‘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.’
Binyam Mohamed, Prisoner #1458
This aim of this website project is to provide a platform for comment by those most closely involved in the history of Guantanamo Bay within the visual context of my work exploring the detainee camps and the homes of men held there.
Guantanamo: If the light goes out is a study of home, of a very particular idea of home at a very particular time in our history.
The work examines the tension between the personal and public. I am seeking to define people who have been presented to the public as violent terrorists, yet never charged with anything, through the places they call home - the spaces where they reflect on the private memories and trauma of their experiences.
For eight years the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay on the island of 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.
Labelled ‘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’.
Deemed by the Bush administration to be enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war many have been 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.
Over a year after President Obama made the closure of the camps the first policy declaration of his new administration, 180 men remain in detention at Guantanamo and there is no sign that the camps will close.
Rather than documents to monumentalize the historical fact of the camps, these images illustrate three experiences of home: The naval base at Guantanamo 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.
Still-life imagery of personal space and possessions follows a long tradition of symbolism and metaphor. As in my previous work, this series draws on the ‘Vanitas’ style of 17th century Dutch painting in which the artist used everyday objects like hourglasses, candles and flowers to symbolise the passage of time, the transience of temporal existence and the vanity of man’s endeavours in relation to the rule of God.
The details of the ex-prisoners’ homes and the environments at Guantanamo reflect these themes, only the rules of control are not divine but those of guards and interrogators, and a different kind of superpower. An identity bracelet, a Red Cross calendar and Guantanamo-issue Korans are among the objects brought home and kept. Items of clothing that are still worn or an image of a solitary confinement cell carried on a mobile phone are ways for some of regaining a sense of control.
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; a small town chosen precisely because it was thought to be not America, a place where hundreds of men could be held beyond the protection 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 interrogation at Bagram in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. Motifs of entrapment are to be found here too, together with iconography redolent of religiosity and military order.
Each day for a month a new image from my series will be added to the website.
The sequence of these images will jump from prison camp detail to domestic still life, from life outside to the naval base and back again. This is intended to evoke the process of disorientation central to the techniques of interrogation and incarceration at Guantanamo, and to explore the legacy of disturbance such experiences have in the minds and memories of these men.
Daily responses in the form of comments, documents, articles and photographs will be added by individuals most directly affected by or involved with Guantanamo: Ex-detainees, lawyers, writers, psychologists and even ex-Guantanamo guards. These additions may relate to the specific images or to wider themes such as, detention, interrogation, home, identity or intercultural isssues.
I will also invite contributions from members of the public with an interest or connection to the subject such as family or friends of detainees.
The site will include a range of statistics relating to Guantanamo. For example, the number of days the camps have been open, the number of detainees there, the number of successful prosecutions of detainees, the number of dead on 9/11, the number of soldiers killled in Afghanistan etc. One statistic will appear on the site each day.