Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

The other side of Guantanamo Bay

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

"Club Survivor", Guantanamo Bay (Picture: Christopher Sims)

At first glance the photograph looks like any ordinary holiday snap of a typical sunny beach resort.

The sky is blue, the wooden deck is bleached white, there are sunshades and deckchairs and the scene is relaxing.

But look a little closer and details emerge that make this anything but a tropical paradise.

A gun is crudely drawn on the wall of the beach hut, dark glass in the windows reflect security flood lights and the photo caption reveals that this is "Club Survivor", a hangout for guards at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

The effect is eerie and unsettling, compounded by the fact that this, and the other two dozen photos of the US naval base, are devoid of people.

Empty rooms

The exhibition, Guantanamo Bay: Photographs by Christopher Sims, has none of the headline-grabbing pictures of orange-suited terrorist suspects that have become a defining image of America's War on Terrorism.

The place alone, in a series of empty rooms and landscapes, is left to speak for itself.

"When people look at the photographs they're forced to imagine a bit more - who are the people who inhabit these spaces?" says Christopher Sims, who spent more than two years trying to gain access to the camp.

Children's play area, Guantanamo Bay (Picture: Christopher Sims)
Some military personnel brought their children with them to the camp

"Are they guards or interrogators, janitors or prisoners, or the spouses of people at the base or their children? I think that by not showing that explicitly it opens up more possibilities for the viewer to relate in some way to all these different people."

The idea of children at Guantanamo Bay is startlingly posed by a picture of a climbing frame on a scrubby piece of land.

"When I saw this I thought of the sons and daughters of the navy personnel who are based here, and although they're on a US military base on a communist island, they have somewhat of a typical childhood.

"But I was also reminded of the few prisoners here when the base opened who were children at the time - they were under the age of 18 when they were brought here. It was striking to me to think of children in this place and in a way, children on both sides of this conflict."

Christopher Sims got the inspiration for his project while working as a photo archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Although there was a large and extensive photographic collection, he says most had been taken by the Nazis or by Allied forces when the concentration camps were liberated.

"When I began to think about how to photograph these new wars, I thought first about the types of photographs that weren't being made.

"They are either taken by the military or by photojournalists, so I went to the places where they wouldn't normally think to go - the outdoor movie theatre or the McDonald's or some building.

"I never quite knew what I would find but I knew it would probably be of significance. I really had a sense of mission that if nothing else this would give a sense of what this place looked like - a place we talk a lot about but about which we really have no idea."


The result is a series of photos that are so simple on the surface they appear mundane - until closer inspection reveals the detail that gives them significance on many different levels.

The images include an abandoned artificial Christmas tree stashed against an office wall; a row of chairs arranged for legal hearings; the neon menu board in the guards' cafeteria; footballs in an empty recreation ground; a close up of a Koran hanging from a wire mesh ceiling of a prison cell.

Each gives new insight into the lives of all the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay and its detention centre, which will soon be consigned to history.

McDonalds restaurant, Guantanamo Bay (Picture: Christopher Sims)
Camp guards are provided with some familiar facilities

Barack Obama has issued an executive order to close the centre after years of international and domestic condemnation and concern that its existence led to human rights and legal violations.

"I think this exhibition tells us that Guantanamo Bay is more familiar to us than we realize. Some of these images could have been taken in the small town in North Carolina where I live," says Christopher Sims.

"Some you don't know how to place because they look like scenes from a distant, abandoned cold war outpost. Others show a tropical island and make it seem quite exotic."

"In a way it's like a stage for the world; you have American soldiers, Muslim prisoners, you have guest workers from Jamaica who staff the McDonald's and do the laundry, you have some Cubans who have lived there for a few decades having fled from Castro. It's an amazingly unique place where people from all over the world come together to live in perfect disharmony."

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