To secure a spot on the Gitmo press tour where he met Ted Conover, René Clement had to sign a 13-page contract of conduct. "Most of it," the Dutch photojournalist says, "was about what you cannot photograph."
We sat down with René to get the story behind what he did capture: fences, faceless portraits, and an island-turned-prison in more ways than one.
What did you hope to capture at Guantánamo?
"I wanted to find a different angle on the prisons. I’d been researching a lot, and kept seeing the same kinds of pictures. It’s tricky—it’s not like you can go to Guantánamo and do a day-in-the-life-of-a-prisoner sort of thing. They censor everything. But I found out about the prison libraries, and I had an idea. Basically, all the books prisoners are allowed to read get censored. Guards either rip out the page, or blacken out all the things that are offensive to the Muslim faith. Like if there was a woman in a bikini in a magazine ad, she’d get blacked out.
So my idea was to bring a Polaroid camera and shoot Polaroids of whatever I wanted to capture. Then, when I had to show the guards my pictures for approval, I’d tell them to just black out from the Polaroid the things they didn’t want depicted. I wanted to showcase both the prison but also the anxiety and level of censorship. I thought it was a brilliant plan."
* * *
But they didn’t let you?
"They said it was OK in advance, but once I got to Guantánamo, they freaked out. A high-level boss came to meet our group of journalists, and he didn’t like my plan at all. He took it as a critique of the censorship. So I got in a fight almost immediately, and he threatened to kick me off the island. Ultimately, I had to go by their rules because I was their guest. It’s really hard to get access to Guantánamo, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that."
* * *
So how did the censorship play out?
"At the end of every day, I would sit with two media officers and go through all my images. With each one, it was like: “In or out? In or out?” If the picture revealed too much of prison security or a little bit too much of the people, they would take it out."
* * *
They just deleted it?
"Not from their records, just mine. They’d download everything I shot to have it on file, in case I published a picture they hadn’t OK’d—then they could sue me. So every night, it was a huge fight about pictures. But I figured out that the more you fight for a picture, the more they want to delete it. So what I would do was figure out which pictures I wanted most. Then I would go in and fight like a lion for the ones I actually didn’t care about. I tired them out so much on those shots that by the time we got to the good ones, they gave in easier. That’s how I kept my best work."
* * *
Did someone tip you off on that?
"No, I figured it out. But in the end, every photographer ends up censoring themselves, because we can get sued. We all figure out that it doesn’t make sense to push beyond the narrow perimeter they set up. You just try to find as many possibilities within it. You become creative."
* * *
Was it easier for the writers, like Ted?
"Regardless of what sort of journalist you are, Guantánamo is a well-oiled media machine. Ted’s a good journalist. He’s not quiet, but he is very calm. He asks good questions. But you can come up with all the smart questions you want, and they’ll give you answers that don’t say anything at all.
In a way, though, it is easier for writers. Because what writers see, they can write down. But I couldn’t photograph what I saw, not the people. I wasn’t allowed to show anyone’s face. I have just one shot of a woman whose face shows, and that’s because she was the press manager. But I chose to get her from the side, looking out over the Bay. I sort of wasn’t interested to show her whole face. Everyone else, I shot from directly behind. Those four women in the hospital room—those are the nurses who did the force-feeding during the hunger strike. They all had aliases. On their name tags, it says where they’re from, instead of their name. So, like “Miss Kentucky.” It felt to me like a kind of shadiness. You can feel that they’re not proud of what they’re doing, that they know it’s an unfair solution. If they’re proud of what they’re doing, then why so many layers of hiding?"
"One night, we were having dinner in the cafeteria, and I saw this bald guy in fatigues sitting there, and said, “Oooh, that’s beautiful.” I went up and took the photo. When he turned around, I said, “This is so beautiful. Your bald head against paradise.” He laughed, and I kept shooting. What I wanted to capture was that hard, statuesque head against something fake. Because at Guantánamo, you’re on a tropical island, but you’re also not at all."
* * *
Was there anything about Guantánamo your photos didn’t capture?
"Many things. Like the relationship between prisoners and guards. I got the feeling that the guards were scared of the prisoners. The prisoners—at least a group of them—were tightly knit, bound by their situation and language. As a prisoner, you’re not charged with anything; you don’t have your day in court; you don’t know long you’re going to stay there—and you’re so far from home.
Mentally, it must be so tough. So they’re like family, and extremely creative in fighting the prison guards. Every prison guard wore a kind of screen over his face, so he couldn’t get hit by vomit and shit bombs. In the corridors of the prison we visited, the halls were dark, so the prisoners couldn’t see the guards at all.
Female guards have it especially hard; they get verbally abused by their prisoners on a daily basis. Prisoners don’t have respect for the guards, but if the guard is a woman, it’s a hundred times worse. I can’t imagine: Having a 12- or 14-month deployment there, and on a daily basis, hearing prisoners tell you you’re shit, you’re no good, you should shut up, that’s going to get under your skin.
I remember talking to this one female guard who’d signed up to go to Iraq or Afghanistan but ended up in Guantánamo instead. When she went back to the States from her deployment, she had PTSD. During her year at home, she hardly talked to people. But then she signed up for a second tour in Guantánamo.
We asked why, and she said she felt like her life was out of control back in America. In Guantánamo, everything is so defined and so organized, and then she comes home and people just spontaneously do things. There’s no longer a perimeter, and she couldn’t handle daily life without one. Normal life felt too unruly, she told us. And that’s when I began to see Guantánamo is a prison for both sides. The guard has her own ball and chain."
* * *
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
René Clement is Dutch photojournalist and artist based in New York City, a six-time nominee for the Zilveren Camera prize, and the author of several books—including Promising Land, the product of a five-year photo project on Dutch Heritage in Orange City, Iowa; and "Scar Tissue," an award-winning collection featuring New York ten years after 9/11. Ask René about Afghanistan, where he narrowly avoided a kidnapping.