Steve Mumford and Lawrence Douglas at Postmasters Gallery in New York City
Join us Saturday, October 26, at 6:30 p.m.
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Join us Saturday, October 26, at 6:30 p.m.
On Saturday, October 26, at 6.30 p.m., Harper’s Magazine and Postmasters Gallery will present a conversation with contributing artist Steve Mumford, writer Lawrence Douglas, and Harper’s art director Stacey Clarkson.
Known for his drawings from the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, Steve Mumford made two trips to Guantanamo in February and May 2013 for Harper’s. A portfolio of his drawings accompany Lawrence Douglas’ October cover story “A Kangaroo in Obama’s Court.”
I traveled to Guantanamo Naval Base for the first time last winter, to illustrate a story for Harper’s Magazine on the military trial of Abd al-Nashiri, accused of leading the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and tortured many times while in U.S. custody.
Nashiri, quiet and wearing an unassuming grey shirt, was hardly noticeable as I drew the scene through the multiple sealed panes of security glass in the media area at the far rear of the large, bland courtroom. More striking were the overhead TV screens and audio of the same scene, on a forty-second delay, a disorienting counterpart to the live scene in front of us and a perfect embodiment of the secrecy and paranoia embedded in Gitmo’s culture.
The hearings lasted a day and a half before getting sidelined by delays; with several days left, I poked around the sprawling U.S.-administered piece of Cuba with my escort from the Public Affairs Office, looking for compelling things to draw.
I found my subject in Camp X-Ray, a hauntingly beautiful ruin of a simple prison camp, hastily erected on a scrubby, deserted, windswept plain overlooked by a ridge of distant hills. I could see the guard towers of the Cuban border following that ridge, looking down at us.
X-Ray consists of nothing more than chain-link fencing, razor wire, and a few plywood huts and guard towers. Abandoned for a decade, nature has taken over: the fencing and razor wire i covered in vines, many of which were in flower on my second visit. Wild grass has spread throughout the grounds, and huge iguanas and banana rats have made X-Ray their home. At one edge of the camp sit the forlorn wooden huts, slowly settling into the earth. Their plywood floors are strewn with droppings, and vines are crowding in. This is where the CIA applied its “enhanced interrogation” techniques to the newly arrived prisoners from Afghanistan. The wind constantly whistles through these sun-soaked, haunted spaces.
The prisons where the last 166 detainees are being held are small, high-security fortresses, their design and detail impregnable and generic. It was in one of these where a sergeant of the military-police unit in charge of the prison incredulously informed me that there was no way I would be able to see, let alone draw, any of the detainees, even though this had been the stated purpose of the trip, and had been agreed to by the Public Affairs Unit.
For two days I drew the interior of the facility, as well as the MPs assigned to me while they lounged on bolted-down prison chairs and chatted. Then word would be passed down that a detainee was being moved from somewhere to somewhere else, and I would be hastily escorted to another part of the prison to draw until the danger of us seeing one another was over.
I drew everything associated with the prisoners but the prisoners themselves. I even drew a dim hallway echoing with the strains of an early morning call to prayer, as the prisoners crouched in their cells a few feet away, behind thick steel doors.
I only once caught a glimpse of some detainees, when a cord snapped, the wind blew some fabric away from a fence, and I saw — momentarily, magically — a few distant figures, lean in white T-shirts, playing soccer. Then they were gone.
The subject of my Gitmo drawings is the very thing never pictured. And then the subject becomes the reason why they aren’t there.
I am reminded of a passage from Peter Matthiessen’s classic travel memoir about expectation, ambition, and self. Matthiessen desperately wants to see the animal he’s journeyed so far to write about but is destined to never see. Before he leaves, his Zen teacher tells him: Expect nothing.
It doesn’t exactly work, and yet it does.
More from Harper’s Magazine:
Official Business — March 17, 2015, 4:01 am
Listen to the broadcast version of “American Hustle,” Alexandra Starr’s story, for the April 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, about how elite youth basketball exploits African athletes.
Official Business — January 8, 2015, 3:57 pm
We defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its cartoons—and our right to critique them.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”