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Exclusive: Photographer Christopher Sims Goes Inside Guantánamo Bay

Question: what could make 40 lawyers from the Pentagon get on the Metro to take a field trip across Washington D.C.? Answer: Christopher Sims’ exhibit Guantánamo Bay at Civilian Art Projects. The show consists of 25 photographs of the naval base and joint detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where Sims spent five days in 2006. Among his strange discoveries: There’s a McDonalds. While photographs range from mundane to picturesque, taken in together they offer an eerie view into one of the most controversial, and invisible, places of our time.

After the jump we interview Sims, a teacher at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, to find out what made him want to go to Guantánamo, how he hopes to change the war photography genre, and why none of his images featured people.

Flavorwire: Why Guantanamo? What got you interested, and when?

Christopher Sims: I’ll go back to when I worked at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington from 1999-2001. I was a photo archivist there, which meant that every day I would respond to research requests from filmmakers and editors, 7th graders, and victims’ family members — people who wanted or needed photographs somehow related to that episode in history. We had 70,000 images in the collection, which I think is the largest in the world. It was comprehensive, but there were a lot of images we didn’t have. So, in that time I started to get some sense of the “missing record.” I spent almost two years there, looking at war photographs. I thought about what war photographs typically show, and how they’re used, how they’re thought of, and how they’re archived. I left the museum in summer of 2001, and after 9/11, I began to think of the type of photography project that I could do that would be a little different from what might otherwise be done by photojournalists or other types of photographers.

I think I first heard about Guantanamo Bay, and the prison there in January, 2002. I didn’t really pursue it as a project for a couple more years, but I wondered about who was making photographs of that place, and if it would even possible to make photographs of it. How would you get there? How would you even begin to think about getting there?

In the end it took about two and a half years of writing letters, and figuring out who to contact. But, I felt that on a relative basis that it would be easier for me to get there than other people. It felt like something I might be able to do.

In that time I was thinking a lot about the project. There were some images that were coming out, but they were all looking very similar. You would see some of the prisoners, and you wouldn’t see their faces, and you’d see fences, and barbed wire, but you wouldn’t see the place; you didn’t have a sense of what the place looked like.

I became interested in the idea of making war photographs that didn’t seem like war photographs, that weren’t about seeing violence, or spectacle, or the things that make people turn away from most war photographs. I began thinking that maybe the thing to do was to try to make a type of war photograph that captured something else.

In my research I learned that there’s a McDonalds in Guantanamo Bay. And that the place has such a unique history — it’s a U.S. military base on a communist island. It served as a way station for Haitian refugees in the 1990s, there are Jamacian and Filipino guest workers there now. The question of what the place looked like became more and more intriguing. So, when I went it was not with the intent of excluding photos of the prison, or people, but to photograph beyond that too; to photograph the daily life of what it’s like to be there. I wondered what the life of a spouse of a military officer based there looked like, where a janitor would do his or her work, where do people go after hours… And I wondered if there were details in those places that would somehow reveal something about ourselves, or about the war. Conceptually, I also came to think of the work as an archive; I was filling in the gaps of an archive that didn’t yet exist.

FW: Were there any surprises for you?

CS: It’s a little more ramshackle and improvised than you might think. It’s a bunch of gates, and fences, and people with old fashioned keys. It feels very isolated there, but it also feels a little like you’re on a frontier. It feels like people are kind of improvising, and making do with the resources that they have. A large part of Camp Delta is trailers. I think that’s not an image that comes to people’s minds when they think of the detention center there. Also, it can feel kind of lonely. I think the base is about 45 square miles, but there are just a few pockets where people are.

FW: You said it took you two and a half years to get to Guantanamo. What was the process you had to go through to get clearance?

CS: I think I called the Pentagon first, and I got bounced around a lot. People in the military tend not to have answering machines. Eventually I reached someone in New Orleans who took the time to read numbers out of a phone book he had. One of the numbers was for the Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay. The joint task force [which administers the prison] is on the Naval Base, but they’re run separately. I called the Naval Base and someone there told me I had to call the command center for the joint task force. I wrote a letter, sent in a proposal and pitched what I wanted to do. This was in 2004 and 2005. During this time Abu Ghraib happened, and the war in Iraq was heating up. People’s attention was diverted, and I’m sure there was a lot of personnel turnover, so I had to do a lot of follow up. I started over a number of times. Then they said no a few times. Eventually, I almost gave up. Then someone called back and said “you’re all set for January 20th,” or whatever the day was, and then there was a bit more paperwork. It’s just kind of a confusing process, but the projects I do are always ongoing, and at different stages. With projects like these I feel I can afford to wait.

FW: How did you go about choosing your images? Did you know you weren’t going to be taking pictures of people?

CS: I decided on that the first day. What I knew in advance was that there were ground rules. They included such things as not photographing aircraft, and antennae, and radio domes, and certain other things that made sense from a security standpoint. In terms of people, I could not photograph the faces or distinguishing features of any of the prisoners, and then there were also some prisoners you couldn’t photograph at all. Pretty soon after I got there I got the sense that many of the other people around Camp Delta — people from the intelligence services, or contractors, or linguists — weren’t interested in being photographed. But I was already kind of in the mind set that I would make images that were more about the landscapes and the lives of people as seen through the architecture of the place, how they inhabit the spaces, the things they leave behind, things like that. And once it became impractical to photograph people it made it easy to go in that direction.

Working in Guantanamo was like detective work on the ground, where I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but there were things I wanted to see; it was all done in the context of knowing I only had so much time there… There’s something exciting about it because there’s a challenge in trying to photograph things you don’t yet know exist. I remember we opened up one door and there was the game room for the guards of Camp Delta. There were a few video games, and a ping pong table in a ramshackle rec room. I felt like was exploring a ghost town, because I might not run into people for hours. It would just be me, and my public affairs person, and a driver wandering around.

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FW: Do you have any favorite images? Or is that like asking you, if you had more than one child, to pick a favorite?

CS: This work is not so much about single images for me. Each photo is inherently incomplete, because I only saw certain things. I’m not even sure the things that I saw, what they mean, or if that meaning can be conveyed in a photograph. But, I know that they’re important, and they’ll become more important in time. When the pictures are put together they create pieces of this puzzle. And my work is only one small corner of this larger puzzle, one that we won’t know a lot about for a long time. I think of the images more like post cards rather than a really well illustrated portrait of something.

There were certain ideas or places though… that I was amazed to find. There’s that McDonalds. There’s a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. up in one of rooms — it was kind of an unexpected place to find his likeness. There were also touches of home, and people’s creativity that gets filtered through — graffiti and pictures that soldiers drew, for example. Part of the confusing thing about the photographs is that looking at them you might not know that they were taken at Guantanamo Bay. They feel American, like they could be taken in North Carolina, where I’m from. But at the same time they’re not American — there’s just something about the landscape that isn’t quite right.

Sims’ other current project, Home Fronts: The Pretend Villages of Talatha and Braggistan, is currently on view at the Houston Center for Photography as part of the group exhibition Unite and Untie. It includes photographs of simulated Iraqi and Afghan villages on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases in North Carolina, Louisiana, and California. See more of his photographs from Guatanamo here.

All images Christopher Sims. Photographs courtesy of Civilian Art Projects.

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