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Eugene Richards

On assignment documenting Guantánamo Bay for this week’s issue of TIME, photographer Eugene Richards spent several days at the infamous detention facility. Here, Richards writes for LightBox about how he approached the assignment and the distinct challenges he faced working under the tight restrictions imposed on the media by the U.S. military. 

When TIME asked me to go to Guantánamo, I immediately thought back to 9/11 — to the smoke and ruin of that fatal day, to Bush’s declaration of the war on terror, then to the first images from the prison: of men in orange jumpsuits shackled, blindfolded, handcuffed, sensory-deprived. These men, often viewed in silhouette and on their knees in prayer, were often picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan by military units, although some were captured after bounties of as much as $5000 per head were paid. My first thoughts were to 9/11, of interrogations, secrecy, torture and military might.

And then there was the series of military-issued disclaimers I would have to agree to. I wouldn’t be permitted to photograph, or even see, the detainees. I couldn’t show the guards’ faces, and I would only be able to photograph the pre-ordained locations within the camp. And finally, I had to agree to having my work edited — to turn over my cards so that images could be deleted or cropped as per the opinion of the public information staff accompanying me the entire assignment. ‘Can you make pictures out of nothing?’ I asked myself, then prepared for the trip.

It took two plane flights to get down to Guantánamo and a ferry ride across to the prison camp proper. I made photographs on the boat, but because they were of soldiers, they would become the first pictures deleted by the military. Once off the ferry, Guantánamo became small town America, replete with miles of brand-new looking green-lawned suburban houses. There was a McDonald’s along the road, a Subway sandwich shop, bar-and-grills and a dry landscape of thorny bushes and cactus. Iguanas, looking absurdly out of place, lay often in pairs at the edges of roadways running to and from the prison, munching on the low vegetation. Because they are a protected species, all traffic would come to a stop as they took their time swish-swashing from place to place.

I was put up in a condo of sorts, then had dinner with my minder, Sgt. Brian Godette. The next morning, he asked me what I wanted to see. My assignment from TIME was just to see what I could see, so Brian, out of sympathy, brought me out to the one place that I could visit at will: the now infamous Camp X-Ray.

This is the place, he explained, where the first detainees were brought in 2002 — close to 300 of them, he said. So I followed this young, affable soldier through the gate and up a dirt road, to aisles upon aisles of what could only be regarded as animal cages — six-foot-by-eight-foot concrete-floored cells enclosed on all sides and on top with chain link. They were all glaring light and shadows at this time of the morning, offering no protection from the sun so broiling hot, even though this was only springtime. Vines wound up through the see-through ceilings, grass cracked the concrete and the wind was blowing. Plump hutias, also known as banana rats, nested along the metal supports. Still, it wasn’t hard to imagine the place at night, when the air would be filled with mosquitoes, when the rain would blow in unobstructed. I was also shown the summer-camp-cabin looking interrogation building where, according to some reports, torture took place. Camp X-Ray, Brian went on to tell me, was closed later that year, the detainees transferred to other areas in the military prison.

The first “editing session” happened later that day, when the previous day’s images from the ferry were deleted by Brian. What I remember next was the 4 a.m. wake-up.

Along with a two-man TV crew, I was led in the near dark through four or five electronic doors onto the hallway of Camp V for pre-dawn prayers. No prisoners could be seen. No faces, no hands. All there was to see were the openings in steel doors as the guards wearing protective face shields (since detainees, we were told, spit and throw waste at them) walked up and down the block. As if in cadence, they stopped occasionally at individual cells to peer in, to whisper, to hand over medicines to inmates said to be fasting. After twenty minutes, the prayers finally seemed to drift away and the food carts were ushered in, then ushered out. Because there were few, if any, takers, we were led out of the prison.

At one point earlier in the day, the faces of detainees did appear in the elongated windows above an entryway. Dark-skinned, long-bearded men looked down at us. A TV cameraman pointed his camera in that direction, only to be cautioned that his footage would later be erased.

I returned at 5 a.m. the following morning and was ushered through the gates onto a different cell block, all too aware that some of the photographs I’d taken the previous morning had been deleted. I also wanted to hear the prayers again.

And so I went on what could only be called a media tour. The most surreal moment came during our exposure to the force-feeding apparatus. After all, that’s why the media was here — the hunger strike that had been going on since February loomed large in the debate about the camp. Surrounded by three or four media personnel and an equal number of medical personnel, we were ushered past the crash beds in the detainee hospital into a large, empty room. Dead center, beneath a single fluorescent panel, was the restraining chair. A display of the force-feeding apparatus included a bottle of the liquid nutrient Ensure and two sizes of tubing that could be put up the noses of detainees who refused to eat. As the TV camera rolled, medical personnel explained, without a hint of doubt, that the force-feeding process is not at all unpleasant (olive oil, you see, is employed as a lubricant as the tube is snaked up through the detainee’s nose and down his throat) and that, despite what others in the medical field might say, the long-term consumption of Ensure does no lasting damage.

And just like that, when I was feeling that my week was just beginning, it was over. I was upset that it was over. Before boarding the flight back to the U.S., there was one more pre-planned stop on the tour: the visit to a Gitmo gift shop, for t-shirts and figurines of Fidel Castro. But then even after the lift-off, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling — and still can’t get rid of it now — that even though I put some time in, and that I now have some pictures that say I’ve been to Gitmo, the truth is that I have never really been there.

Eugene Richards is an award-winning American photographer.

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coondoggie writes "From deep in the Department of Creepy today I give this item: The FBI this week put out a call for new research 'to advance the science and practice of intelligence interviewing and interrogation.' The part of the FBI that is requesting the new research isn't out in the public light very often: the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which according to the FBI was chartered in 2009 by the National Security Council and includes members of the CIA and Department of Defense, to 'deploy the nation's best available interrogation resources against detainees identified as having information regarding terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.'"


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KONY 2012 from INVISIBLE CHILDREN on Vimeo.

“The next 27 minutes are an experiment,” says the faceless narrator. “But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.”

That’s the arresting introduction of Kony 2012, a viral documentary dedicated to stopping the war criminal Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony is infamous for kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers, among other atrocities.

But he’s not famous. That’s what the documentary, and the ambitious viral campaign it spearheads, is trying to change. It’s already attracted both a massive online audience — and a backlash.

The visually sophisticated documentary tells the story of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutal history in Uganda — it doesn’t say much about Kony’s flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic — mostly through the eyes of Jacob, a child refugee whose brother was killed by the militia. At one point, the boy says he would prefer to die rather than to live in the world Kony has made. It hits like an emotional sledgehammer.

And that lays the foundation for the campaign the movie essentially advertises. The nonprofit group behind it, Invisible Children, supports President Obama’s recent deployment of 100 military advisers to Uganda to help its army hunt Kony, a decision that required years of grassroots demands from humanitarian activists. In order to make sure the pressure keeps up, and Kony is ultimately arrested — this year — Invisible Children wants to plaster the cities of the world with red, visually striking KONY 2012 posters, stickers and t-shirts.

The video is essentially a plea to take the campaign viral in time for a planned action on April 20, in which Invisible Children hopes to mass-advertise KONY 2012 that night, globally, so the world will “wake up to hundreds of thousands of posters.” Action kits containing stickers, posters, bracelets, information and t-shirts are going for a $30 donation on the group’s website. And the filmmakers want to enlist celebrities, athletes and politicians for the campaign, everyone from Sen. John Kerry to Bono to Mark Zuckerberg.

Beyond the specifics of the action, the “experiment” the movie refers to is basically a test of global internet culture. It’s an experiment in marshaling connectedness to stop atrocities. And that’s what’s earned KONY 2012 its fair share of critics.

There’s no doubt the campaign has made an impact. In just two days, a documentary that’s too long to be viewed casually has racked up over 4 million YouTube views and counting. The hashtag #stopkony is trending in the U.S. in a major way, and there’s also #kony2012. The movie has co-signs ranging from Human Rights Watch to the rapper Waka Flocka Flame. “Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules,” the documentary promises, “that the technology that brings our planet together is allowing us to respond to the problems of our friends.”

Not everyone thinks that’s an unambiguously good thing.

While calling KONY 2012 “one of the most pervasive and successful human rights based viral campaigns in recent memory,” the conflict blogger Mark Kersten argues the documentary is “obfuscating, simplified and wildly erroneous.” Kersten takes it to task for ignoring the complexities of the U.S. military deployment, such as the demonstrated failures of earlier missions aimed at stopping Kony, and for neglecting to interview northern Ugandans who want peace at the cost of living with a free Kony.

“‘Kony 2012,’ quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda,” Kersten writes, “precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves.” Other online critics have made similar points; one effectively accuses Invisible Children of lining its own pockets with donations.

It’s way too early to know if the criticism will resonate, or if Invisible Children will respond. For now, the movement is unapologetically grandiose in its aspirations. “If we succeed,” the documentary states, “we change the course of human history.” The first step is ricocheting around the Internet. The second will be whether the world awakes on April 21 to unignorable KONY 2012 posters, banners, stickers and street art. The final step — stopping one of the world’s most infamous war criminals — is far less certain.

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Earlier this month, as U.S. and NATO forces lay the groundwork for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, a serious misstep threatened to disrupt their plans. On February 21, reports surfaced that NATO personnel at Bagram Air Base had burned a number of Korans, which were discovered and saved by locals working at the base. Despite an apology from the Obama administration, and claims by NATO authorities that the burnings had happened inadvertently, violent anti-American demonstrations erupted in several places. Dozens were killed, including four American troops. Two of the Americans were allegedly killed by an Afghan colleague, another in an increasing number of insider attacks. According to the Pentagon, around 70 NATO members have been killed in 42 insider attacks from May 2007 through January 2012. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [40 photos]

A CH-47 Chinook helicopter scatters snow as it lands at a remote landing zone in Shah Joy district, Zabul province, Afghanistan, on February 8, 2012. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jon Rasmussen)

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Ten Years. Troops from the United States and other coalition forces have now been in Afghanistan for a decade, following the initial bombing raids carried out by the U.S. on October 7, 2001. My father served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and I remember a conversation I had with him shortly after the attacks of September 11, where he said to me, "Son, I really hoped your generation wouldn't have to go through something like this." There are teenagers now who were just toddlers when their parents first deployed to Afghanistan. As a photo editor, I've been curating an entry about Afghanistan once a month for the past two years, and plan to continue to do so. The U.S. and some 35 other coalition nations currently have more than 130,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, and it's important for us to see what they are dealing with, what we've asked them to do for so long -- and to see those who are so directly affected by this long conflict, the Afghan people themselves. Although the U.S. has been involved for a decade, the people of Afghanistan have known nothing but war for more than 30 years now. Gathered here are images from there over the past month, part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [41 photos]

Shahmal (right), 8, and Rahmatullah, 7, who lost their father after U.S. a night raid, pose for a portrait in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on August 20, 2011. The boys' older brother, Abdullah, dreamed of being an interpreter and got good grades until U.S. soldiers arrived at night and shot his father and elder brother. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood)

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Last week, after a decade of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, President Obama announced a plan to begin withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from the country this year. The war has been expensive -- a Brown University research project released Wednesday estimates the total cost of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at nearly $4 trillion (a figure that includes the ongoing cost of veterans' care). The human cost is more difficult to quantify, as more than 2,500 coalition troops (1,644 of them American) have now been killed, and civilian casualties are estimated at well over 100,000. Canadian combat operations in Afghanistan will end in July, as troops withdraw from the southern region and hand control over to U.S. forces. Just yesterday, a group of nine Taliban suicide attackers stormed a major hotel in Kabul that was popular with foreigners, killing 21 and raising fears of what may come as foreign troops depart the country. Gathered here are images from the ongoing conflict over the past month, part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [41 photos]

Foreign soldiers leave the Intercontinental Hotel at the end of a military operation against Taliban militants who had stormed the hotel in Kabul, on June 29, 2011. Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul sparking a five-hour battle with Afghan commandos backed by a NATO helicopter gunship in an assault that left at least 10 people dead. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

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