by Zac Johnson ’22

On Valentine’s Day, the human rights certificate students were greeted at the American Tobacco Campus by Caitlin Margaret Kelly, Director of the Power Plant Gallery. Until February 27, the Power Plant Gallery is hosting the Witness to Guantanamo Exhibit, featuring the work of Christopher Sims and documenting the gross human rights abuses that have taken place through detainments and interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. The exhibit consists of a variety of mediums, such as photographs, biographies, collections of voices, full-length interviews, drawings and paintings, and scanned documents.  

Photo by Christopher Sims

Guantanamo Bay has been in US hands for over a century. Beginning as an overseas naval base in Cuba in 1903, the 45 square mile plot of land has now contained a detention center for alleged unlawful combatants captured in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places during the War on Terror since 2002. Many cases of torture and wrongful detainments have been documented at Guantanamo. Christopher Sims began his work documenting life at Guantanamo after President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay’s detention camp for good, a claim that has never actualized over a decade later.  

Before we began to take in the exhibit, Caitlin asked us to consider three things as we explored: something we see, something we hear, and something we notice.  

Something I saw. A main feature of the exhibit was the American attempts to disseminate anti-Al-Qaeda, pro-American propaganda throughout the Middle East. In the years following the attacks of 9/11, The United States set off bombs filled with countless flyers intended to convince Afghani people that combatting the US was a misinformed idea and offering up bounties to anyone who could turn in suspected affiliates of Al-Qaeda to the CIA. They were written in Arabic, their design comically poor, but their support of the War on Terror was clear.  

Something I heard. Throughout each of the interviews, both pain and perseverance were noticeable in the voices of detainees. They spoke about hunger strikes, learning to build relationships with others, and losing hours of sleep every night. They spoke about being physically weak, but never losing hope for the future, even if they believed the US would never hand it to them. Their voices switched back and forth across languages as they sought the right words to explain the torturous circumstances that surrounded them at Guantanamo. 

Something I noticed. Guards were coerced too. It’s easy to pretend that the world is full of good and bad and easy to assume we’re all afforded the same choices. Quotes from the guards and translators quickly proved that to be false. Many people, including detainees, began their engagement with Guantanamo believing the US government was pursuing righteous goals. Uyghurs detained at Guantanamo were hopeful that the US government would treat them better than the Chinese government. Guards and translators believed the detention center was brimming with dangerous terrorists. Each featured person who bought into the US propaganda at the beginning quickly realized that Guantanamo was not the place it proclaimed to be – detainees were human, just like the rest of us, and the government had no interest in protecting their rights or securing justice.  

At the end of our tour of the exhibit, we spoke with Caitlin about what makes a successful exhibit. How effectively does the exhibit convey its message? How do we guide the audience without instructing them? We concluded it was up to the curator to determine who their audience was and how to communicate with them, agreeing that sometimes a curator has no intention of bridging profound ideological differences. Witness to Guantanamo, though, intends to challenge a broad audience to think critically and build thematic connections between human rights abuses, Guantanamo Bay, and the US government.  

The Witness to Guantanamo exhibit will be featured at the Power Plant Gallery until February 27.