Today, the Miami Herald debuted a remarkable three-minute video called Guantánamo Iconography:
Narrated by staff reporter Carol Rosenberg, it features photos from those very first hours, nine years ago today, when the Bush administration transferred the first twenty detainees to Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after being assured by its Department of Justice that the location placed detainees outside of US legal jurisdiction.
It’s chilling, still, watching orange-clad, goggled, gagged, dehumanized figures forced to kneel en masse, turned away from one another, with their hands cuffed in front of them—especially while the Navy combat photographer reminisces on the soundtrack. He didn't know that his photos would be distributed until he saw them "on CNN or something" (they were marked "for official use only"). At the same time he seems to see, and yet not see, the evidence of human rights abuse, even torture, right in his viewfinder.
On the one hand, the photographer, looking at his own images, acknowledges knowing that "people just simply weren’t kept like that." Yet he believes what the guards tell him—what they probably believe themselves. The gloves are to protect the prisoners' hands from the cold; ditto for the hats. And about those blacked-out goggles and the loose gags? They were so the prisoners "couldn’t communicate and plan to attack a guard. It made sense to me. I didn’t even see it when I shot it.… I really didn’t think about it when I went back through it and edited at the end of the day. Those photos seemed decently exposed, the composition was good, so we sent them out."
And that is when the photos began to be truly seen. The Pentagon, Rosenberg explains in voiceover, distributed the photos and "the reaction was huge, fierce. People thought they looked like torture." Here the video’s images turn to protestors dressed as detainees and carrying signs that say "Shut down Guantánamo" and "Say no to torture," or posing hooded in front of gates topped with chicken wire, plus a front page of the London Daily Mirror that reads, "What in hell are you doing in OUR name, Mr. Blair?"
To this day the photographer, like so many government and military officials who were complicit in Guantánamo—indeed, like many Americans still—doesn't get why people reacted so strongly to the pictures. There's no acknowledgment, indeed there's no cognizance, even nine years, 775 men, six deaths and only five convictions later, that there is something terribly wrong—one might say "inhuman," or "unconstitutional"—about Camp X-Ray. About people being dragged out of their countries (many sold by their enemies to the US for bounty), then drugged, gagged, bound, blindfolded, stripped of their rights, tortured, maimed and kept for years after it's clear that they pose no threat because no country will take them. Or kept because the "confessions" tortured out of them aren't admissible as evidence in any trial, yet our public servants, led by our president and Congress, can find no way or will to let them go.
So go to the site. Watch it because this is one of the great atrocities of our time, and it's not over. Watch it and feel wonderment at how long it's been since you’ve seen these photos, if at all. The military quickly learned about the power of the unmediated image from the outcry these photographs provoked, and never distributed them publicly with so free a hand again.