The title of Edmund Clark’s recent exhibition at New York’s International Center for Photography, “The Day the Music Died,” refers to a line in one of the English photographer’s favorite songs, Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The meaning of that song changed forever for Clark when he learned that it was used—along with music by Meatloaf, Aerosmith, 2Pac, and many others—to psychologically torture prisoners at America’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Clark believes that the nearly two-decade-long “War on Terror” launched by President George W. Bush after 9/11 has subtly permeated our culture and everyday lives in similar ways. Working with investigative journalist Crofton Black, Clark has spent the past decade traveling to black sites, detention facilities, and naval bases around the world, seeking to capture the commonplace reality of horrific practices like torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention.
His goal is to de-sensationalize these locations—and, in doing so, make us realize the War on Terror is all around us. “It’s not something over there and exotic,” Clark says. “It’s small subcontractors in upstate New York or North Carolina. It’s mundane bureaucratic stuff like flight schedules, invoices, emails. The rendition flights are going through ordinary airports, the pilots are staying in ordinary hotels.”
There are no people in Clark’s photographs, just the evidence of human presence: cigarette butts; crumpled paper; an arrow on the concrete floor of a detention facility pointing to Mecca. When Clark traveled to the homes of released Guantanamo detainees, he photographed scenes of everyday life—messy kitchens, unmade beds, children’s toys. Counterintuitively, he believes this approach is more powerful than showing their faces.
“Because the image of Osama bin Laden remains so toxic, the human form fails to humanize them,” he explains. “It actually does the opposite, because it risks becoming a mirror for people’s preconceptions. It doesn’t matter if you say this person is innocent. If you show someone’s face from Guantanamo Bay, people say, ‘This is a terrorist.’ So by not showing anyone, but by showing spaces and objects, things that are de-exoticized, it’s a way of deconstructing that image.”
Clark has also photographed the houses of airplane pilots involved in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, many of whose names were made public as part of ongoing lawsuits in Europe. Because of privacy laws, Clark was forced to blur out the actual houses, which has the effect of making them seem even more menacing—a similar effect to the heavily redacted documents Clark included in the exhibition. “A lot of this work is about absence,” he says. “It’s about redaction, it’s about strike-outs. We make that process of redaction part of the narrative.”
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