We glimpse its prisoners, prostrate, in clementine-colored jumpsuits. We hear talk of interrogations, torture and shuttering the place. Last year, Hollywood dispatched Harold and Kumar there.
Yet what, really, does Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, look like? And what really happened there?
Although it looms large in our imagination, its particulars remain a mystery. Guantanamo's naval base commissary, post office and McDonald's (who knew?) have largely escaped our notice. Newspaper pictures of the site's detention center offer us barbed-wire-encrusted watchtowers or cellblocks. None of these images speaks louder than the countless words written about what happened there.
Tonight, an important visual chronicle of Gitmo -- quotidian, banal Gitmo; a Gitmo minus the jailers or the jailed -- opens at Civilian Art Projects downtown. After finagling access to the facility in January 2006, artist Christopher Sims photographed the cells, officers' quarters, swimming holes and bars inside this placeless place that's served as backdrop for aggressions we can barely fathom.
Curated by Civilian Director Jayme McLellan and Corcoran Gallery Assistant Curator Amanda Maddox, the 25-picture exhibition (plus some Polaroids in the back room) presents a nexus where Americans, Afghans, Iraqis, Jamaicans, Haitians and exiled Cubans live together in perfect disharmony. Yet not one person inhabits these frames.
Although the government permitted Sims to photograph inmates so long as identifying features weren't revealed, the artist skipped the humans altogether. Nobody lounges in the beach chairs at Club Survivor or sips beef noodle soup in the mess hall. The cells are empty, too, as are the exercise pens abutting them. Sims concentrates instead on details of place -- fake palm trees dressing up a dining room, the panic button inside a detainee cell, a jungle gym stationed on a desolate playground.
Yet instead of rendering Guantanamo more real, such details make the place more unreal still. Indeed, there's so much room in these pictures for our imaginings that understanding what has happened here is harder than ever.
Sims shoots with a dispassionate eye, but an Us-vs.-Them tension permeates his pictures. A pair of photographs shot on either side of an interrogation room, both showing a trio of chairs, suggest the larger story. On one side: Leather executive chairs stand erect and unyielding, an outsize American flag hangs behind them. Directly across, two cushioned chairs flank an armless white plastic model. At the plastic chair's feet, a striking detail: a padlock lies bolted to the floor.
That tiny element -- minute in scale compared with the photograph it occupies -- is so charged with aggression that it's nearly dumbfounding.
Sims finds other telling details. Inside one detainee cell, his camera closes in on a panic button that reads "DURESS." Whose duress, exactly? Captor's or captive's?
Like the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Sims's baroque journey through U.S. military bureaucracy is integral to his art. Back in 2003, the artist sent a letter to the Florida-based U.S. Southern Command, the entity linked to the Joint Task Force overseeing the detention center (a separate bureaucracy oversees the naval station there). He requested access as a documentary photographer.
For more than two years, Sims's request sat in limbo, often stalled for months at a time. It wasn't until the fall of 2005 that he received approval. His visit was conditional on his signing a five-page waiver detailing what he could and could not photograph and discuss with base personnel. Guantanamo officials reviewed every image he shot.
The 36-year-old Sims adds this series to a growing portfolio of documentary work based on America's post-Sept. 11 conflicts. He undertook the project after several years spent working as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. There, he found gaps in the museum's collection that amounted to gaps in Holocaust history. Once the United States began waging war in Afghanistan, Sims set out to make sure America's conflicts were documented for future historians.
In addition to the Guantanamo series, Sims has photographed U.S. Army recruitment sessions -- the meet-and-greets with youngsters eager to join the service -- as well as mock Iraqi and Afghan villages built on U.S. Army bases. Like Disney World for the machine gun set, those sites train soldiers by simulating what they might encounter abroad.
But will Sims's pictures help write history?
Without any indicators of what transpired at Guantanamo, Sims's photographs allow imagination free rein. We have none of the dark certainty that the Abu Ghraib pictures provided. Sims's pictures document, yes. But they are art, too, because they reflect what's happening inside us.
Do we look at these images and minimize their violence, wondering whether the unspeakable only happens in novels? Or do we magnify their horrors exponentially, potentially beyond what really happened? Here our grip on reality slips all too easily. This is because the truth is hard to bear.
At first glance the photograph looks like any ordinary holiday snap of a typical sunny beach resort.
The sky is blue, the wooden deck is bleached white, there are sunshades and deckchairs and the scene is relaxing.
But look a little closer and details emerge that make this anything but a tropical paradise.
A gun is crudely drawn on the wall of the beach hut, dark glass in the windows reflect security flood lights and the photo caption reveals that this is "Club Survivor", a hangout for guards at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
The effect is eerie and unsettling, compounded by the fact that this, and the other two dozen photos of the US naval base, are devoid of people.
The exhibition, Guantanamo Bay: Photographs by Christopher Sims, has none of the headline-grabbing pictures of orange-suited terrorist suspects that have become a defining image of America's War on Terrorism.
The place alone, in a series of empty rooms and landscapes, is left to speak for itself.
"When people look at the photographs they're forced to imagine a bit more - who are the people who inhabit these spaces?" says Christopher Sims, who spent more than two years trying to gain access to the camp.
"Are they guards or interrogators, janitors or prisoners, or the spouses of people at the base or their children? I think that by not showing that explicitly it opens up more possibilities for the viewer to relate in some way to all these different people."
The idea of children at Guantanamo Bay is startlingly posed by a picture of a climbing frame on a scrubby piece of land.
"When I saw this I thought of the sons and daughters of the navy personnel who are based here, and although they're on a US military base on a communist island, they have somewhat of a typical childhood.
"But I was also reminded of the few prisoners here when the base opened who were children at the time - they were under the age of 18 when they were brought here. It was striking to me to think of children in this place and in a way, children on both sides of this conflict."
Christopher Sims got the inspiration for his project while working as a photo archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Although there was a large and extensive photographic collection, he says most had been taken by the Nazis or by Allied forces when the concentration camps were liberated.
"When I began to think about how to photograph these new wars, I thought first about the types of photographs that weren't being made.
"They are either taken by the military or by photojournalists, so I went to the places where they wouldn't normally think to go - the outdoor movie theatre or the McDonald's or some building.
"I never quite knew what I would find but I knew it would probably be of significance. I really had a sense of mission that if nothing else this would give a sense of what this place looked like - a place we talk a lot about but about which we really have no idea."
The result is a series of photos that are so simple on the surface they appear mundane - until closer inspection reveals the detail that gives them significance on many different levels.
The images include an abandoned artificial Christmas tree stashed against an office wall; a row of chairs arranged for legal hearings; the neon menu board in the guards' cafeteria; footballs in an empty recreation ground; a close up of a Koran hanging from a wire mesh ceiling of a prison cell.
Each gives new insight into the lives of all the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay and its detention centre, which will soon be consigned to history.
Barack Obama has issued an executive order to close the centre after years of international and domestic condemnation and concern that its existence led to human rights and legal violations.
"I think this exhibition tells us that Guantanamo Bay is more familiar to us than we realize. Some of these images could have been taken in the small town in North Carolina where I live," says Christopher Sims.
"Some you don't know how to place because they look like scenes from a distant, abandoned cold war outpost. Others show a tropical island and make it seem quite exotic."
"In a way it's like a stage for the world; you have American soldiers, Muslim prisoners, you have guest workers from Jamaica who staff the McDonald's and do the laundry, you have some Cubans who have lived there for a few decades having fled from Castro. It's an amazingly unique place where people from all over the world come together to live in perfect disharmony."
With the likely closure of the U.S. military prison in Cuba this year, gallery-goers who visit photographer Christopher Sims’ new exhibit “Guantanamo Bay” might be surprised that what could be one of our last glimpses of Gitmo is one of everyday life at the base.
Sims’ pictures from the Guantánamo Bay naval base, on display at the Civilian Arts Project at 406 Seventh Street NW, are not like the images we are used to seeing from the detention camp. They do not show prisoners in orange jumpsuits, or anything approximating any kind of mistreatment.
In fact, not a single person appears in the pictures. Instead, these photographs show a place where families live, people work and children play.
“It shows everyday life,” said George d’Angelo, a recent visitor to the exhibition.
But d’Angelo also pointed out that the pictures evoked certain connotations. One photo, taken in a common room, showed a little black box with white letters spelling “Suggestion Box” positioned next to a television set. A suggestion box at Guantánamo Bay made d’Angelo think more about whether detainees were given a fair trial than where is the best place to put a television.
It took Sims two and a half years of persistent requests to photograph Guantánamo, a wait he blamed on administration and personnel changes. Finally entering in 2006, he was not sure what he would discover. He spent five days photographing, always accompanied by base employees and always following the ground rules.
“I could take pictures [of people], but it was difficult. I could not photograph faces of prisoners,” Sims said.
That rule led to his artistic decision to leave out people in the photographs. “You pay more attention to details if there was no people,” Sims said.
Four photographs were deleted before Sims left the base. All were taken from a cafeteria and showed parts of the coastline, which could have revealed parts of restricted areas that included radar domes, antenna arrays, security checkpoints, military aircraft or air terminals.
The 25 photographs in the exhibit are all roughly 8.5 by 11 inches and might be seen as snapshots depicting interior and exterior details. Sims said his goal was to show different aspects of life.
Guantánamo Bay is “not quite the front line, but not the home front,” he said. It’s “an odd place that has a little of both.” He said the sides of Guantánamo are many and he was interested both in the prison and the rest of the base.
Sims said his pictures could be some of the last ones taken of the detention facility. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said the prison should be closed within a year. “Everything is a huge puzzle. Things we know about the war, things we don’t,” Sims said.
Sims recognized the mix of North and South American cultures at the base and viewed it as a “melting place for different elements and people,” he said. “Fifty years from now, people will have a record of what the place looked like.”
One of Sims’ favorite pictures is “Graffito,” of a drawing of a jet taking off from the mountains of Afghanistan. “I like that there are moments of creativity. People have those to show that they were there,” he said. Sims said guards probably painted the image.
Backlit by a gorgeous, pinkish sunset, a diving platform beckons you into rippling waters in one of Christopher Sims' new photographs on display at Civilian Art Projects. The photo's affecting tranquility is diminished, however, by the image's locale: the U.S. naval base and joint detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Sims' latest exhibition takes us to a place that most think of as an iron purgatory lined with gun towers and barbed wire, said to play host to unspeakable horrors.
But Sims, who was allowed access to the prison complex after years of wrangling with military authorities, keeps captor and captive out of the picture — partially out of necessity (handlers insisted most subjects and areas were off-limits), but mostly because other things caught his eye that he didn't expect.
"I wasn't interested in being a photojournalist ... making images that are expected," says Sims, noting that he maximized his time off the official base tour. Sims says the resulting images "raise the question that maybe we don't know what the whole picture is. It's not just this abstract place ... it's a place where people go to work each day."
In training his lens on the base's bar, swimming hole and mess hall, Sims attempts to gain new insight into the facility in a way that further challenges our feelings about it. "I don't feel like there's a hidden meaning to photographs, but there's more to them than just the superficial image," he says.
Indeed, squaring one's knowledge of the prison's purpose with some of the photographs' details, it's hard not to detect that something is awry.
Sims, a North Carolina-based artist and documentary studies teacher, spent the three years prior to November 2001 working as a photo archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He says that while there he discovered that, despite the museum's massive 70,000-image database, he couldn't always find everything patrons requested.
"There is a root in the current show with my time at the museum," Sims says, adding that after 9/11 he embraced the notion that "photography can take you to places and fill in these gaps."
Opening Reception: Friday, February 13, 2009 from 7pm - 9pm
Civilian presents twenty-five photographs by Christopher Sims depicting everyday life at the naval base and joint detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Shot in 2006, the images will be on view in the United States for the first time in this exhibition at Civilian. Curated by Amanda Maddox & Jayme McLellan.