The Human Gaze at Guantanamo

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
It’s easy for us to forget about Guantanamo— and the fact that people have been incarcerated there without charges for more than 11 years– until capital B, capital N “Big News” crosses the Straits and floats into newspaper headlines.

Such was the case last Sunday, when The New York Times published an op-ed by a detainee who is among the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. Other outlets picked up the story, bringing the ethical, moral, and human rights concerns of America’s offshore detention center back to our national consciousness.

No matter how much we read about Guantanamo, though, it’s hard to get a sense of what, exactly, is going on there and what it’s like. There are only a handful of journalists (The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg is the only one who comes to mind immediately) covering Guantanamo news coherently and consistently… and by that, I mean being there. And there are even fewer visual references; I don’t know of a single photographer who covers Guantanamo as a photojournalistic beat (That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist; I’m just saying I don’t know one.).

I was able to visit Guantanamo Bay in 2008 on a journalist visa, and it occurred to me that the photos I’ve got stored away might actually be of interest to those of you who give a damn about what’s going on at Guantanamo.^ Moreso, you might be interested by the process that governed the taking and sharing of these photos. More about that below.

I filed one piece about Guantanamo for a major outlet (a science research piece for Scientific American), but didn’t find any other takers for Guantanamo stories, despite the dearth of articles that cover Guantanamo outside the scope of legal proceedings. So let’s dust off these images and talk a little bit about them in context.

The Joint Task Force (or JTF) facility is just one part of the US military's installation at Guantanamo Bay, though it's become the most notorious due to the detainee situation. When I visited in 2008, Camp Delta was one of the facilities where detainees were housed.
The Joint Task Force (or JTF) facility is just one part of the US military’s installation at Guantanamo Bay, though it’s become the most notorious due to the detainee situation. When I visited in 2008, Camp Delta was one of the facilities where detainees were housed.
Rules governing photographers' activities at Guantanamo Bay, especially behind the fences of the detention facility, are quite strict. Images of detainees were not allowed, nor were images of officers taken without their knowledge and permission.
Rules governing photographers’ activities at Guantanamo Bay, especially behind the fences of the detention facility, are quite strict. Images of detainees were not allowed, nor were images of officers taken without their knowledge and permission.
Not being allowed to take photos of people--detainees especially--produces images that are, by their very nature, "constructed." There's a sense of disembodiment, dislocation, and sudden abandonment of place--where are all the people?
Not being allowed to take photos of people–detainees especially–produces images that are, by their very nature, “constructed.” There’s a sense of disembodiment, dislocation, and sudden abandonment of place–where are all the people?

A press officer reviewed photographers' images and video at the end of each day to ensure that no compromising shots had been captured. Technically speaking, this shot could have been deleted by the press officer.
A press officer reviewed photographers’ images and video at the end of each day to ensure that no compromising shots had been captured. Technically speaking, this shot could have been deleted by the press officer.

One of the most difficult things to understand about Guantanamo is how--or whether--the US justice system is operating. During 2008, hearings were held in this room, but they weren't (and still aren't) governed by the same kinds of laws that govern detention and legal proceedings on the US mainland.
One of the most difficult things to understand about Guantanamo is how–or whether–the US justice system is operating. During 2008, hearings were held in this room, but they weren’t (and still aren’t) governed by the same kinds of laws that govern detention and legal proceedings on the US mainland.

Being at Guantanamo, whether as an officer or as a detainee, can feel incredibly isolated, both geographically and, in the case of detainees, culturally. Even though news comes in from the outside world, it's not passed along to detainees without being subjected to the censor's black permanent marker before it's made available in the library.
Being at Guantanamo, whether as an officer or as a detainee, can feel incredibly isolated, both geographically and, in the case of detainees, culturally. Even though news comes in from the outside world, it’s not passed along to detainees without being subjected to the censor’s black permanent marker before it’s made available in the library.

To see more of my photos from Guantanamo Bay, please see this gallery on Flickr.

To follow developments at Guantanamo Bay, follow journalist Carol Rosenberg on twitter.


^The latest report out of Guantanamo Bay is that almost half of the detainees–77 of 166– are currently on a hunger strike.

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Julie Schwietert Collazo

Julie Schwietert Collazo and Francisco Collazo. For more information, please contact us: e-mail: collazoprojects@gmail.com

3 thoughts on “The Human Gaze at Guantanamo”

  1. This is fascinating, Julie. I’m so glad you’re sharing these photos! How sad that there weren’t any major outlets interested in shedding light on this important, underreported place.

  2. It is always so important to get out the truth! But really hard to achieve in these circumstances. The oped in the Times was heartbreaking.

  3. Hi Julie,

    Can’t believe you’ve been to Guantánamo! Thanks for sharing the pix. I think you’re right that the lack of visual or sensory clues makes it very hard to personalise the space.

    I’ve been working with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project for a while now – it’s a handy resource for looking at the longer history of Guantánamo, and has a great archive of material – photos, art, etc. – from the base. Through GPMP I’ve come across some interesting work dealing with life at the base. A good example is Edmund Clark’s work: http://www.ifthelightgoesout.com/

    Thanks for posting at Gitmo!

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