Safiyah Rochelle holds a Ph.D. in legal studies from Carleton University, Canada. Her research focuses on contemporary political and legal theory, critical race and visual studies, state violence, and violence and the body. Her award-winning dissertation centered on an analysis of photographs of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
State-produced photography of state violence raises questions that are of pressing concern: Where do these images come from? What and who do they show? What do they obscure? What do they do, and how? These questions are worthy of consideration if they are posed simply to seek clarity amid the confusion, violence, and catastrophe that circulates in the wake of war. They may also, however, point us towards a consideration of the histories, meanings, and potentialities that pre-figure and extend beyond the photographic frame, and that color and shade even those images which purport to show the most brute of facts. Asking these questions therefore demands that we understand images beyond what is offered materially, that we actively and expectantly look towards contexts, and that we consider the nature of an image’s production alongside its agentic role as a perspective through which we come to form meanings about certain people, places, and events.
Images have always played a role in shaping the legal, political, and material boundaries of violence in Guantánamo. This is partly evident in the infamous images of the orange-jumpsuit-clad prisoners who first landed at the camp. Showing men who were chained, shackled, hooded, and ear-muffed, these photographs played upon the material alterity of detainees in ways that legitimated their apparent inherent culpability, as well as their existence somewhere outside of the boundaries of normative law and politics. This virtuoso act of simultaneous visual display and legal disappearance suggests that the detention camp photograph, and everything it carries with it, is a seemingly unexpressed element of law and law-making (like sound, touch, and fear or revulsion) that circulates most decidedly within and throughout the expressible range of law. Indeed, it can be thought of as girding the boundaries of law’s outermost shores. In Guantánamo, state visual practices and law worked in tandem to vindicate legal and extra- or semi-legal categories, and exclusion from and inclusion within the normative bounds of law, normalizing who can become a recognizable legal subject.
In Guantánamo, state visual practices and law worked in tandem to vindicate legal and extra- or semi-legal categories...normalizing who can become a recognizable legal subject.
Deepening the already intricate relationship between the visual and the legal—between what is shown and what is hidden or obscured, and between the logics of state violence and the limits of legal response—is the detainee himself. In the detention camp, as in other hierarchized and intensely regulated spaces and moments, visual practices also work to sustain and circulate meanings about racialized and othered bodies. While also racialized and gendered in specific ways, it is the particularly embodied and visceral shape that religion—namely, Islam—gives to detainee bodies that further delimits the reach and force of the violence that is enacted against them. These boundaries are embedded in pre-existing frameworks that mark and visualize the male Muslim body as one that contains a specific kind of threat, and as therefore necessitating the specific forms of violence and containment seen in the detention camp. Figuring in among these forms of violence are Guantánamo’s images—in other words, they are not just visual artifacts. Rather, these images are part and parcel of the rationales and processes of state violence enacted against and through detainees.
Despite these material and conceptual entanglements, moments of breakthrough do occur. They sometimes, either ironically or quite aptly, also occur in the visual register. Near the end of 2019, the New York Times published a series of drawings by a Guantánamo detainee known as Abu Zubaydah. These sketches depict the various forms of torture he says he endured at a CIA black site in Thailand, prior to his rendition to the camp. The drawings also serve as semi-legal documents, as they were offered as evidence of state violence in a Seton Hall report written by his legal team, entitled “How America Tortures.” Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a terrorism-related charge, and it does not appear as though there are any imminent plans to do so. American intelligence has concluded that he was never a member of Al-Qaeda and that he did not have advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, he is currently held at Camp 7, Guantánamo’s most intensely regulated prison.
Abu Zubaydah depicts himself suffering a range of violent tactics that have become normalized by the War on Terror, from waterboarding (he is the first person known to be water boarded by the CIA, and his lawyers claim that he has undergone it 83 times); to sustained shackling and stress positions; to a practice he calls “walling,” in which his head is repeatedly smashed against a wall while a towel is drawn tightly around his neck. These drawings, apart from being a stark reminder of what state-sanctioned violence in Guantánamo looks like, may also be understood as an exercise of counter-looking. In moments where the intertwining of visual practices and state authority are instrumental to subjecting human beings to violence—as was the case with the overseer and the colonized, the slaver and the enslaved, and the state and the extra- or semi-legal detainee—counter-looking disrupts and inverts both the gaze of the state and the role of the perpetrator of violence.
These drawings, apart from being a stark reminder of what state-sanctioned violence in Guantánamo looks like, may also be understood as an exercise of counter-looking.
In Abu Zubaydah’s drawings, the eye of the tortured is turned both to his tormenters and to his own violated body as such—not as terrorist, not as detainee, but as simply and terribly a human body in all its vulnerabilities. His sketches are desperate pleas that speak to the persistent and singular horror of torture, but they are also supplications borne out of a particular relation to the visual, where his pain seeks relief through the force of imagery and its circulatory effects. For Abu Zubaydah then, and potentially for us, his drawings are powerful emancipatory tools. And yet, if we are to come to terms with the role state visual practices have in not just circulating meanings about racialized, othered, and religiously embodied detainees, but also in directing and legitimating the forms of violence they are met with, then we must also ask ourselves if we are ever able to see him at all.