The Miami Herald recently uncovered 15 photographs that depict Guantanamo detainees like we’ve never seen them before. Their faces are visible, they're wearing traditional garb and most look happy. The Herald’s Carol Rosenberg describes the origins of the intimate photos and how they fit into the changing imagery of Guantanamo.
Artist: by Vic Chesnutt
BOB GARFIELD: Next week, the President’s deadline to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center will pass unmet. Legal and security obstacles have stymied the administration and the Gitmo prison will remain open. Strangely, though the debate about Guantanamo has raged on for eight years, in all that time we've almost never seen the faces of the detainees at the center of it. That’s because the military prohibits photos that show detainees’ faces, under a Geneva Conventions policy against parading prisoners. But some of these men are faceless no more. Last year, The Miami Herald learned that the military had allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to photograph the prisoners. In the pictures, the detainees are casual. They're smiling and posing for relatives back home whom, in many cases, hadn't seen their family member for years. When The Herald learned of those photos, it contacted the families and turned up 15 photographs in all, which we will link to on our site. For The Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, after years of covering Guantanamo it was a shock to see the face of one of those men for the first time, someone she’d only read about in court briefings.
CAROL ROSENBERG: I was handed one of these pictures back in May, and I looked at this man and he looked like no one I'd ever seen at Guantanamo. He had a picture of his kids. He was sitting dressed in traditional – I guess you could say Saudi attire. He looked well. He looked like he was posing in a photo studio anywhere, frankly, in the Muslim world. And it struck me because I've spent dozens and dozens of days in the prison camps, and I've never seen anything as intimate as that picture.
BOB GARFIELD: I've got to tell you, the one that really got me was the image of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11. The image that we have been seeing of him for the last, I guess, seven years is when he was being taken into custody he looked like he had just been skimmed off of Skid Row. He was wearing a teeshirt exposing chest hair. He needed a shave. He looked like he hadn't slept in four days. The image on The Miami Herald website looks like it could be his, I don't know, his graduation photo. He just looks so doe-eyed and innocent. And, you know, I don't know whether that reveals anything about him or reveals why the military didn't want these pictures out there, to begin with.
CAROL ROSENBERG: Now, we can only guess but we've seen in him court and we are aware of some aspects of his personality. He’s vain, and he may very well be aware of that original photo, but he chose the picture that we call “doe-eyed” because he looks pious, he looks serious. If you pull back from the close-up on that, he’s on his knees in prayer. And he got to pick, just like all of these guys. The way it worked is the Red Cross took pictures, digital photos, and let them pick the pictures of themselves they liked best. So, he chose to look like that for the outside world, and it did cause a sensation. People were angry, frustrated that the man accused of carrying out the September 11th attacks looked so comfortable, looked so - at peace in Guantanamo.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned that several of the detainees looked ordinary and pious. You know, there’s another word I might throw in there, and that is serene. Some of them looked just plain happy, you know, big toothy grins and so forth. It’s such cognitive dissonance, especially if claims of torture are true. Certainly they have not been in country club conditions at Guantanamo. Is this, do you suppose, for the benefit of their families? Are they making a political statement? What’s behind all the grins?
CAROL ROSENBERG: The Red Cross delegate who took many of the pictures told me they only had their families in mind, and they wanted their family to take a look at the picture and say, they're okay. And in a couple of instances I was told that they genuinely were happy. They took an hour out of their prison camp routine. The Red Cross brought a kit bag filled with traditional head coverings for these portraits that were going home. And so they spent an hour in front of a mirror arranging themselves, and they looked into the cameras of the Red Cross and they said to the family, here I am. It is no Guantanamo that the world has ever seen.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you heard from the military about this? I mean, they - are they disgusted with you for gathering these images and sharing them with the public?
CAROL ROSENBERG: What I heard from some people in the military was they didn't necessarily like the fact that maybe these folks looked innocent, but they did like the fact that they were smiling, that they were healthy. They were almost like you could say a poster of the talking point that the Pentagon has been trying to promote for all these years – safe, humane, transparent. The irony, of course, is it wasn't their transparency that got these pictures. They've never allowed us to take pictures like this.
BOB GARFIELD: How about you as a reporter? You have spent more time at Gitmo probably than any other American reporter. How has it changed your perspective on Guantanamo?
CAROL ROSENBERG: I write about Guantanamo full-time. And you can write about the debate, you can write about the discussion, you can write about the trials and the policy, but I wanted to tell a different story. And it goes back to that first photo on January 11th, 2002 that, in many people’s mind is Guantanamo, 20 guys on their knees in a cage. And if I've done anything or tried to do anything in the eight years is make those men individuals. And, for better or worse, that’s what this mosaic does. It takes the men out of the cage and out of the orange jumpsuits and lets you look in their eyes. I don't know that anyone can make any decisions about what you see in their eyes, and I don't know that you should. That’s what the courts are for. That’s why we have the rule of law. But it does change the dynamic of what you see at Guantanamo when you’re not looking inside a cage with men on their knees in orange jumpsuits being put into Guantanamo on that very first day by the military.
BOB GARFIELD: Carol, thank you very much.
CAROL ROSENBERG: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Carol Rosenberg covers Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility for The Miami Herald.