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By Alex Hobbs
What does a terrorist look like? In covering the endless War on Terror, mainstream media has answered that question pretty clearly-projecting images of of blindfolded South East Asian or Middle Eastern men with beards dressed in orange jumpsuits. Surrounded by barbed wire and chains, these “enemy combatants” either tacitly or implicitly, are painted to appear assuredly guilty of unimaginable crimes.
One award-winning British photographer sought to challenge that image. Edmund Clark, whose artwork focuses on spaces of containment and human confinement, wanted to take a closer look at the War on Terror. Photographing scenes from Guantanamo Bay and at a Control Order house in the United Kingdom, Clark sought to shake beliefs on terrorism and those accused of it. His work fills a blindspot in how the international community views the alleged terrorists and raises serious questions about what the world has assumed to be true.
Clark’s powerful photography on terrorism is featured in the books “Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out” published by Dewi Lewus Publishsing and “Control Order House” published by Here Press. Both projects were inspired by the repetitive narrative surrounding the War on Terror. “All the imagery spoke about dehumanization. It was about restriction and incarceration” he said.
Yet, as Clark points out, the overwhelming majority of the men held in Guantanamo have never been formally charged with any crime or given a trial in court.
Many of the alleged terrorists “were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Clark writes in his book’s introduction.
So how does one re-humanize “terrorists” and replace imagination with reality? For Clark the task meant ignoring the human form and focusing on the spaces it inhabits–in this case the spaces where it is confined.
Interestingly enough, photographing actual people would have in fact been counterproductive to Clark’s project to show humanity. “Pictures of people are mirrors for people’s preconceptions,” he said.
With people in the photos, we can only see yet another picture of a bearded “terrorist”. And we would wonder, what bad thing did he do? Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a toxic correlation between orange jumpsuits, beards, and terrorists that is hard to see past.
By substituting the “space” for the “face” and looking at environments, both artificial and natural–a visibly human pattern begins to emerge. The bed, the chair, the alarm clock, the flowers in a vase-these all become repeated tropes of human habitation. These simple objects are testament to an identifiably human presence.
In the Guantanamo series, Clark juxtaposes photos from the prison camp and United States naval base at Guantanamo with the homes of ex-detainees. The sameness of the empty beds, chain link fences, and grassy Cuban landscapes blurs into one distorted image of human containment. After a while the viewer cannot distinguish between where he or she is looking. Is the tiny bed one in a prison guard’s room or a prison cell? Is the plastic child’s slide part of a maximum-security day care center or inside someone’s home in Kuwait? The series is characteristically disorienting, much like the experience a “terrorist” undergoes when taken from their home and put in a cell.
Clark had succeeded in challenging my imagined conception of what I thought was real. Without the human form as a referent, I had no idea how to approach what I was seeing. Taught to formulate my ideas about images from the War on Terror based on the human forms and tropes present in the pictures, I was left grasping for clues about the people who inhabited that space. Though I know it is Guantanamo, without the bearded men, I don’t see terrorists and without the white soldiers I don’t see prison guards. By forcing the viewer to think about who not what is missing from the photos, Clark makes it obvious that these are human spaces.
In “Control Order House,” Clark photographs another space of confinement absent of its human occupant. In this case, it is a house under a Control Order. Control Orders were in effect in Britain from 2005 to 2011 and allowed the UK government to place restrictions on individuals suspected of terrorist activity and relocate them to controlled houses. As at Guantanamo, many of the people subject to Control Orders were suspected on evidence that will remain a secret, on charges that the public, and even the person being accused will never know.
The highly bureaucratic nature of the confinement system serves to construct the human subject as a non-person. In the case of the individual under a Control Order he becomes known only by two letters, CE (not his real initials), his location is unknown, and his image hidden. Ostensibly, this is for his own security so as to protect him from vigilante justice. But it renders the “terrorist” nameless and inhuman.
We see that this non-person’s home resembles so many other thousands of generic British homes. There is the cat, the trampoline in the backyard, the stainless steel cook top and microwave, the pebbledash walls and red tile roof. The images are so generic, it is frightening. We soon see that the Control Order house is every British house, its occupant an everyman, and its location, everywhere.
“Humanizing the place short-circuits those ideas of otherness. We see that their homes are identical to a normal British home,” said Clark. Who is this guy? We ask. Can the inhabitant of such a home really be the evil, alien sociopath we have been taught to imagine? What does he look like?
Because of the plainness of the house it is easy to imagine that any one of us could just as well be the Control Order subject. The effect is to make us realize that the seemingly alien other is in fact not so alien.
In his haunting and powerful photography, Clark offers an alternative to the media narrative that portrays suspected terrorists as un-human, “other,” and innately evil. At a time when the international community is all to aware of many covert government practices, Clark’s photography stands as a reminder for the global community to rethink the assumptions made in the name of national security.
On the goal of his work, Clark said “My work is not going to close the prison camps at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, but it may affect or alter the political and historical discourse about the place and the men that were held there. ”
Alexander Hobbs is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
All photography courtesy of Edmund Clark, an award-winning artist whose work links history, politics and representation.