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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.)

  • Stanco55

    Think you’re being a bit harsh here, Michael. He’s pretty much laying it on the line what a farce the whole thing was. Sometimes you just have to take what’s there and hope for the best- long as you’re not producing some flattering fluff piece. Sometimes the good ones, like Richards, can reveal more than anyone thought possible despite all. And when that’s not possible, like here, than the only option left is to report the outright inanity of the whole experience. True, not much learned, but then (unlike the embed process), the military didn’t exactly score a stellar publicity coup either.

  • AlanChin

    I too, visited Guantanamo Bay back in 2002, at the very beginning of the process. I’m sure the procedures have changed, but this is how it worked back then: As a journalist you are told to show up at the Roosevelt Fields Naval Air Station in Puerto Rico at 7 am. I caught the last flight from NY the night before, and arrived at the base at around 4 am, expecting a waiting room or a couch, but no such luck. I fell asleep on a picnic table in the visitors’ parking lot until they deigned to let us in around 6:30. The plane to Gitmo was a chartered civilian jet, an old 727 still with old markings of defunct Pan Am on it.

    Once we got there, it was just as Richards describes, perhaps even more restrictive back then. Gitmo has two sides to the bay; the west is small and that’s where they housed us, in a motel style building where they charged us $18 a night. We were allowed free run of this side — a great unspoiled empty beach — but nothing much else. The eastern shore is where most of the installations are, and there we could not be unescorted by our minders. They showed us the temporary hospital, examples of the uniforms and meal packets, and allowed us to shoot Camp X-Ray only from 300 feet away. It was absurd in the extreme. The images were worthless, which is why, to this day, most published photos of the prison are from military photographers.

    I spent the whole time arguing, to no avail, with our minders. It was an exercise in futility. Just as at Dover Air Force Base and the return of soldiers killed overseas, our presence serves to justify the appearance of access and transparency rather than actual access. It allows the military and the government to say, “Yes, we welcome the press.”

    Print reporters can at least, if they are lucky and enterprising, get snippets off the record and cultivate sources within the opaque military establishment while they are there, even as these contacts are very limited and controlled also. Photographers have little recourse — but we have to try — which Gene did. I don’t think he would disagree with you on your points, in fact, his text supports the critique, as you point out.

    Ethically, I think that we still have to accept these opportunities, shams and farces though they may be, just to see what happens, as commenter Stanco55 says. And then to report on it accurately, at least with words if not pictures, is about all we can do. Boycotting would cede the discussion entirely (as opposed to 99%) to the official line. So we have to take that puny 1%. And call it out. Which Gene did.

  • Scarabus

    Fiction reveals truth. In all such incidents I flash back to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Chapter two. The narrator drives “Mr. Norton” off the carefully defined route he was supposed to follow.

    Imagine Wally World. Think of it as if the “clickety-clack” cart at the It’s a Small World “attraction” jumps the track and takes “guests” behind the scenes to see the mechanism and the trash.

    Would a genuine photojournalist be content with taking “Mr. Norton” along the felt-tip marker line on the college president’s map? “sticking to the tracks” at Wally World? following the signs to the “Kodak Overlook,” the carefully manipulated “view”?

    No way! Pardon my presumption, Mr. Chin, but I can’t help thinking that’s why a man of integrity like you so often “leaves the tour bus,” turns his camera on the audience and the stage props.

  • Minor Heretic

    Despite the censorship, something remains. Looking at those restraint chairs all I can think of is Room 101 from Orwell’s 1984. It gives me a chill.

  • disqus_fqK6CHInL9

    what I find ironic are the words “HONOR BOUND” in the first picture when Gitmo does not stand for honor

  • Robert Gumpert

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Paolo Pellegrin “CUBA. Guantanamo. June 2006. Detainees in camp 4″ which ran as a Magnum in Motion “slide show” with ambient audio. Without question the most power piece I have seen on this blight. In a completely different vain there is also Edmund Clarke’s work on Guantanamo and his more recent work on home detention of a “terror” suspect in England. All examples of powerful work done under extreme restrictions.

    • bystander

      thanks for the references…

      Guantanamo; Magnum in Motion audio slide show by Paolo Pellegrin.

      Guantanamo: If the light goes out by Edmund Clarke

    • marjorie k

      thank you (and bystander as well) for the info and links.

  • bystander

    re: … 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.

    Yes. Are we – the viewers – content with this gloss? But, it’s hard for this we to whom you refer, Michael, to protest when our front line “filters” don’t. When medical professionals don’t protest loudly, publicly… When our psychologists don’t protest loudly and publicly… Or when there are compliant medical personnel and psychology and psychiatry professionals enabling these abuses. Or, a judiciary that’s compliant with attorneys who argue on behalf of these abuses… Or, heaven forfend, our religious personnel. Seems all of our major institutions participate in one form or another in “sanitizing” and “normalizing” these circumstances.

    We should see ourselves in this mirror. And, we should be repulsed and repelled by what we see. But, we don’t have to look very far to find some professional, or some institution to hide behind and rationalize our way out of any sense of responsibility.

    I have a great deal of respect for Alan’s point of view. I’ll give that “puny 1%” some thought. Is something better than nothing? Maybe. Or, maybe the little glimpse is something to which we find it easy to avert our eyes. Something that becomes drowned out … diluted … overwhelmed by … lost in the gloss? That 1% that is so critical to our understanding is ephemeral in relation to the 99% that is so much easier to take. I don’t have answers to these questions. I only know that Gitmo should be closed and moving the inmates to some wannabe-gulag in the US isn’t the answer. It never should have been opened, but now that it’s here, we should do every human thing we can do to shut it down.

  • bystander

    And, Clarke’s Control Order House. The best link I could find (Financial Times; registration probably required).

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