Last-Chance Glimpse of Life at Gitmo

Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:02pm

With the likely closure of the U.S. military prison in Cuba this year, gallery-goers who visit photographer Christopher Sims’ new exhibit “Guantanamo Bay” might be surprised that what could be one of our last glimpses of Gitmo is one of everyday life at the base.

Sims’ pictures from the Guantánamo Bay naval base, on display at the Civilian Arts Project at 406 Seventh Street NW, are not like the images we are used to seeing from the detention camp. They do not show prisoners in orange jumpsuits, or anything approximating any kind of mistreatment.

In fact, not a single person appears in the pictures. Instead, these photographs show a place where families live, people work and children play.

“It shows everyday life,” said George d’Angelo, a recent visitor to the exhibition.

But d’Angelo also pointed out that the pictures evoked certain connotations. One photo, taken in a common room, showed a little black box with white letters spelling “Suggestion Box” positioned next to a television set. A suggestion box at Guantánamo Bay made d’Angelo think more about whether detainees were given a fair trial than where is the best place to put a television.

It took Sims two and a half years of persistent requests to photograph Guantánamo, a wait he blamed on administration and personnel changes. Finally entering in 2006, he was not sure what he would discover. He spent five days photographing, always accompanied by base employees and always following the ground rules.

“I could take pictures [of people], but it was difficult. I could not photograph faces of prisoners,” Sims said.

That rule led to his artistic decision to leave out people in the photographs. “You pay more attention to details if there was no people,” Sims said.

Four photographs were deleted before Sims left the base. All were taken from a cafeteria and showed parts of the coastline, which could have revealed parts of restricted areas that included radar domes, antenna arrays, security checkpoints, military aircraft or air terminals.

The 25 photographs in the exhibit are all roughly 8.5 by 11 inches and might be seen as snapshots depicting interior and exterior details. Sims said his goal was to show different aspects of life.

Guantánamo Bay is “not quite the front line, but not the home front,” he said. It’s “an odd place that has a little of both.” He said the sides of Guantánamo are many and he was interested both in the prison and the rest of the base.

Sims said his pictures could be some of the last ones taken of the detention facility. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said the prison should be closed within a year. “Everything is a huge puzzle. Things we know about the war, things we don’t,” Sims said.

Sims recognized the mix of North and South American cultures at the base and viewed it as a “melting place for different elements and people,” he said. “Fifty years from now, people will have a record of what the place looked like.”

One of Sims’ favorite pictures is “Graffito,” of a drawing of a jet taking off from the mountains of Afghanistan. “I like that there are moments of creativity. People have those to show that they were there,” he said. Sims said guards probably painted the image.

The exhibit runs until March 14.