You are on page 1of 5


Locked up for years, prisoners at Guantanamo Bay paint landscapes they can only dream of. One man was given unprecedented access to their work. Words and photographs: Tim Fitzsimons

hey are images of seascapes, landscapes and rambling Middle Eastern lanes in pastel and crayon. A study of a sliced watermelon in oil pastel, a lesson in vanishing points in coloured pencil. The pieces hanging on the wall would nicely span the range of skills present in an amateur art class. Except that this exhibition of student work took place at the world’s most notorious maximum-security prison, Guantanamo Bay. The collection includes a number of tropical landscapes, but they are drawn from memory: there is no view from the cells at Gitmo.The authorities do not want detainees to have any inkling of the layout of the place for fear that somehow they might manage to escape. Locked away on a bluff on a 24 the southeastern corner of Cuba, prisoners at Camp


‘This galleon looks too accomplished to have come straight from the imagination. It’s more likely to have been copied,’ says the Sunday Times art ic Frank Whitford. ‘The subject, a burning ship about to founder, invites a psychiatric interpretation’. Above: prisoners pray by a fence before dawn

Subject here Feature

Delta can hear the Caribbean, but not see it. When they are transported around the island, they are blindfolded. MOVE THIS PAR? The self-styled “Dean of Gitmo U”, Lt Rob Collett, director of detainee programming, said that art courses keep the detainees busy. “If you spend nine years in a detention facility, there’s not a lot to do.” The courses take “their focus off the negativity”. Prisoners are not the only ones whose views are restricted. The public is also prevented from seeing what Gitmo really looks like; it is meticulously hidden from view. But the rules are modified all the time, and a series of sudden changes allowed me, quite unexpectedly, to take photos of the pieces from Gitmo’s art course. I’d gone to Guantanamo to report on the trial of Omar Khadr, the 24-year-old Canadian who is the prison’s youngest and last western detainee. It was a sweltering day and I’d chosen to wear shorts for my trip. Khadr was only 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan, before being allegedly tortured in American custody, and his controversial trial was just gearing up when the public affairs office began to schedule press trips to the prison. The drive from Camp Justice, the temporary militarytribunal complex, to Camp Delta took us down Sherman Avenue, Gitmo’s main street. We drove past the Navy Exchange (essentially a tax-free Wal-Mart with a large liquor selection) and Gitmo’s branch of McDonald’s, where Cuba’s only plastic Ronald McDonald is bleached from 26 years of waving jovially under the scalding sun. We went by


Left: prisoners’ art in the library, mostly pastels of the sea and boats. Of the landscape, right, Frank Whitford says: ‘Like all the pictures, this is strikingly depopulated, a product perhaps of solitary confinement.’ His top marks go to the building on a rock and the watermelon slices (bottom left and right)

the Bay View restaurant and the Tiki bar, and past a small development of surprisingly suburban-looking homes. We turned right and wound slowly south between steep brown hills. As we approached Camp Delta, our military minder reminded us of the rules: no photos of multipleguard towers, no photos showing the layout of the camp, no photos of prisoners’ faces. When we finally neared the entrance, I quickly scanned the rules on a sign next to the gate and stopped abruptly at one particular line: no shorts. Looking at my bare calves, I realised I had blown my chance of photographing the prison complex. oldiers divided our group into two — the covered, and those, like me, in shorts — and led the rule-breakers towards Camp Delta’s library. I grumbled to myself as I walked tantalisingly close to the prison, where signs warned: “Detainees in vicinity. Maintain silence.” At the library, we were greeted by Lt Collett. He cheerfully showed us around rooms packed with books on gardening, health, Islamic theology, animals, résumé-building and more, as well as Harry Potter books in many languages. Then, holding up an issue of USA Today, Collett told us that a second copy of every newspaper is censored, Taliban-style: images of women are scratched out so as not to offend the more pious prisoners, who would otherwise modify the newspapers themselves. Getting ready to leave, we noticed a collection of paintings and drawings hung on a wall of the library. The art had been put up only after being screened for “hidden messages”, we were told, but Commander Bradley Fagan, chief of the public affairs office, refused to say what guidelines the censors use. The library guards speculated that images with any text or reference to violence would have been banned. None of the artists were identified, but it is unlikely that any were high-value detainees, who are very restricted. “The prisoners responsible for the art work would belong to Camp 4. Most have been cleared for eventual release,” says Clive Stafford-Smith, the British lawyer who represents 30 Guantanamo inmates. Camp 4 prisoners live communally. “It’s very rare for art like this to be allowed out of the camp or even photographed. Many prisoners have sent me birthday cards, but they’ve been blocked by censorship, in case their squiggles contained some hidden meaning.” Why, then, was I allowed to photograph the paintings? a 27



Right: ‘This conventional drawing of a tree beside a river is not what you would expect from a terrorist prepared to commit suicide for his convictions,’ says Frank Whitford. Below: ‘The best of all the illustrations, this looks as if done from life — though could the cell doors at Guantanamo really be so primitive?’

“The cynic in me,” says Stafford-Smith, “suggests that the Americans may want to indicate that Guantanamo Bay has become some sort of benign hobby-craft centre. Or it may be that the guards were simply more relaxed that day.” The next day, Khadr’s defence attorney, Lt Col Jon Jackson, collapsed in court from complications following surgery. Within days, I and the rest of the press corps were back on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. At least I had been given the chance to see something unexpected at Gitmo. Khadr’s trial has been rescheduled for October 18. ow has Gitmo changed? The entire prison cannot be judged from the art classes alone, but the authorities say that they are just one aspect of an overhauled system that brings the prison more into line with the rest of the US penitentiary system. Stafford-Smith is unconvinced. “I started going there in 2004 and there was no difference in 2006,” he says. “By 2009 things had got a little better in terms of the prisoners’ physical treatment, but their mental health has been in steep decline. The problem has been the false promises. Obama said he would close the place and did not. “The prisoners have almost all been held without trial for more than eight years. They’ve never seen any friend from outside, and the uncertainty and continued deprivations have had a devastating impact. I’ve been to most death rows in the US, and the conditions in Guantanamo are worse.” Certainly many of its most noxious aspects remain. Since 2002, some 600 men have been released. There are currently 176 prisoners, but several dozen of these are still being held indefinitely, with no plans to try to release them, and others have been cleared for release but are stuck until an appropriate place is secured for their resettlement.

The authorities claim that detainee programming is part of a successful overhaul of prison life that has led to very high levels of “compliance”. “Previously, prisoners took a lot of their frustration out on the guards,” Collett said. “There was an adversarial mindset, and we wanted to correct that. Programmes like this were put in place to help achieve compliance.” Since programming was introduced in 2006, he added, the men “have settled in a little bit”. Apart from art, courses on offer include Arabic, English and Pashtu, maths, personal finance, writing, typing, computing and health. (Instructors are all native speakers




brought in from Iraq or Afghanistan.) Noting that many courses are very basic, Collett said they are tailored to prisoners’ education level: “Before you teach people percentages, graphs and charts, you might want to teach them long division. We need to offer some sort of skill set that gives them options for work when they go back home.” The hope is also that skills might prevent released prisoners from getting into “certain types of mischief”. When he took office, Barack Obama said he would close the camp within a year. That deadline has passed, and very few of the artists know whether they will be transferred to a US prison or sent home. For the moment their environment is a palette of military fatigues, taupe tents and grey concrete structures.At this point they can only imagine the landscape outside — mist-shrouded hills and the teal-and-blue swirl of Guantanamo Bay — and how it might appear on canvas s 29