Peter van Agtmael discusses visiting the United States military prison and how it represents America’s collective forgetfulness when it comes to war
Trump promised to “load up” the military prison in the US navel base Guantánamo Bay in Cuba with “some bad dudes,” but since then very little has been said by the president on its future. However, in July 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the secure facility as a “very fine place for holding these types of dangerous criminals,” hinting that there may be plans to reinvigorate activity at Guantanamo. The prison and its current 41 inhabitants have slipped from the news agenda, which argues Magnum’s Peter van Agtmael, is symptomatic of America’s “steady forgetting” when it comes to its wars and their consequences.
Peter van Agtmael, who has spent a near decade documenting America’s wars and their rippling effects back home in the States, visited Guantanamo Bay in January 2017. Here, he discusses his trip, in light of his ongoing dedicated exploration of war, America, politics and society.
Why did you choose to photograph Guantanamo?
I have been photographing the shadow of 9/11 in Iraq, Afghanistan, America and throughout the world since 2006, but had never been to Guantanamo. It is one of the most important symbols of this era of American history, and I had long intended to visit.
What does it represent to you?
For me, Guantanamo represents how casually the United States seemed to be able to undermine its supposed values when it felt under threat. By most definitions, Guantanamo has been a failure of morality, of the sanctity of the judicial system, of politics, and of intelligence gathering.
"For me, Guantanamo represents how casually the United States seemed to be able to undermine its supposed values when it felt under threat."
- Peter van Agtmael
Was it what you expected?
In some ways it is what I expected. I try not to look at too many pictures of a place before I go, but access to Guantanamo is so narrow and has been ongoing for so many years that I had a pretty good sense of the kinds of pictures I would be able to take. Inevitably, there is overlap with other photographers. The thing that surprised me the most is the area outside of the prison camp. The camp itself looks much like expected- a high security prison. However, the area around it just appears to be a mid-size American town plopped down onto the coastline of Cuba. There are outdoor movie theaters, McDonald’s, strip malls, bars etc. – then you drive down a long road and you are at this iconic prison camp. It’s incredibly surreal.
There are some very unique decorative items pictured. Could you describe what it was like there, and what atmosphere the decoration created?
The decoration was quite strange. There are color xeroxes of the paintings made by prisoners. Plenty of floral still lives, idyllic landscapes, etc. Of course, anything that hints at emotion or controversy is not put on display. I’d love to see what has been confiscated.
How restrictive is the access?
Media are not allowed to photograph prisoners in an identifiable way. The whole process is a bit strange. You are on a press tour with a dozen or so other journalists. You have very limited access to the prison, and then only for brief periods of time. The guards usher you into a dark, narrow observing area where you can watch the prisoners through layers of thick glass and chain link fencing. It creates a surreal spectacle. The prisoners don’t know you are watching them. The time is so short that you have to think of creative ways to frame the images without identifying features, all while other photographers are jostling for position. After the brief visit, you are taken to ‘Operational Security,’ where a press representative reviews every one of your photos and deletes the ones that he perceives are too identifiable.
The whole thing is a bizarre charade, because there are only a few dozen prisoners left, and all their faces and names are known. The ironic thing is that the prison claims it is following the Geneva Convention about taking photographs of prisoners without consent. “I’d be more than happy to ask for consent, in fact I’d prefer it” I said to one of the guards, but of course you aren’t allowed any contact with the prisoners, so the whole thing comes across as a spectacle. You only really get hints of the things that have happened in Guantanamo.
"The guards usher you into a dark, narrow observing area where you can watch the prisoners through layers of thick glass and chain link fencing."
- Peter van Agtmael
Trump promised to “load it up with bad dudes”. Do you get the sense that this high security facility is very much out of sight out of mind in the public consciousness?
Early in Obama’s administration it was a campaign rallying cry. Now, you hardly ever hear it mentioned. To my mind it’s part of the steady forgetting America has been doing about these wars and their consequences, while they continue to rage.