Check It Out:

Two Must-See Exhibits on the Normalization of the Culture of Torture and on the World War 2 Detention of Japanese Americans

April 9, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

The International Center of Photography in New York City (ICP) has curated two must-see exhibits. The exhibits are Edmund Clark: The Day the Music Died and Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exhibits are most significant in light of the fascist Trump/Pence regime’s increased repression, particularly toward immigrants. After viewing the exhibits, it was even more chilling to hear Trump’s declaration that the U.S. “detention” (read torture) program will be expanded and Guantánamo would remain open. And that he just nominated Gina Haspel, former head torturer in a Thailand “black site” (secret CIA prison), as the new CIA director.

It’s important to see both exhibits together.

Erin Barnett, director of ICP’s exhibitions and collections, explained in an email to a correspondent:

We scheduled the exhibitions together because they both deal with the demise of civil liberties in the name of national security. Both exhibitions also highlight racism and bureaucracy, humanize the people who were caught up in these two very different wars, and address the repercussions of war. These exhibitions are also examples of “concerned photography,” a premise on which ICP was founded in 1974 by Cornell Capa. He believed that photographs had the power to educate and change the way people viewed the world, and hopefully propel positive social change.

Just one illustration: A friend saw the exhibition and found a woman visibly distraught in the restroom. She exclaimed, “I had no idea this was going on. I don’t know what to do about it.”

A reader reviewed the exhibit on the internment of Japanese Americans previously on when it was in Chicago, so here we will focus on Edmund Clark’s exhibit.

As you enter the exhibit you hear Don McLean’s song “American Pie” playing overhead. Written to commemorate the death of Buddy Holly, this is one on a list of songs that had been played loudly during interrogation by the U.S. torturers to disorient detainees. As reported in Mother Jones, these “familiar anthems of American and Western popular music were chosen either on the grounds of presumed offensiveness or for their identification with American life, values, and culture.”

Clark’s exhibit draws from 10 projects on the “war on terror.” Each project stands on its own, revealing an aspect of the inhumane conditions, of some horror or aspect of torture, taking place in Guantánamo and “black sites” around the world. Any one of these projects is like a punch to the gut, and evokes a visceral response of, “How could they do such horrible things?” But the point of dehumanization is to rationalize the carrying out of such gruesome atrocities.

The exhibit guide notes, “Between 2002 and 2008, over a hundred people were captured around the world and disappeared, sometimes for years, in secret CIA facilities—otherwise known as ‘black sites.’ Psychologists and interrogators were authorized to use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ [torture] to question subjects.” Some have been released, some are still being held at Guantánamo, others died in captivity. The fate of more than a quarter of those abducted remains unknown.

Through photographs and heavily redacted declassified documents, Clark reveals in detail how in our everyday lives these secret horrors have been (and continue to be) committed and normalized so that people generally pay little attention to them.

One of the projects is a massive floor-to-ceiling wall of redacted documents. They bring to light the torture techniques like “wallings” (slamming detainees against a wall), sleep deprivation up to 180 hours, combined with forced standing or in painful stress positions, and waterboarding that induced convulsions and vomiting.

Mohammed Shoroeiya was “held for a year in a CIA prison in Afghanistan, in almost total darkness with loud music playing constantly.” In the exhibit are his sketches of the small wooden box, similar to a coffin, in which he was confined.

An Afghan detainee, Gul Rahman, froze to death. One of the documents on the wall is the redacted investigation of his death—a matter-of-fact description of the horrific details: his urine had high catecholamine levels, which is consistent with hypothermic deaths; he was seen shivering for a number of hours immediately prior to his death; he was extremely cold, held in an uninsulated prison with an outside temperature of 31 degrees; and he had not eaten in approximately 36 hours—his levels of glycogen, which the body uses to stay warm, would have been depleted.

Clark shows how the “war on terror” has permeated our culture:

Inherent in the coverage and execution of the War on Terror has been a simple contradiction: “We” have to work the dark side because that is what “they” are doing. But “we” believe in and are protecting honesty, justice, and democracy and are not breaking the law. “They” threaten and attack our way of life, and nothing is too low if it needs to be done to get even for what “they” have done and to stop them doing it again. It requires talking tough and being seen to play as dirty as “them” while still wanting to claim to be lawful. Trying to square this circle has required new legal forms and a level of denial.

There’s much more that can be written about this extraordinary exhibit, but it’s best to experience it for yourself. Better yet, bring a friend or two—perhaps those who normally don’t have the chance to see art like this with so much societal importance.

The exhibits are showing at the International Center of Photography Museum, 250 Bowery, New York, NY, until May 6, 2018.


Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.