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Captured by the camera's eye: Guantánamo and the shifting frame of the Global War on Terror

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 November 2010


In January 2002, images of the detention of prisoners held at US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay as part of the Global War on Terrorism were released by the US Department of Defense, a public relations move that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld later referred to as ‘probably unfortunate’. These images, widely reproduced in the media, quickly came to symbolise the facility and the practices at work there. Nine years on, the images of orange-clad ‘detainees’ – the ‘orange series’ – remain a powerful symbol of US military practices and play a significant role in the resistance to the site. However, as the site has evolved, so too has its visual representation. Official images of these new facilities not only document this evolution but work to constitute, through a careful (re)framing (literal and figurative), a new (re)presentation of the site, and therefore the identities of those involved. The new series of images not only (re)inscribes the identities of detainees as dangerous but, more importantly, work to constitute the US State as humane and modern. These images are part of a broader effort by the US administration to resituate its image, and remind us, as IR scholars, to look at the diverse set of practices (beyond simply spoken language) to understand the complexity of international politics.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2010

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14 In using ‘articulation’ I borrow from Weldes, taking it to mean ‘a process through which meaning is produced […] and temporarily fixed by establishing chains of connotations among different linguistic [and non-linguistic] elements’ (1999), p. 98. These linkages, or articulations, between elements are not fixed, but through repeated usage come to appear natural or common-sensical.

15 Andén-Papadopoulos, Kari, ‘The Abu Ghraib torture photographs: News frames, visual culture, and the power of images’, Journalism, 9:5, (2008), pp. 530CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

16 While this analysis focuses primarily on visual framing, there is a rich and growing body of literature across politics, policy analysis, political sociology, psychology and linguistics called ‘frame analysis’ that looks at the importance of verbal (and occasionally material) frames for shaping the ways in which individuals make sense of the world. See, Benford, Robert D. and Snow, David A., ‘Frame processes and social movements: An overview and assessment’, Annual Review of Sociology, 26 (2000), pp. 611639CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Rein, Martin and Schon, Donald A., ‘Reframing policy discourse’, in Fischer, Frank and Forester, John (eds), The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), pp. 145166CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Rein, Martin and Schon, Donald A., ‘Frame-critical policy analysis and frame- reflective policy practice’, Knowledge and Policy, 9 (1996), pp. 85104CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Payne, Rodger A., ‘Persuasion, frames and norm construction’, European Journal of International Relations, 7:1 (2001), pp. 3761CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine (eds), Interpretation and method: Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn (Armonk, NY: M E Sharpe, 2006)Google Scholar .

17 Butler, Judith, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25:6 (2007), p. 952CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Butler, Judith, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009)Google Scholar .

18 Ibid.

19 Gillis, John, in Zelizer, Barbie (ed.), Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera's Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago press), p. 3Google Scholar .

20 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, p. 952.

21 For a discussion of the control over what is seen and unseen with regards to the imagery of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, see Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’; Butler, , Frames of WarGoogle Scholar , as well as Danchev, Alex, ‘Bad apples, dead souls’, International Affairs, 84:6, (2008), pp. 12711280CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Danchev, Alex, On Art and War and Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)Google Scholar , as well as the film Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008). Though, in contrast to the images of Guantanamo, the imagery of Abu Ghraib was not officially sanctioned or produced by the US State for public circulation.

22 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, p. 953.

23 Ibid.

24 Campbell, David, Writing Security: US Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, 2nd Rev edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998)Google Scholar .

25 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, p. 953.

26 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, new edition (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p. 34Google Scholar .

27 Griffin, Michael, ‘Picturing America's “War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan and Iraq: Photographic motifs as news frames’, Journalism, 5:4 (2004), pp. 381402CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

28 Debbie Lisle, ‘Militourism: Visualizing Soldiers on Holiday’, presentation given at Manchester, University of Manchester (29 October 2008).

29 Kennedy, Liam, ‘Soldier Photography: Visualising the War in Iraq’, Review of International Studies, 35:4, pp. 817833CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Hewitt, Hugh, ‘Rise of the Milblogs’, The Weekly Standard (1 April 2004)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 17 July 2009).

30 Griffin, ‘Photographic motifs’, p. 397.

31 As suggested by Butler, we are not often permitted to see the dead – whether civilians or American soldiers – as this may affect our sensitivities and as in the case of the GWoT this may be considered anti-American and unpatriotic. Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’, p. 951.

32 Griffin, ‘Photographic motifs’.

33 This is, however, not the first time that images of the detention of prisoners by Americans have been captured on film. Publicising a particular framing of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was part of official government policy, while the capture and treatment of Viet Cong in Vietnam was documented and became part of the anti-war campaign. Guimond, James, American Photography and the American Dream, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 139Google Scholar ; Gordon, Linda and Okihiro, Gary Y. (eds), Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006)Google Scholar .

34 Military officials permit families to visit Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib by appointment, providing access to a specialised visitor centre, while at Bagram a video-linkup between detainees and family is available. For a lawyer's perspective on accessing the site see, Gorman, H. Candace, ‘My Experiences Representing a Guantánamo Detainee’, Litigation, 35:3 (2009), pp. 17Google Scholar and Smith, Clive Stafford, Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and The Secret Prisons (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007)Google Scholar .

35 Rosenberg, Carol, ‘Photo Reverberates 6 Years Later’, Miami Herald (11 January 2008)Google Scholar ; JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs, JTF-GTMO Media Ground Rules and Media Policy Agree to Abide, Guantánamo Bay NAS, Cuba (October 2007), p. 4Google Scholar ; JTF Guantánamo, Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures, Guantánamo Bay NAS, Cuba (1 March 2004), p. 272Google Scholar .

36 Journalist David Rose described his experience of these guided tours as Potemkin-like (America's War on Human Rights, p. 55); Rosenberg, ‘Photo Reverberates’; Yee, James, and Molloy, Aimee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (New York: Public Affairs, 2005)Google Scholar .

37 Rosenberg, ‘Photo Reverberates’.

38 Admittedly, this could also be accounted for by a lack of journalist or public interest in the detention sites ‘over there’ as much as the level of control over the production of images. Nevertheless, the US administration is not actively promoting these sites to the same degree, and has not established the same high-profile military commission system for the other detention facilities.

39 To date, for example, I have been able to locate only a select few images of the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility.

40 This is not to mention the secret detention facilities allegedly operated by US personnel around the world.

41 JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs, Joint Task Force Guantánamo Virtual Visit (2008)Google Scholar , available at: {}, accessed 23 May 2008). With the exception, of Guantánamo Camp 7 (‘the Platinum Camp’).

42 Rosenberg, ‘Photo Reverberates’.

43 Ibid.

44 Ari Fleischer, ‘Press Briefing by Ari Fleisher’, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, (18 January 2002).

45 One such illicit photograph is the now infamous image of the orange-clad detainee, hooded and shackled, being led away from the camera taken by photographer Shaun Schwarz and which for example appears in modified form as part of the promotional material for the Alex Gibney documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Thompson, Anne, ‘MPAA rejects Gibney's “Dark” ads: Org objects to hood on torture docu's poster’, Variety (18 December 2007)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 20 July 2009; Horton, Scott, ‘Six Questions for Alex Gibney, Producer of the Oscar-Nominated “Taxi to the Dark Side”’, Harper's Magazine (5 February 2008)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 20 July 2009.

46 For use in personal memoirs see Yee, & Molloy, , For God and CountryGoogle Scholar . See the public website of JTF-Guantánamo {} for examples.

47 Butler, , Frames of WarGoogle Scholar .

48 By iconic, I mean photographs that are widely recognisable, reproduced in a number of ways and settings, and therefore ‘acquire their own histories of appropriation and commentary’. Hariman, Robert and Lucaites, John Louis, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 1Google Scholar .

49 It is important at this stage to consider the ethics of reproducing these images. As Elizabeth Dauphinee argues, ‘The “ethical” use of imagery of torture and other atrocities is always in a state of tension; the bodies in the photographs are still exposed to the gaze in ways that render them abject, nameless and humiliated – even when our goal in the use of that imagery is to oppose their condition.’ I have chosen to include the images (and the accompanying original captions), despite the violence that this potentially reproduces, as on any level engaging in an analysis of the images requires a degree of reproduction, whether it is a description and discussion of the images or the images themselves. I feel that in reproducing them and engaging with them as a point of a more informed critique is preferable to not engaging with them directly. It also offers you the opportunity to look, and not just see, with me for your own reading. Dauphinee, Elizabeth, ‘The Politics of the Body in Pain’, Security Dialogue, 38:2 (2007), pp. 139155CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

50 ‘Brutality In Our Name, Mr. Blair’, The Mirror (Editorial), (21 January 2002), p. 8.

51 The absence of hooding in this frame is important. Hooding does not appear in the images of Guantánamo though it does in the images of the transport to Guantánamo, capture in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as in many protests against and popular cultural representations of the GWoT. This practice has increased dramatically in the GWoT and is hugely controversial. CNN, ‘Shackled Detainees Arrive In Guantánamo’, (11 January 2002)Google Scholar , available at: {}, accessed 24 February 2008.

52 As we have since learned, these practices were in part derived from the training delivered to US service personnel during Survival, Evade, Resist and Escape (S. E. R. E.) training in preparation for their possible capture and detention by opposition forces who would not abide by the Geneva Conventions. In other words, this practice of limiting sight therefore owes as much to the US military's own fears over the likely treatment of ‘us’ by ‘them’. Mayer, Jane, ‘The Black Sites: A rare look inside the C. I. A. 's secret interrogation program’, The New Yorker (13 August 2007)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 8 December 2008; Eban, Katherine, ‘Rorschach and Awe’, Vanity Fair (17 July 2007)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 8 December 2008.

53 Dowdney, Mark, Blackman, Oonagh, Jones, Gary, ‘War on Terror: Camp X-Ray: Shut it You Brits; Rumsfeld Blasts at MP Critics of Prison’, The Mirror (23 January 2002), p. 1011Google Scholar .

54 Ibid.

55 This articulation of the US as humane is a recurrent theme in the discourse of the GWoT. The US mission in Afghanistan was narrativised at one point as a humanitarian mission to rescue the Afghan people, especially the Afghan ‘womenandchildren’. Jackson, Richard, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 136Google Scholar .

56 Rosenberg, ‘Photo Reverberates’.. Until 2005, the US government maintained that the detainees were not prisoners of war and therefore not subject to the protections outlined in the Geneva Conventions, though they would be treated ‘in the spirit of Geneva’. Rumsfeld, Donald, ‘Defense Department Operational Update Briefing’, US Department of Defense News Transcript (4 May 2004)Google Scholar . The US Supreme Court has since ruled in 2006 (Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld) that the detainees are protected under the Geneva Conventions, despite the attempt to legally constitute a category outside these regulations, citing in particular the regulations that require those captured to be protected until ‘their status has been determined by a competent tribunal’. Supreme Court of the US, Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense et al., 548 US (29 June 2006)Google Scholar .

57 Within the Conventions, it is the application of Articles 13 and 14 of the Third Convention for POW and the Fourth Convention for non-combatants (one of which should apply to the detainees) that is in question. Specifically, that individuals ‘must at all times be treated humanely’ including ‘protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity’ and are entitled in all circumstances ‘to respect for their persons and their honour’. The act of putting detainees, if considered entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions, ‘in an unnecessarily degrading situation – irrespective of whether it was seen by the outside world – would in itself be a breach of the law’. Asking whether the photos are a breach of the Conventions is a separate question to asking whether they depict one. Anthony Dworkin, , ‘The Geneva Conventions and Prisoners of War’, The Crimes of War Project (2003)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 22 May 2008.

58 Whereas the Abu Ghraib images or the images published of a captured Saddam Hussein post-2003 could be more clearly interpreted as a breach because in the former the treatment is almost incontestably abusive (and therefore disavowed as ‘bad apples’) and in the latter case because he is individually identifiable, the Guantánamo images are less clearly a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

59 Smith, Stafford, Bad MenGoogle Scholar .

60 Rosenberg, , ‘Photo Reverberates’; Matt Davis, ‘US lifts Guantánamo veil of secrecy’, BBC News Online (4 March 2006)Google Scholar , available at: {}, 8 December 2008.

61 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 70Google Scholar .

62 ‘PoW footage ‘breaks convention’, BBCNews Online (24 March 2003)Google Scholar , available at: {}, accessed 25 February 2008.

63 Monaco, James, How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media and Multimedia: Language, History, Theory, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar ; Hariman, and Lucaites, , No Caption Needed , p. 142Google Scholar .

64 Danchev, Alex, ‘Review: War Stories’, The Journal of Military History, 69:1 (2005), pp. 211215CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

65 The terms ‘guards’ is used broadly here to include all US military staff working at JTF-Guantánamo despite the varied roles they undertake (perimeter security, interrogator, linguist, psychologist, medic, chaplain etc.). While the differences between these types of guards are very important, they must be addressed in a separate article.

66 Sontag, 2003, p. 38.

67 The fact that the faces of the guards are not hidden is interesting given the secrecy that in some cases seems to surround Guantánamo. Their names, but not their faces, are hidden from us, the viewer, as well as from the detainees. Begg, Moazzam and Brittain, Victoria. Enemy Combatant: The Terrifying True Story of a Briton in Guantánamo (London: The Free Press, 2007)Google Scholar ; Smith, Stafford, Bad MenGoogle Scholar .

68 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 38Google Scholar .

69 Hariman, and Lucaites, , No Caption Needed, p. 142Google Scholar ; Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of OthersCrossRefGoogle Scholar .

70 Ash, Juliet, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality, (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010)Google Scholar .

71 Kassin, Saul M. and Wrightsman, Lawrence S., The American Jury on Trial: Psychological Perspectives (New York: Hemisphere, 1988), p. 102Google Scholar ; Smith, Stafford, Bad Men, p. 101Google Scholar .

72 Connolly, William E., Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)Google Scholar .

73 Monaco, , How to Read a FilmGoogle Scholar .

74 See, for example, Pugliese, Joseph, ‘The Tutelary Architecture of Immigration Detention Prisons and the Spectacle of “Necessary Suffering”’, Architectural Theory Review, 13:2 (2008), pp. 206221CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

75 Goldberg, Vicki, The Power of Photography (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991)Google Scholar .

76 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 11Google Scholar .

77 Sontag, , Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 9Google Scholar .

78 Rosenberg, ‘Photo Reverberates’.

79 See also, Moyes, Stephen, ‘Jail Outrage: 1 Hour In Hell: US Prison Gear Test is a Nightmare’, The Mirror (22 January 2002), p. 1011Google Scholar for one of the first ‘performances’ of Guantánamo.

80 Berger, Dan, ‘Regarding the Imprisonment of Others: Prison Abuse Photographs and Social Change’, International Journal of Communication, 1 (2007) pp. 210237Google Scholar ; Perlmutter, David D., Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Icons of Outrage in International Crises (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1998)Google Scholar .

81 Ruiz, Pollyanna, ‘Manufacturing Dissent: Visual Metaphors and Community Narratives’, in Notions of Community, ed. Gordon, Janey (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), pp. 199223Google Scholar .

82 Smith, Stafford, Bad MenGoogle Scholar ; Joint Task Force Guantánamo, Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures, Guantánamo Bay NAS, Cuba (28 March 2003)Google Scholar .

83 Indeed, this framing comes much closer to the representations of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. At the time, the Roosevelt administration encouraged the publication of certain images of its internment facilities. Images from this period and place depict Japanese-American detainees at work, at school and play; without the captions or the context, these pictures could be mistaken for life for ordinary hard-working, if less prosperous, Americans. Within Guantánamo, these images of detainees ‘at play’ could be read as an attempt to suggest something similar – the normality of their lives in detention.

84 Even within the military tribunal system in place, court artists are not permitted to depict detainee faces (Stafford Smith, Bad Men).

85 Danchev, ‘Review: War Stories’.

86 Weldes, , Constructing National InterestsCrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Shaheen, Jack G.. ‘Reel Bad Arab: How Hollywood Vilifies a People’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 588:1 (2003), pp. 171193CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

87 JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs, Joint Task ForceGoogle Scholar ; Smith, Stafford, Bad MenGoogle Scholar ; Yee, & Molloy, , For God and CountryGoogle Scholar .

88 Many of the ‘comfort items’ that detainees are authorised or that may be denied are not included in these photographs, such as additional toilet paper beyond 15 sheets a day, a comb in the shower, paper and pencil that must be returned at the end of each shift, a sheet, a towel, a Styrofoam cup, toothpaste or toothbrush, prayer beads, etc. For a complete list of the items see Joint Task Force Guantánamo, Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures, 2003Google Scholar , Table 8.4.

89 Even images of the fluorescent orange barricades located around the base were forbidden until July 2010.

90 Simon Norfolk's photographic work in particular plays with the absence-presence post-war, see: {}.

91 Furthermore, to voice an opinion that these facilities are not treating detainees humanely is, however, constructed as an act that helps the terrorists by providing another way of recruiting. For a facility that has cost the US taxpayer approximately $54 million, with an annual running cost of $90 million to $118 million it is important that it be considered state of the art. Bowker, D. and Kaye, D., ‘Guantánamo by the Numbers’, The New York Times (2007)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed on 9 March 2008).

92 Rumsfeld, ‘Defense Department Operational Update Briefing’,fn. 54.

93 As cited in Kellerhals, Merle D., ‘General Says Guantanamo Vital for Gathering Terror Intelligence: Detention center provides humane treatment, facilitates religious worship’, Washington File (29 June 2005)Google Scholar . According to Senator Bill Frist, who similarly visited the site and was provided the tour of the facilities, ‘I left with an impression that health care there is clearly better than they received at home and as good as many people receive in the US of America.’ Bill Frist, ‘Congressional Record – Senate, Library of Congress’ (12 September 2006), available at: {}, accessed 8 December 2008.

94 See for example, the work of Aaron Belkin.

95 Howell, ‘Victims or Madmen?’

96 The Rush Limbaugh Show (2008), available at: {} accessed 30 July 2009.

97 For an example of this discourse, see George W. Bush, ‘President Discusses Creation of Military Commissions to Try Suspected Terrorists’, Press Briefing, Washington (6 September 2006), available at: {–3.html} accessed 23 February 2008; Ari Fleischer, ‘Press Briefing by Ari Fleisher’, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House (18 January 2002); Rumsfeld, Donald, ‘Defense Department Briefing’, Global Security (22 January 2002)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 22 May 2008); Rumsfeld, Donald, ‘Rumsfeld Lashes Out at Critics’, BBC News Online (23 January 2002)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 23 February 2008.

98 Begg, & Brittain, , Enemy CombatantGoogle Scholar ; Rasul, Shafiq, Iqbal, Asif and Ahmed, Rhuhel. Detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay (4 August 2004)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 10 May 2008). Denbeaux, Mark, Denbeaux, Joshua W., Gratz, R. David, Ellick, Jennifer, Ricciardelli, Michael, and Darby, Matthew, Captured on Tape: Interrogation and Videotaping of Detainees in Guantanamo Bay (14 February 2008)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 15 February 2010.

99 Though two military lawyers were finally granted access under strict conditions of secrecy in 2008, Camp 7 remains off limits to journalists, is not part of the ‘Gitmo tour’ (virtual or ‘real’), and photographs of it are not available. Carol Rosenberg, ‘“Platinum” captives help off limits in Gitmo camp’, Miami Herald (2 June 2008); Carol Rosenberg, ‘Lawyers inspect secret prison’, Miami Herald (18 November 2008).

100 Mazzetti, Mark and Shane, Scott, Pentagon Cites Tapes Showing Interrogations’, The New York Times (13 March 2008)Google Scholar , available at: {} accessed 18 July 2009; JTF Guantánamo (2003), p. 4.1; JTF Guantánamo Headquarters, Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures, Guantánamo Bay NAS, Cuba (1 March 2004), p. 4.1Google Scholar .

101 Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy, ‘Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?’, Politics and Gender, 1:4 (2006), pp. 597619Google Scholar .

102 Smith, Stafford, Bad MenGoogle Scholar .

103 Enloe, Cynthia, ‘Margins, Silences, and Bottom Rungs: How to Overcome the Underestimation of Power in Study of International Relations’, in The Curious Feminist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 1942Google Scholar .

104 Butler, ‘Torture and the Ethics of Photography’.

105 Foucault, Michel , Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, new edition (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1991 [1977])Google Scholar .

106 Burns, Robert, ‘Joint Chiefs Chairman: Close Gitmo’, USA Today (13 January 2008)Google Scholar , available at: {} 12 December 2008.