chair won’t find it, as I replaced some of the images after a request from Ed, but there’s still a good selection — plus a couple of letters sent to Omar Deghayes while he was held in Guantanamo.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks also, Anna. I agree, and I get the feeling that Ed’s work will be travelling widely.

  5. >Re: PHOTO » Blog Archive » Photolounge/Photo-Open/Flowers East says...

    […] Nov, but you can also see more of this work at Photofusion in Brixton until November 26 2010.   Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, who almost certainly knows more about Guantanamo than any other […]

  6. Roundup – Guantánamo, Newcastle lectures, Foucault and space | Progressive Geographies says...

    […] David Campbell has an interesting piece here on Edmund Clark’s Guantánamo exhibition and book. I’d seen some of the photographs themselves in The Guardian – here – but David’s commentary is a helpful counterpoint. There is something very striking about the violence of these objects, which is made starker by not having people in the photographs. You can see more here. […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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