Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out
by Edmund Clark
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011
Review by Colin Edgington
Edmund Clark’s Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out is a haunting and enlightening experience. A beautifully designed monograph, it holds, in its pages, Clark’s experience at the naval base (located on the southeastern end of Cuba), at the private homes of former detainees and with several former detainees themselves, particularly Omar Deghayes, whose letters, along with a short essay, appear in the monograph. The contentious history, its inhabitants and current usage of the Naval Base and detention camp is explored through a series of seemingly disjointed photographs, the scanned letters of Deghayes and essays written by Clark, Deghayes and Julian Stallabrass. In the opening essay, Clarke describes his efforts to explore three notions of 'home' surrounding the naval base and the Americans who live there, the camps in which the detainees were held and the residences in which former detainees now live. It is through this exploration of dissimilar views of home and the way the photographs and letters are interweaved throughout the entirety of the monograph that give it such force. In one instance (plate 4), we see a photograph depicting a portion of a bedroom. In it rests a twin bed, made, backed with red curtains pulled to the side of a window and a painting crowded by a slanted ceiling that draws the eye to a modest desk topped with books and other items. On the bed sits a pillow in which the words “Welcome Home Omar” have been sewn. An image of home, the pillow indicates the former absence of Omar and his return to this place. On the very next page, we are confronted with an image altogether different; an isolation unit. With an overtly lime green palette, we see a metal cage, door ajar, revealing a stool welded to the floor. The disparity between the two images is one that is hard to swallow; a feeling that lingers as one traverses the text.
Alternatively, Clarke’s photographs are strikingly different from the propagandistic images displaying acts of power and harsh inconceivable punishment that we have grown accustomed to seeing from places like Guantanamo. This is due in part to the censors with which he had to dance but also due to the intent to mirror, photographically, the disorientation felt by the detainees. Full of silence and isolation his works are carefully composed, often of small still-lifes and small cramped spaces, and generally depict austerity in (the vein of James Casebere) and a kind of tragic irony (the 25th plate depicts an arrow on the floor pointing both towards Mecca and towards a steel ring, in which detainees were often chained, bolted into the concrete floor). The letters of former detainee Omar Deghayes help humanize this sphere and are presented to us as they were to him: photocopied and at times, highly redacted, complete with U.S Forces approval and document numbers.
If the light goes out is a reference to the use of light, and other sensory attacks, in the disorientation of the detainees and the assertion of control, in totality, by their interrogators. This control can be seen in the way the photographs are alternately displayed throughout the monograph. Yet, in the end the disruption or disorientation that takes place for the reader isn’t quite parallel to what the detainees must have, and are still, going through but rather is a disruption that raises the entirety of the work to the uncanny, leaving a sense of deep sadness and empathy for the detainees who have gone through a place that is, to most of us, but an enigma in which many have and still are suffering.