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The long read: Edmund Clark and Crofton Black on the War on Terror

Main image: Interrogation Room corridor © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Flowers Gallery. All images © Edmund Clark, courtesy Imperial War Museum

Negative Publicity unearths the hidden elements of the War on Terror - kept secret from the general public, yet enacted in our name

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition combines two kind of image: photographs and documents. The photographs depict mostly unassuming locations: office buildings, airports, a hotel room. The reader learns that these are the sites at which the cogs of extraordinary rendition—roughly, the practice of abducting people and sending them to be interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, or all three—once turned.

Nearly all the photographs were taken by Edmund Clark, a photographer well known for capturing elements of the so-called “War on Terror”, having photographed the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and a UK house in which a man was held under the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, among other subjects.

The documents accompanying the photographs were collected by Crofton Black, an investigator for the human rights NGO Reprieve. Like the photographs, most of these also appear unassuming; there are flight invoices, court transcripts, floor plans. But these too are artefacts of extraordinary rendition, recording its bureaucratic traces. The invoices and court transcripts concern payments for transporting abductees; the floor plans are for CIA “black sites”.

Punctuating the work are short essays written by Black about the places and people invoked in the images. These, along with endnotes, help explain their significance.

I began the interview by noting that the book’s exquisitely clever title, Negative Publicity contains at least three layers of meaning: the negatives of photos, the negativity of absence (whether of abductees or information), and an allusion to the “negative publicity” motivating a law suit the book documents between two aviation companies implicated in extraordinary renditions. I asked the authors whether there were more.

Abu Salim prison, Libya © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Abu Salim prison, Libya © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Crofton Black: I’m always wondering about this! Certainly I’m very happy with the three that you’ve proposed. Ed, do you see any further ones?

Edmund Clark: I’d certainly not thought of the negativity of photography; that’s a new one on me. There’s two other ideas, which I play around with (I’m not sure if Crofton adheres to them). One is that the book itself is essentially negative publicity. We are making public material which is about extraordinary rendition, so that itself is an act of creating negative publicity about what happened. And I guess the other way is that a lot of the book is about secrecy and redaction and masking, which is itself in a way the opposite of making things public, so is another sense negative publicity.

Nils Stear: Sticking with secrecy and redaction, an impression I had from looking at the photographs is that many of those depicting buildings are such that the buildings seem to be deliberately obscured by trees and foliage. The book starts with the shot of a forest which evokes lines of shredded paper; the thin dark trunks also reminded me of the dark lines with which so many of the documents you include are redacted. Is this a coincidence or is there something to my impression?

EC: I think partly it is, though I think there is something behind it. The first site I went to was in Lithuania and that is in a forest; the site appears through the trees. Partly, there are trees everywhere. The more I photographed, the more I realised there was this relationship between the man-made and the natural or artificial versions of natural things which were appearing in the photographs. So yes, I think that probably did lead in the end partly to the decision to open with that image of the forest itself. I think there’s something quite interesting in the movement of trees and how that creates a blurring and a suggestion of some sort of masking as well.

The other two images that are particularly marked are the swimming pool from the hotel in Spain. It has a glass extension off the side of the building and the trees, the bushes, the vegetation grows right up to and around this enclosed glass space. It wasn’t an explicit thing I set out to do but it did develop as a theme really as I was editing the photographs.

The photograph in question depicts a small indoor pool used by agents carrying out renditions and the flight crew. It strikes an interesting reversal: this time we, the viewers, are inside the space of renditions, ensconced rather than obscured by plants.

NHS: What was the process like of putting the book together—what was the division of labour?

EC: The starting point was the documents themselves. A conversation between Crofton and myself about what material he had and him sharing that with me and the two of us doing a curation, really, of deciding what were the most important and most interesting documents to include from an evidential point of view, but also what worked visually—what were the most visually impactful and interesting documents to use. I think that started to develop a visual language which was about redaction—quite a lot of the images were the redacted ones which were visually the strongest.

I originally didn’t want to take photographs; I wanted to use [existing] photography and other forms of imagery. Eventually we decided that there was a formal need for a photographic strand, which served as a counterpoint but also a complement to the documentation. And then the photography took on a separate role of its own in terms of going to all these different places and recreating part of the network which the book explores.

CB: Ben Weaver [the book’s designer] was very involved as well. He, Ed, and I had many meetings over about three years.

EC: It was very much a three way conversation between us in terms of content, kind of imagery, and how the documentation and the photographs worked together, but then also in terms of text.

CB: I had some text written already from a couple of years ago that I wanted to put into it. The selection of the material was one thing but actually, most of the meetings and discussions we had were actually about the ordering of the material and what was going to go next to what. That was what really took the time, not so much the initial selecting of the stuff.

NHS: One notable pattern to the structure of the book is that the photos of the interiors of the rendition victims’ homes come after the annotations for the photos and documents, which seems very deliberate. Why did you lay things out in that way?

EC: That developed as we went through a succession of edits and layouts of the book. We initially wanted to make those images stand apart because the subject itself is different to all the other imagery in the book. These are images from within the homes of people who were subject to extraordinary rendition, whereas the rest of them are about the process.

Also, they’re quite different in terms of feel and subject matter. For a while, we were playing with the idea of having them printed as a different size of image. In the end, as we started to develop the structure, there seemed a point where it seemed the obvious thing to do was to put them at the end of sections because it was a way of making them stand apart. But it was also a way of showing more clearly the end of each section of the book—so it had a formal purpose to it.

NHS: The other thing about how the book is structured, of course, is that the annotations all come in a block after the images. This leaves the images and documents unadorned, which induced in me the sensation almost as though looking through a detective file.

CB: We did want it, as a book, to resemble an evidence dossier. I think it was more effective to have that stuff in a fairly raw state. People look at stuff and they don’t necessarily understand what it is, which is the same as the action of investigating it in the first place, where you get bits of information and you don’t understand what they are; you don’t understand how they fit in until later. There’s a sort of hermeneutic circle, as there is in everything, but particularly so in this kind of work.

And so it made sense to me to separate them; there are different paths through the book. There are those kinds of cross-references which show you that different connections between the material, the images and documents, which offer different routes through it that mean different things, and that show up or emphasize different aspects of the overall story. I think it was easier to allow that to speak by decluttering the space where the actual images were.

EC: I would agree with that. A hermeneutic circle, I like the idea of that. Coming across that information in a block is a way of not condensing the experience of taking information on board for the viewer. But it hangs together better, the viewer gets a better sense of this material by seeing the visual aspect and then getting the information.

Also, going back to the formal—we tried a number of different things. I did even discuss once with Ben [Weaver] about having the text in a separate publication, which came as part of the book. What we ended up with worked for the reasons which Crofton gave, as well as having this formal design significance as well. The hermeneutic circle is entirely relevant—in relation to why we did that it makes perfect sense.

NHS: When you talk about the hermeneutic circle, do you mean the idea invoked by some philosophers that you have a set of information, you see one piece, this sets a kind of context, and as you go through the set, this causes you to reinterpret the things you’ve already seen?

CB: Yeah, I just mean it quite loosely in the sense that how you interpret one piece of information is dependent on the context for that piece of information, but on the other hand you can’t have the context until you’ve interpreted a bunch of different bits of information that constitutes it, which is why it’s a circle. I don’t intend to use it as a term of art in the way, say, Heidegger might have used it—it’s quite a loose guide, if you like.

Crofton Black is a philosopher by training, having completed a PhD in the history of mediaeval philosophy at the University of London. One of the big themes of the book is negativity, an issue mediaeval scholastic philosophers, picking up from the ancient Greeks, were deeply interested in—particularly questions about how something (such as the universe) can come from nothing. I asked him whether these questions informed his work on the book.

CB: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that—maybe they did, I don’t know. Definitely my interest in interpretation, obscure texts, deciphering manuscripts, and so forth, very much led to the work I was doing on this. I hadn’t really thought of the connotations of negative theology or something like that. Normally when people ask me about the influence of studying mediaeval philosophy on this work, I say that it revolves around Maimonides [a 12th Century philosopher] and his concepts of cognition. He portrays cognition as a series of flashes of lightning, which I do think is important.

NHS: Is the idea there that you’re just getting glimmers of information from which you’re able to piece together a larger impression?

CB: Right. Philosophically speaking, Maimonides is talking about the process of prophecy and the way that humans cognize by connecting to the “intellect”; they connect very briefly in a series of flashes—there’s no permanent connection—which means that sometimes you think that you perceive an entire truth but actually what you perceive is a discrete series of partial truths, which is for me quite resonant with the stuff we’ve done on rendition and detention. I do think there’s a strong comparison in terms of those theories of cognition, rather than the something-out-of-nothing negativity ideas.

The former CIA blacksite with which the book opens lies in the Lithuanian village of Antivillai, 10 miles Northeast of the capital, Vilnius. Virtually equidistant on the other side of the capital is Paneriai, the site of a years-long massacre the Nazis perpetrated. Without wishing to overdraw the similarities, I put it to Edmund that the photos reminded me of some of the more contemporary photography of concentration camps—not just in the way that buildings are spied through trees, but in the sense one has of looking at something as banal as a shed or hangar, in which one knows something appalling has happened. He was quick to play down the similarities.

EC: This is not aftermath photography. There are elements of this which I suppose are partly aftermath photography. Even the sites which have been closed down now—there has been no accountability for it. This is still very much a live thing whose implications are still very much contemporary and current.

NHS: My thought is just that the plain buildings you depict are in a sense just buildings. Yet, something very important happened there.

EC: I was talking to someone the other day about a lot of work around this and they said “Bad things happen in mundane places. So what?”.

NHS: But I wonder if for people like you, Edmund, that’s something that becomes apparent from experience. But for the average person there’s a kind of expectation that where bad things happen, that place will have an aura or something. And then what’s so interesting to find is that the place doesn’t have an aura at all—it’s just a place.

EC: Well, what I’d say to that first is that most people don’t think about where bad things happen at all. They certainly don’t think they’re happening in mundane places that could be at the end of their road and have that change their relationship to those processes and those events. I suppose there is—I’m slightly reluctant to go into it—a personal element to this about the process of going to these places and actually feeling there is a point; someone did actually have to go and photograph these things. Because, it’s a way of reconstructing part of the network but it’s also the point of actually making the effort to go and photograph it, this did start to take on a relevance for me.

NHS: One of the striking things about the photos is the lack of people in them.

EC: If you look at my work over the last ten years, you will see that there are very few people in my pictures, whether it be from Guantanamo or Control Order House or from Afghanistan. In relation to the work on rendition, I’m not sure who I would be photographing. The point about this work is that it’s the process of rendition and its place embedded in plain sight in our cities and our societies; it’s not actually about individuals and their experiences. I didn’t see a place for photographing them and I don’t think there’s a place for photographing other people. I guess it goes back to this idea of who to represent.

When I did the work at Guantanamo, I could have used some of the images of the men who have been held there and had then been released. The majority of them didn’t want to be photographed. Some of them were prepared to be, but I’m not sure what use the representation of their human form would have because in most cases, pictures of Arab or South Asian men with beards is so toxic. People look at them and see for them the representation of someone who either they think is a terrorist or is connected to terrorism. I think not using those forms of representation is a way of taking that barrier out of the way in which the work may communicate or engage people. Looking at the objects, the space around these people and the objects and spaces connected to the people who have been managing, running, facilitating the process of rendition is a way of focussing on the everyday and the ordinary.

It’s a way of taking the exotic out of the visual representation of this subject. It’s a way of bringing it closer to every possible viewer’s everyday experience of spaces, places that they inhabit, frequent, objects that they use. But it’s also showing that our spaces were used for this process. This happened in our cities, quiet suburbs, and quiet villages. It’s not an exotic thing; it’s happening in everyday spaces run by people who are just going about their business. And in a sense that also means that these kinds of spaces are to a certain extent contaminated by this.

NHS: There seems to be a real need to re-represent and to show the ordinariness of the renditions programme—both of its people and its places. That said, I wonder if showing the banality of some of the things implicated in the “War on Terror” might have the unintended effect of making what is extraordinary—namely, rendition, torture, and so forth—seem totally ordinary.

EC: How do you visualize the extraordinary process of torture? And would you want to visualize it? Would that be a way for connecting an audience with the subject? In the book we have drawings by a Libyan man of confinement boxes and a waterboard that he encountered in a CIA run facility in Afghanistan, as a way of showing more than just the everyday.

I asked Edmund Clark what photographic equipment he used and what challenges the photographic medium posed for the project.

EC: I used variously a Wista 5×4 Technical Camera, a big digital Hasselblaid, and at one point I had to use a 35mm digital camera because my 5×4 camera was damaged in Libya. As for challenges, as I mentioned, photography was not something I initially planned to do. I wanted to use imagery created by satellites, other people. I even looked at trying to make cameraless imagery from photograms from computer screens which showed sites.

I was trying to experiment with different techniques—to create new techniques for coming up with new sorts of imagery to deal with the subject. But these images were quite inexact. Once I’d been somewhere, once I’d been to Lithuania and photographed around that site, the photography did have a power and a presence which worked well in relation to the documentation, so that there started to be this point of having photographs there.

After that it became almost a form of going around to recreate part of this network. I think there is a relationship between what you can’t see in the photographs and how the redaction works in the documentation. This idea of the strike-out in the documents, masking off what really you can see with photography. There is almost no point to the photographs because you can’t really see anything—but that does, in a sense, become the point.

You look at them and you don’t see very much. But you look into them—you look into how they relate to the documents, the network they’re reconstructing, the ordinary suburbs and places that they show, and these facades of buildings in Washington, and these small upstate airfields, and that gives you a sense of something much bigger. So I suppose the banality of the photography is part of its point.

The book doesn’t contain just photography, but documents: court transcripts, declassified but redacted US government memoranda, drawings and diagrams from those related to the renditions programme. Many of these have been struck out, in part or in whole, by thick black lines of official redaction. They are visually powerful.

Crofton Black put his finger on why during a Q&A in Mannheim, Germany: “You can speculate about a number of things that might be underneath [a black line], but the one thing you cannot say is that there is nothing underneath it”. I asked them both whether any of the documents surprised them, either in how they were discovered or with respect to their contents.

CB: There were quite a lot that turned up in surprising circumstances, actually. The discovery that I had with a colleague with whom I was working at Reprieve at the time of the Richmor and Sportsflight [two companies that managed rendition flights] court case was quite surprising because we never expected to find such an enormous cache of invaluable documentation hiding in plain sight. And the contents when we started to explore and analyse it were obviously incredibly important—they were the heart of the investigation.

The whole thing was a chain of serendipitous events. It took a very long time, so you can find an amazing trove of documentary material, but in some cases I was searching for that for three years or something. There were obviously points in that three years when I imagined it wasn’t going to show up.

EC: One document which surprised me is the contents page of the internal CIA report from 2004 into the interrogation activities which was redacted to be released. The contents page still includes things like mock executions and you think ‘blimey, well what on earth is underneath the stuff which was redacted?’. But also if you’re going to release something to the public, it’s extraordinary that you would keep that sort of information there—mock executions, using power drills, etc.

I closed by asking them both what hopes they have for the book. There was a thoughtful pause.

CB: Ed?

EC: Crofton?

CB: Honestly, my hope for it is rather… I have quite a narrow hope for it, which is that it will sell out and that we’ll be able to do a reprint that is small and affordable.

EC: I think that would be a good thing to do. All one can hope for with any book or body of work is that the way we’ve done it and the material in it proves different enough, interesting enough to stop people, make them engage with it, think about it, and hopefully reconfigure, or develop how they think about the subject.

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black is was co-published by Aperture and Magnum Foundation. The first edition is now sold out.