How to Photograph Guantánamo

Photojournalist Louie Palu is back at Guantánamo this week (his fourth trip to the island), blogging for Virginia Quarterly Review about how the camp has changed, what the military does and doesn’t allow photographers to do, and how to snap a good photo despite serious restrictions.

It is after 1 a.m. and the end of the first day of shooting in the camps. My Operational Security (OPSEC) Review took four hours and two photographers are still having their photographs reviewed by military officials. This is the process at the end of each day: your work is scrutinized and if it does not meet the guidelines is permanently deleted from your camera’s memory cards. The main issue is showing the face of any of the detainees as well as some security features of the facility and base. I lost a few photos I would have liked to keep, but then anyone who has worked here knows that you are going to lose photos during the review.

Sometimes you take photographs which land in a gray area of the rules by way of focus and angle. In the end you try to argue for and keep as many images as possible. One photographer lost up to half of his pictures. It is a complex process; depending on where you are in the camps, detainees can appear without warning escorted by guards in some sections. In other areas, detainees need only complain to the guards and the photography is stopped. Some detainees smile and wave at the camera and try to communicate with us, but we are not permitted to communicate with them. Since my first tour here in 2007, the detainees seem more empowered. On my first two tours the detainees never complained about the media, now they need only to wave us off or cause a commotion and we are whisked away to keep the peace. Some of the access is blocked by the military, and some photography is made difficult or blocked by the detainees as well. Some days you can’t win.

I was surprised to learn that photographers on these tours can get very competitive–because the entire trip is so circumscribed by military officials, they’re all seeing the same people, places, and things, competing for the best shot. “Sometimes I let the other three photographers walk ahead of me,” Palu writes, “so I shoot something behind them that they did not notice and are too focused on what is ahead of them to look back at what I am doing.”

We can’t roam on our own here and are always escorted by Public Affairs Officers (PAO). When in the camps we are also joined by several guards, many of whose identity we cannot show. We sometimes shoot through several fences, including tinted windows, making focusing and exposure a nightmare. All the while making sure we follow the list of rules and guidelines.

Palu will be writing for VQR for another couple of days; check in at VQR‘s blog for additional posts.

Congratulations to Virginia Quarterly Review, a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for international coverage and general excellence.

Source: Virginia Quarterly Review

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.