Artist's Statement: Award-winning photographer Edmund Clark, Guantanamo: If the Lights go Out

Interview by Ben Miller | 14 October 2010
A photo of seats in a room with a clock
In his own Words…Multi award-winning photographer Edmund Clark's new exhibition reveals pictures from his journey to Guantanamo Bay, the American detainment camp in Cuba, accompanying a book of the shots he took of cells and the post-prison homes of detainees. He has been shortlisted for the International Photographer of the Year award for 2010.

"I never have any expectations of what a situation will be like or what I will see. Before I went to Guantanamo I looked at a lot of imagery that had already come from the prison camps, so I knew what and how I did not want to photograph. Fear is a great motivator and is an essential part of the creative process.

A lot of my work has been about incarceration, or people in situations of confinement. My last book, Still Life Killing Time, was about exploring "Vanitas" – still-life symbolism, in Britain's only prison wing for long-term and old-age prisoners: murderers, rapists, paedophiles and other violent criminals now in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

The starting points for the book Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out were the post-prison homes of ex-Guantanamo detainees in the UK and abroad. The imagery I had seen from the camps contributed to the stereotypes of Guantanamo – defenders of freedom against pitiless terrorists; torturers against the abused; national revenge against human rights outrages. No-one seemed quite human.

A photo of a cartoon written to a man in prison
Cards and letters written to UK resident Omar Deghayes feature in the show
These reverberations of past experience led me to the long process of gaining access to Guantanamo to contrast the domesticity of the homes with the spaces of the prison camps and to explore the American experience of Guantanamo.

Imagery of personal space and possessions follows a long tradition of symbolism and metaphor in European art. Within scenes of domestic ordinariness, I was drawn to motifs of confinement, control, trauma and memory.

My use of the correspondence sent to a detainee [Omar Deghayes] at Guantanamo also surprises people. They are fascinated by how such mundane cards and messages become transformed into nuanced historical documents by the US military's processes of censorship and documentation.

A photo of a green chair in a green-coloured prison cell
Clark was drawn to confinement, control, trauma and memory
People are intrigued by the work because it is not what they expect and it is quite complex. They perhaps expect to see a document monumentalising or objectifying the camps at Guantanamo, but are engaged by the experiences of the ex-detainees and the American community on the US Naval Base through the notions of home and personal space.

Glimpsing the evening sun through a window is a simple thing, but readjusting to having the freedom to do so may not be so simple. Like a net curtain, memories can obscure the view."

Guantanamo: If the Lights go Out is at Flowers, London until November 15 2010. Launch exhibitions are also being held at Photofusion, London (until November 26) and Impressions Gallery, Bradford (until November 14, see bottom of page for venue info).

Images copyright Edmund Clark.

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