Galleries: "Guantanamo Bay: Photgraphs by Christopher Sims" at Civilian Arts Project

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 13, 2009

We glimpse its prisoners, prostrate, in clementine-colored jumpsuits. We hear talk of interrogations, torture and shuttering the place. Last year, Hollywood dispatched Harold and Kumar there.

Yet what, really, does Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, look like? And what really happened there?

Although it looms large in our imagination, its particulars remain a mystery. Guantanamo's naval base commissary, post office and McDonald's (who knew?) have largely escaped our notice. Newspaper pictures of the site's detention center offer us barbed-wire-encrusted watchtowers or cellblocks. None of these images speaks louder than the countless words written about what happened there.

Tonight, an important visual chronicle of Gitmo -- quotidian, banal Gitmo; a Gitmo minus the jailers or the jailed -- opens at Civilian Art Projects downtown. After finagling access to the facility in January 2006, artist Christopher Sims photographed the cells, officers' quarters, swimming holes and bars inside this placeless place that's served as backdrop for aggressions we can barely fathom.

Curated by Civilian Director Jayme McLellan and Corcoran Gallery Assistant Curator Amanda Maddox, the 25-picture exhibition (plus some Polaroids in the back room) presents a nexus where Americans, Afghans, Iraqis, Jamaicans, Haitians and exiled Cubans live together in perfect disharmony. Yet not one person inhabits these frames.

Although the government permitted Sims to photograph inmates so long as identifying features weren't revealed, the artist skipped the humans altogether. Nobody lounges in the beach chairs at Club Survivor or sips beef noodle soup in the mess hall. The cells are empty, too, as are the exercise pens abutting them. Sims concentrates instead on details of place -- fake palm trees dressing up a dining room, the panic button inside a detainee cell, a jungle gym stationed on a desolate playground.

Yet instead of rendering Guantanamo more real, such details make the place more unreal still. Indeed, there's so much room in these pictures for our imaginings that understanding what has happened here is harder than ever.

Sims shoots with a dispassionate eye, but an Us-vs.-Them tension permeates his pictures. A pair of photographs shot on either side of an interrogation room, both showing a trio of chairs, suggest the larger story. On one side: Leather executive chairs stand erect and unyielding, an outsize American flag hangs behind them. Directly across, two cushioned chairs flank an armless white plastic model. At the plastic chair's feet, a striking detail: a padlock lies bolted to the floor.

That tiny element -- minute in scale compared with the photograph it occupies -- is so charged with aggression that it's nearly dumbfounding.

Sims finds other telling details. Inside one detainee cell, his camera closes in on a panic button that reads "DURESS." Whose duress, exactly? Captor's or captive's?

Like the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Sims's baroque journey through U.S. military bureaucracy is integral to his art. Back in 2003, the artist sent a letter to the Florida-based U.S. Southern Command, the entity linked to the Joint Task Force overseeing the detention center (a separate bureaucracy oversees the naval station there). He requested access as a documentary photographer.

For more than two years, Sims's request sat in limbo, often stalled for months at a time. It wasn't until the fall of 2005 that he received approval. His visit was conditional on his signing a five-page waiver detailing what he could and could not photograph and discuss with base personnel. Guantanamo officials reviewed every image he shot.

The 36-year-old Sims adds this series to a growing portfolio of documentary work based on America's post-Sept. 11 conflicts. He undertook the project after several years spent working as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. There, he found gaps in the museum's collection that amounted to gaps in Holocaust history. Once the United States began waging war in Afghanistan, Sims set out to make sure America's conflicts were documented for future historians.

In addition to the Guantanamo series, Sims has photographed U.S. Army recruitment sessions -- the meet-and-greets with youngsters eager to join the service -- as well as mock Iraqi and Afghan villages built on U.S. Army bases. Like Disney World for the machine gun set, those sites train soldiers by simulating what they might encounter abroad.

But will Sims's pictures help write history?

Without any indicators of what transpired at Guantanamo, Sims's photographs allow imagination free rein. We have none of the dark certainty that the Abu Ghraib pictures provided. Sims's pictures document, yes. But they are art, too, because they reflect what's happening inside us.

Do we look at these images and minimize their violence, wondering whether the unspeakable only happens in novels? Or do we magnify their horrors exponentially, potentially beyond what really happened? Here our grip on reality slips all too easily. This is because the truth is hard to bear.

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