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June 3, 2013

TIME Gitmo Photo Story: Tell Me You Didn't, Eugene

And just like that, when I was feeling that my week was just beginning, it was over. I was upset that it was over. Before boarding the flight back to the U.S., there was one more pre-planned stop on the tour: the visit to a Gitmo gift shop, for t-shirts and figurines of Fidel Castro. But then even after the lift-off, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling — and still can’t get rid of it now — that even though I put some time in, and that I now have some pictures that say I’ve been to Gitmo, the truth is that I have never really been there.

– Eugene Richards (Inside Guantánamo Bay: Photographs by Eugene Richards – Time Lghtbox, May 30, 2013)

Given the military censorship and the heinous situation surrounding the ongoing mass hunger strike and force-feeding of prisoners, it’s troubling this photo-story would just pass into the ether. This Lightbox piece was authored last week by photographer Eugene Richards and shot between May 14-16th at Guantánamo Bay prison. If you read the text, Richards is derisive about the experience. What is difficult to understand, though, is why Richards even went (or better yet, why Time sent him), and once he saw what the game was, if he considered withholding his photos.

Given Richards’ surprise over the minding and censorship he encountered, the story raises many questions. For example:

How did this story originate? Was it initiated by contact and/or invitation from the military? Why didn’t Richards know that he would be subjected to such heavy censorship of his photographs — and specifically, the military disclaimers and terms of conditions he refers to once arrived? Was there no discussion up front about terms or ground rules with military public affairs?

And, knowing that the current crisis surrounding the force-feedings is ongoing, and that the military very recently released propaganda photos in a suggestion of openness, was Time or Richards aware – the story, and images published just weeks ago by Mother Jones — that the setting and objects were the main features of those military photos? Was there some expectation that Richard would be able to either shoot those items a different way, or photograph anything else about what’s being revealed about a brutal and abuse process that might have been revealing or newsworthy?

Richards Feeding Tube Set-Up

Sgt. Godette’s Feeding Tube Set-Up

Richards Gitmo Crash Beds

Sgt. Godette’s Gitmo Crash Beds

Richards Restraint/Feeding Chair

Sgt. Godette’s Restraint/Feeding Chair

And then (although this might sound odd, even outrageous for photographers to consider once commissioned to a story but-), why did Richards choose to file the pictures once he knew he was being so thoroughly censored? Did he understand how the visit and the photos were being used by the government to normalize and legitimize the management of the hunger strike, and allow the military to further claim they were providing access to the process to outside media? Wouldn’t it have been a much more powerful statement if Richards’ eloquent and frustrated account had been published alone without the images that are so compromised?

By the way, it’s not like Richards’ edit, at points, isn’t reflective of the manipulation. The photo from the edit leading this post sets up the situation where, facing the prison, the photo is about having to look yourself in the mirror (even if who we see is a soldier, not the photographer). As a photo commentary that truly does compliment Richards’ narrative, the photo beckons you to look yourself in the eye and ask: what the hell am I really doing here? It’s not just a question to ask or hold over Eugene Richards’ head so much one we all need to answer — or answer to.

Worth some consideration, too, is the choice (like it’s Disneyland) to shoot the “mock cell shown to visitors” from the hall, conveying some sense of the contrivance, the setup, the show.

At the end of the post, Richards says:

“…even after the lift-off, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling — and still can’t get rid of it now — that even though I put some time in, and that I now have some pictures that say I’ve been to Gitmo, the truth is that I have never really been there.”

Given the moral compromise, it’s troubling how this conclusion leaves us with this photographer refrain. That he shot it and now gets to say that he did. One has to really wonder how one of our most esteemed conscience photographers — the person who documented this haunting story, particularly that second image of what the post-9/11 “terror war” did to that brain-injured veteran – could be so induced, this many years down the road of military censorship and abuse, and in the midst of this horrific hunger strike, into a Gitmo propaganda shoot.

TIME photo story: Inside Guantánamo Bay: Photographs by Eugene Richards

(photos: Eugene Richards for TIME; Sgt. Brian Godette of the Army 138th Public Affairs Detachment, Camps V and VI, Guantanamo Bay Prison. Early April 2013.)

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