Guantánamo images failed to give full picture, says photographer

America Letter : ‘Mistake was not releasing photos of prisoners but in not releasing further images’

It came down to a flip of a coin, and Shane McCoy won. On January 11th, 2002, McCoy was a 27-year-old photographer with the United States navy stationed at Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba when the first 20 detainees were brought there from Afghanistan.

There were two photographers and two videographers, one each from the navy and the marines. The coin toss picked him to be the photographer at Camp X-Ray, the chain-link- fenced detention camp set up to house Taliban, al-Qaeda fighters and others detained by the US.

McCoy was the only photographer allowed into the camp that day. Just five photographs of many he shot were released but those images – of shackled prisoners clad in orange jumpsuits and wearing blackout goggles and mittens – have become some of the most iconic of this century and the most damaging of the US’s wars.

“It is better to be known for something than not to be known at all,” he said of his connection with the images.


They have been used by the country's enemies as a powerful propaganda weapon against the US, much like the camp itself which, as President Obama said in 2009, is "a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause".

Political sensitivity The political sensitivity of Guantánamo was seen this week when, just hours after the midterm elections, the US government sent a Kuwaiti prisoner home from Guantánamo

. Those elections put the Senate in the hands of Republicans, who have vowed to stop the Obama administration from closing the controversial prison.

The release of one of the longest-held prisoners will reignite "Gitmo" as a fiery political issue in Washington, one of the many battles to be fought between Obama and the new, Republican-controlled Congress.

The impact of the images in McCoy's almost 13-year-old photographs continue to be felt. Islamic State (IS), the radical Muslim group in control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, has dressed American and British hostages in similar orange jumpsuits for video-recorded beheadings to send a terrifying and defiant message.

“That stuff doesn’t make me feel great,” said McCoy of IS drawing inspiration from the scenes he captured.

Now living near Washington DC, McCoy says he didn’t even realise the significance of the photographs he was taking that January day. He wasn’t even looking through the viewfinder for some of them. He set his camera on a monopod and timer and lifted it over the wire, thinking he might get a more interesting shot.

"It was unexpected," he said of the reaction to the photographs that circulated around the globe. He receives many regular Google Alert emails when his name appears in a caption below one of his photographs when they are posted online again and again.

“All the Islamic websites tend to give me credit, which is why they come back as Google hits on my name,” he said.

Demonstrators in jumpsuits The images inspire demonstrators to wear orange jumpsuits in protests against the

US mistreatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, dozens of whom have not been charged despite being incarcerated on the base for more than a decade.

“I can’t say that I am proud of the way they get used, because it is usually talking about the mistreatment of people and from what I saw I didn’t ever observe mistreatment of detainees,” he said.

They wore the goggles, shackles and mittens for about an hour after they arrived at the camp, he said. Afterwards they were put in cells where they could walk about. He took photos there too but they were never released. They had mittens, he was told, because it was cold on the flight and the sensory goggles so they could not communicate or cause problems for the guards as a group.

“They were taken out of those pretty much immediately,” he said.

The Pentagon chose not to release any more of his photographs after the first five made newspaper front pages around the world.

During his three-month stint at Guantánamo he met George W Bush's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

“I said: ‘I am sorry that my photos caused such a problem for the government,’ and he said: ‘It wasn’t your fault – you were doing exactly what you were supposed to do. Keep up the good work,’” said McCoy.

Despite the harm done to the US and the propaganda value of the images, McCoy doesn’t believe it was wrong of the Pentagon to release them; it was “a mistake” not to continue releasing the rest of the photos he took, he says.

“People being in prison is never positive but if we showed that they were being well cared for then it would have diminished the power that those photos had,” he said.

McCoy, now 40, left the navy in 2009 and works for the US marshals in Arlington, Virginia. The signature at the end of his emails reads: "If there's no photo . . . it never happened." It happened in Guantánamo that day and, after the toss of a coin, McCoy photographed it – for the world to see.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent