OCA Study Day – Edmund Clark: War of Terror – IWM January 2017

This thought-provoking exhibition brings together several series of work by artist-photographer Edmund Clark to explore the hidden experiences of state control during the ‘Global War on Terror’.

Looking at issues of security, secrecy, representation and legality, the show focuses on the measures taken by states to protect their citizens from the threat of terrorism, and the far-reaching effects of such methods of control…including images and documents of CIA operated secret prisons or ‘black sites’, photographs from the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, correspondence from around the world sent to a British detainee in Guantanamo that was transformed by the censorship and intervention of the US military, and the experience of a ‘controlled person’ who was placed in a house in suburban England under the restrictive conditions of a control order – a form of house arrest or detention without trial – introduced in 2005.

An immersive experience, the exhibition uses sound, moving images and large multi-media installations as well as photographs and documents to invoke a sensory engagement with the experiences of observation, detention and disorientation induced by the systems of control Clark explores.

…says the blurb from the IWM website, but it is so much more when you visit it, and so much more when you get to meet the photographer for a pre-exhibition talk and then he actually walks around with you talking about each stage as you go.

 

Many thanks must go to the OCA for arranging this study day, Saturday 21 January, and for Edmund Clark for agreeing to meet with us and to dedicate so much of his time to us. I was surprised at the small turn out for such a wonderful opportunity, but it did mean a very intimate meeting and a chance to catch up with a few students I had not seen in a while. Nod to Armano :o) I apologise in advance for what is probably going to be a very long post, but it was a very interesting day!

Instead of resting on its laurels and living in the past the IWM is remaining relevant by working with contemporary artists to:

present challenging and critical work on Britain’s role in contemporary conflict. Following on from the Iraq War photography of Sean Smith, a retrospective of the artwork of Peter Kennard and an installation addressing the plight of Gaza by Rosalind Nashashibi.

The exhibition by Edmund Clark continues in this vein as it presents the photography, film, redacted official documents, censored letters from detainees and more, collected through his documentation of the War on Terror.

 

Although terrorism is a scary prospect, the way that countries react or handle the situation can be just as scary. I fully understand that action must be taken, but wow, what goes on…makes ya hair curl!

Innocent people being snatched off the street, taken to far flung places and dumped on the streets when found it’s to be a case of mistaken identity…others locked up for years at Guantanamo Bay…Apparently only eight detainees have ever been convicted by military commission, and one was convicted in US federal court. At least five of the military commission convictions were made as a result of a pre-trial agreement whereby the accused agreed to plead guilty in exchange for the possibility of release. Three of the convictions have since been overturned and another three partially invalidated. Nine detainees are known to have died in the detention centre; six are alleged to have committed suicide…

Edmund Clark is one of the few non-military personnel to have been granted access to the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He has walked its bland corridors, seen its inmates, photographed its handcuffs and portable force-feeding chairs, and been stopped in his tracks as the call to prayer has echoed through its walls.

Clark talked about his work and his approach. He does not consider himself to be a straight photographer because he also uses other media. He likes to produce photo-books believing they are part of the process, publishing books with both Aperture and Dewi Lewis and a small independent publisher. He works very closely with designers of books as he likes a lot of control.

We questioned him on gaining access, it seems most exceptional bodies of work start off with excellent research and great access! He admitted that there is a huge negotiation process required to get access for this kind of work: visiting Guantanamo took six months. He had backing from a British magazine, help from a lawyer, had to agree to certain restrictions on how he completed the work – it had to be on digital so they could look at every frame taken – he only had to delete one image, and he could only photograph within certain parameters, no sky or horizons or even the sea in case the exact locations of buildings could be traced…

To gain access to the Control Order House took two years, with lots of help from a solicitor. He also worked closely with Crofton Black, a journalist then working for Reprieve. Clark didn’t know why the Home Office allowed him to continue, but with legal assistance they couldn’t actually prevent him.

We asked if he had got into any trouble with the authorities over his publications..he replies to the negative, he thinks his audience is too small, or was too small, to worry about him. After this exhibition I wonder if that will alter?

Asked if he felt he was helping terrorists he replied that none of the people he has worked with have been convicted of terrorism offences, but he felt he has played a part in exposing illegal activities by Western governments.

Much of the war on terror is communicated through imagery, the internet, tv, papers et al. Terrorism is going on in our midst, it has become part of our everyday lives and Clark is documenting this not to shape events, but to ‘serve as point of reflection for the future.’

I think my work may have more influence in years to come when people look back and reflect on these events and the questions my work raises. Contemporaneously, I think all I can possibly hope is to make work which engages people enough for them to reflect, revisit, and reconfigure how and what they think about these events and the processes behind them.It’s not my role to tell people what they should think about it. It’s not my place to provide people with answers. What my work does, I hope, is engage them enough to see again, to want to see differently, to feel the need to find out more.

Asked about the absence of human figures his response was interesting. At first he wanted to show the people, but then realised the audience might have preconceived ideas, stereotypes even, over what or who a terrorist is, these superficial ideas would override the main subject of terror and the points he was trying to highlight. Due to the secrecy of his work much was also denied him, so he had to think of other strategies. and ways in which to present his work.

Its a while ago since I visited this exhibition and the post will probably jump about from the talk to the images, as comments made and questions asked are relevant to each section, but hopefully it will still all flow and make sense…

Edmund began by explaining how he had ‘re-contextualised’ the images, that the exhibition is made up from 3 subjects, but four bodies of work (Guantanamo, Negative Publicity, Control Order House. Letters to Omar) that were taken apart and put together as one single installation. These were taken over a period of 10 years and he probably used about 3-4 different cameras within that time frame.

Clark had three main motivations:

  • The first being the contrast between the imagery of ‘the worst of the worst’ in orange jumpsuits, and the first British detainees who came back to the UK, were never tried and went back to live in their houses as innocent people.
  • The second, the propaganda, the combination of 24/7 global media, the Internet, digital technology, and social media. His interest in the war of terror and war of images-as-spectacle, and how that has been used by all sides.
  • Thirdly, trying to explore visual strategies and forms for seeing unseen or unaccountable experiences and the processes of conflict.

We enter the exhibition after losing our way in the back corridors of the museum, which was rather amusing…Within the exhibition the different motivations and subsequent bodies of work are cleverly displayed for maximum impact.

In Negative Publicity:

Clark has visualized the research of counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black. Locations related to rendition flights, which involve the secret abductions of ‘dangerous individuals,’ are revealed, ranging from hotels used by the rendition teams to the now-abandoned interrogation rooms used for the abductees. The images are almost always devoid of people and at times have been heavily censored, an eerie combination of ghostly suppression.

Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out:

illustrates the experience of Guantanamo detainees in three distinct chapters: Guantanamo itself, the camps in which the prisoners are detained, and the homes of released detainees attempting to reintegrate themselves into society after their traumatic experiences.

Letters to Omar:

…hones in on Omar Deghayes, a UK resident who was detained for five years before his release in 2007. Letters sent to him while at Guantanamo are on view, but these are in fact scans of copies of the originals; results of the heavily bureaucratic censorship applied onto the correspondence to disallow Deghayes from viewing the original copies.

Control Order House:

relates to an anonymous terror suspect is the subject of a control order. The hundreds of images included in this section are of the house where the suspect was forced to live in during the investigation, as part of the British government’s “Home Office enforced control order.” While he is absent from the images and his identity is hidden, it is revealed that the individual was detained without trial, solely on the basis of unrevealed ‘secret evidence.’

Having been to Guantanamo Bay, Clark found that a man being held in a form of detention, with no formal legal process in his own country, based on secret evidence was ‘very disorientating and slightly absurd.’

Clark was given exclusive access in December 2011 and January 2012 to examine and take photographs of the house and shed some light on the policy of control orders first introduced in 2005. He explained some of the restrictions placed upon himself and the detainee, known only as CE.

Be sure he stays inside and that you go straight in. He’ll be in breach of his conditions if he steps outside the front door. And be careful what you ask him. Remember, the house is almost certainly bugged.

A great introduction into the life of someone living under a control order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! ‘The outcome of the meeting is a series of photos, drawings and videos giving a sense of some of the constraints that the individual, known only as CE, was living under.’ For example he wasn’t supposed to have a pet, but he did, he kept a cat. Clark wanted to photograph the cat but then worried that he might reveal an infringement which would cause CE to be arrested! His conversations were highly restricted, monitored and he was prevented from revealing the identity of the individual or the location of the house in any way, curtains were closed etc. But Edmund photographed every detail he could inside the house to give viewers the deepest possible understanding of what was going on.

CE had been held for eight months when Clark was given permission by the Home Office to visit him for the project. Control ordered suspects were subject to a 16 hour curfew, tagged, obliged to report to a police station daily and to contact a security switchboard every time they left and returned home and restricted geographically.

CE had been relocated under the order, unable to have internet access, restricted from meeting certain persons and had to seek permission before many actions, including social gatherings. Clark stayed with CE for a number of days, experiencing his daily schedule.

These restrictions were all imposed on the basis of suspicion and secret evidence. In his book, Control Order House, accompanying the exhibit, Clark sets out the High Court judgment that imposed the order on CE.

The importance of this judgment is that it clearly sets out how much the decision relied on secret evidence that CE’s lawyers were not allowed to know and challenge. The government’s reliance on this trial secrecy enabled them to use evidence that would not normally be admissible in an open court because, for example, it came from a paid informant, bugging, hearsay or a foreign intelligence source they did not want to compromise.

A security-cleared barrister, known as a Special Advocate, representing CE was allowed to view the restricted evidence but then barred from any contact with CE or his lawyers, despite still representing CE.

The result is that CE’s order was legally imposed on the basis of suspicion and secret evidence, rather than proof of guilt. In 2012, control orders were replaced by Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). It has been suggested that the restrictions they impose are less harsh and the evidential test of “reasonable belief” rather than “reasonable suspicion” is more rigorous.

Nonetheless, secret evidence can still be used and the orders are still not based on proof of guilt. CE subsequently lived under TPIM conditions in a new home. In March 2013, Clark wrote: “CE is now living under TPIM conditions in a house closer to his family. His future is uncertain. If, after two years, the home secretary has reasonable belief of new terrorist-related activity, a further TPIM could be served. If not, he will be released.”

The first thing you observe on entering the exhibition, beyond a huge pixelated image on the wall, is a video installation: ‘Orange Screen, War of Images’- orange to reflect the jumpsuits of Guantanamo – ‘paragraphs of text appear on a blank orange background, describing iconic images from the War on Terror in plain, forensic language devoid of context – 2003 A giant black statue right arm raised to the sky face obscured by fabric of white stars in blue background and red and white stripes as two men in helmets wearing brown and green climbing a metal ramp wrap chains and a rope around its neck…’

Clark explains the large photograph next, it is of a house in a large wood digitised to obscure the dwelling of one of those people apparently responsible for being a pilot during the rendition process. Part of the photograph is censored to afford the owner privacy.

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The set of images from Guantanamo reveal a strange almost disorientating narrative, we all knew of the inmates still there, but obviously they couldn’t be photographed, which made the empty canteen area and vacant cells feel even more disturbing. Small details, like a ring in the floor under a bed that prisoners could be shackled to, brought home the conditions in which detainees were kept, an arrow on the floor indicated the direction of Mecca.

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Also on view were images of a force feeding chair, interrogation spaces, leather handcuffs and a pile of riot helmets and gear left standing in a corridor. Clark explains that this image was a very long exposure due to the dark corridor but he made the guards wait so he could capture the brooding menace of them.

Much of this work is to do more with semiotics, signifiers and signified rather than directly photographing people and places. Much is inferred due to necessity or because information was blacked out. Even with actual documentation you have to read between the lines as much was redacted, especially with the Control Order House and Letters to Omar.

The discussion we had gave more insight to his work and more insight to his interaction with people. The background story to Letters to Omar, again makes for a scary, almost unbelievable account:

Libyan-born Omar Deghayes spent his childhood holidays learning English near Brighton with his family. Persistent harassment and the death of his father, a prominent trade unionist, lawyer and critic of the ruling regime, at the hands of the Libyan authorities forced them to seek asylum in the UK. Omar studied law at Wolverhampton University where he became a practising Muslim. After university he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to experience Islamic cultures. In Afghanistan he worked with NGOs and local businesses, married an Afghan woman and started planning his own law practice. After the US-led invasion in 2002, he fled to Lahore, Pakistan, with his wife and son. It was from here that he was captured by armed men in Pakistani police uniforms and handed over to the US authorities who were offering large rewards for Arabs who had spent time in Afghanistan. Deghayes was taken first to the Bagram military base in Afghanistan and then to Guantánamo where he was incarcerated for six years. The British government requested his release in August 2007 and he returned, released without charge, in December that year. Deghayes now lives in England and has remarried. He works with the Guantánamo Justice Centre and Reprieve.

Apparently governments from certain countries pay Pakistani mercenaries to grab suspects…they get paid…they don’t care who they grab, innocent or otherwise.

Deghayes had been incarcerated for nearly six years when Clark met him whilst working on  Guantánamo: If The Light Goes Out and he was still quite disorientated.

It was over three years before Omar received any mail, not even anything from his family. However, in 2005 lawyers took up his case and he received it by the bucket load! Omar spoke of sitting in his Camp 5 isolation cell, looking at the possibly thousands of letters and cards he received from people from around the globe, concerned for his situation once it had been made public.

He was never given the original documents. Everything was screened for dangerous substances, redacted, copied or scanned – including the backs of envelopes and blank sheets of paper – officially stamped and given a unique reference number.

It is these redacted and scanned documents that Clark photographed and had displayed in a glass vitrine. Clark tells us that one chap recognised one of his letters and contacted him but he didn’t get into a correspondence. Some of the images were in colour and some were in B&W. Clark explained:

Omar refused to follow the rules of his captors and was designated a non-compliant prisoner. His mail became part of the control process his interrogators exercised over him. When and if he received anything, whether in colour or black-and-white copies, was controlled by his interrogators.

According to Omar: ‘It was all part of the system of rewards for good behaviour that could earn you another blanket, or trousers, or a cup. The guards did not let us have cups as they were afraid that we would throw something in their faces. Behaviour even determined whether we were allowed to have toilet paper in our cells or had to ask for it from the guards, sheet by sheet, when we needed it.’

These letters came to have a double-edged effect for him. He received so many that it afforded a degree of protection from his guards who realised how much attention there was about his case. Yet the scale and the strangeness of some of the material contributed to his paranoia to the point where he believed his interrogators were planting material to further disorientate him.

 

 

Within the exhibition Clark reveals an account of sexual abuse on Omar Deghayes, whilst others claim that they were raped by security officers and hung from beams. This is just the tip of the iceberg, Clark assures us that the full story of abuse at Guantanamo is yet to be told and he has only given voice to a few.

In one section a film by Clark is on a loop, the images blend into each other and an expressionless female American voice talks over the top, giving details of how to handle new detainees arriving at Guantanamo and how to keep them disorientated. There is a voice, a man talking about how he was tortured for information. The images, in contrast show none of this, a juxtaposition which only enhances the horror of the audio.

Then we move into the area relating to Control Order House, which details Clark’s interest in control in relationship to personal space. On the walls you can find the relevant documentation about the control order. The floor plan of the house was marked on the floor of the gallery; a light box is used to illustrate a photograph of a curtained window, a brilliant way to suggest light coming in from the window and to give the impression of a small claustrophobic space. On another wall two screens show very short videos, one showing a cropped section of CE – his hands, lower torso and thighs as he sits – the manner of his movements, the twiddling of his fingers displaying his anxiety.

Another small ‘room’ is effectively wallpapered with the contact sheets from the control house. Interesting to see images taken and rejected, the small JPEG images in such a vast number, repeated over and over, bringing home the normality of this suburban house being used for such a weird purpose.  Clark photographs a section of the wall, I asked why…nothing interesting lol someone, presumably a child, had drawn lines across some of the images and he was going to feed back to the museum.

 

And with that the talk was over! There was so much information to record and take in I am bound to have missed something. I am really glad that I saw the exhibition and that Edmund Clark spoke to as at such a length and in such depth that I really could understand the narrative of the photographs, books and documentation. Without that information, or the research I completed once returning home, I don’t think it would have had such an impact. This is something I am finding more and more these days, that whilst exhibitions are great to go to and actually see the work, to have a greater understanding you need more context.

I fully understand the reluctance of some documentary photographers to provide captions, not wanting to impose their own ideas upon the audience but sometimes that added information makes the differences between ‘yeah ok I think I get it’ and the ‘OMG the penny drops’ moment.

Finally, displaying yet more kindness, Edmund Clark agreed to follow us down to the book shop and sign a copy of the books some of us decided to purchase.

How does Clarke protect himself mentally and emotionally? Therapy.

What did I take away from this exhibition?

  • Edmund Clark is a highly articulate and stimulating artist
  • Research is very important
  • Collaboration works wonders
  • Knowing the right people in the right places doesn’t hurt either
  • People don’t always have to be portrayed to tell their narrative
  • Governments do some shady things!
  • Worthwhile bodies of work take time
  • One project can evolve into another
  • Having a small audience should not dissuade you from following an ideal

Research

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london/exhibitions/edmundclark

https://imperialwarmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/edmund-clark-war-of-terror-review/

http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/art-2/artist-peering-darkest-corners-war-terror/

http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/08/long-read-edmund-clark-and-crofton-black-on-the-war-on-terror/

https://creators.vice.com/en_uk/article/multimedia-exhibition-exposes-war-on-terror

https://granta.com/letters-to-omar/

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