Between the Lines: July-August 2006

August 1, 2006

For better or for worse--largely for worse--the detainee camp at Guantánamo Bay has been a newsmaker. Over the last few months, European leaders sharpened their calls to shut down the detention center. Several prisoners committed suicide. And the Supreme Court ruled that detainees couldn't be subjected to military tribunals.

Given its resonance and relevance, we knew we had a worthy cover subject in the law school's Guantánamo Bay clinic. Then we learned of another Duke connection, Chris Sims '95. Sims, who provided some photographs for the story, works for the Center for Documentary Studies. As a student, he ventured into rural North Carolina to document Catholic seminarians ministering to a growing Latino presence.

Later, Sims worked as a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. "What I found interesting was that, even with the breadth of photographs in the archive, some images were never made, saved, or recovered." He was pained, he says, when visitors would ask about their grandparents' Eastern European shtetl, and no documentation was available--as if history, as well as the place itself, had evaporated.

In conceiving his own project, he decided to focus on images of war beyond the battlefield, such as military bases and military families. After two and a half years working to get permission, he visited Guantánamo Bay in January. There he was drawn to the lives of the American troops, portrayed through details like miniature golf, fast-food outlets, and a post office curiously equipped with aromatherapy candles. He shot some 1,200 digital images; military officials compelled him to erase four, presumably because they revealed something about security arrangements.

Sims says what struck him most was a strange incongruity--a place that at once felt very familiar, including the requisite Starbucks, and very otherworldly. It's the sort of incongruity that, documented through images, can give context and meaning to history.