In 2002, a Navy photographer captured the first Guantánamo detainees in shackles on their knees, creating an iconic image that still inspires protests.
He set a timer, hoisted his Navy-issue digital camera on a stick — a monopod — and it clicked.
”I’ve seen them in magazines, on television, on the Internet,” said McCoy, 33, now ending a 14-year Navy career. “If I do a search for my name, there’s like 16,000 hits on those photos. They’re everywhere.”
Six years ago today, McCoy took those now-iconic images of the first detainees to land at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — capturing a moment of men on their knees in orange jumpsuits behind barbed wire fences.
Much to the Pentagon’s chagrin, the images won’t go away.
They have been printed and reprinted across the globe, reenacted in protests expected to continue today from Europe to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, even in a film — symbols of the United States’ war-on-terrorism detention and interrogation policy.
”Iconic photographs cut through ambiguity,” says Michael L. Carlebach, professor emeritus of art history and photography at the University of Miami. “They resolve things. They explain things. And it cuts through a lot of rhetoric; you can see for yourself.”
OTHER FAMOUS PHOTOS
”They can’t spin it,” Carlebach said. “Is it fair? Is it representative? All photographs take things out of context. They stop time — just one little split second, and you can get very philosophical and say they’re not real. But that’s irrelevant.”
The date was Jan. 11, 2002, and homemade snapshots of guards tormenting nude detainees in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, were two years away. News photographers in Baghdad had yet to swarm around the toppling Saddam Hussein statues.
In Guantánamo, Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert told a handful of reporters the nascent prison project was getting ”the worst of the worst” of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan, 8,000 miles away.
McCoy was assigned to Combat Camera, an elite unit that took secret pictures not for the public but the Pentagon brass. He was the only photographer allowed that day at Camp X-Ray, the first of a series of prison camps that across six years would hold and interrogate more than 750 captives, leaving 275 there today.
He was outside a makeshift, open-air holding compound where the captives were kept on their way to registration — now defunct after housing 300 men and boys in the earliest days.
The sailor said it was just another job: Take pictures. Choose some. Write captions. Send them to Washington.
A week later, they were on CNN.
SPIRIT OF GENEVA
That’s because at the Pentagon, the Bush administration was debating how to reassure the world that its evolving detention strategy was humane — if not exactly in keeping with the Geneva Conventions by policy, then in keeping with what commanders would come to call “its spirit.”
So, as then-spokeswoman Torie Clarke wrote in her memoirs, Lipstick on a Pig, releasing pictures that didn’t show detainees’ faces seemed like the smart thing to do.
Pentagon policy to this day dictates that shielding a Guantánamo detainee’s face from view — blurring it, chopping him off at his beard, or in that instance, hidden beneath a cap, surgical mask and blindfold — spares a captive humiliation banned by the Geneva Conventions.
”Did I ever misread what was in those photos,” Clarke wrote. “The problem wasn’t that we released too much, it was that we explained too little . . . which allowed other critics to say we were forcing the detainees into poses of subjugation.”
The reaction was swift, and furious.
In England, The Mirror tabloid slapped the photo on its cover and questioned the post 9/11 alliance Prime Minister Tony Blair had forged with the United States with this screaming headline:
What the hell are you doing in OUR name, Mister Blair?
Recalls McCoy, sheepishly: “I actually called my mother right after it happened and told her that my photos had caused an international incident.”
Lost in the furious reaction, said McCoy, was that detainees “simply weren’t kept like that.”
”They were wearing gloves because it was cold,” he said. “I mean, they were flying at 30,000 feet in an unheated back part of the plane; they were wearing hats for the same reason. They did say the goggles were blacked out so they couldn’t communicate and plan to attack a guard. It made sense to me.”
U.S. military officials won’t name the first 20 men who arrived at the base — captured in the photo.
The Miami Herald tried unsuccessfully through lawyers and intermediaries to speak with some of the men in the photo who have been released.
One, Australian David Hicks, just completed a nine-month sentence as an al Qaeda foot soldier and is free in his hometown Adelaide — but under a U.S. gag order that forbids him to talk about his treatment at Guantánamo.
Meantime, it is hard to pinpoint the moment when the pictures became so prevalent.
Soon after their release, the Pentagon took them off its own websites and labeled them ”For Official Use Only,” to prevent further distribution.
Military escorts let civilian news photographers take pictures of detainees — but only out of focus, from behind, or if they cropped a captive’s face from the photo.
And Guantánamo commanders bemoan their use as anachronistic. The Pentagon’s visitors tour now stops at the abandoned processing cage where escorts encourage picture-taking to show that weeds grow where Guantánamo detainees once knelt.
But over at the prison camps, they can’t get the kind of intimacy that McCoy photographed that first day.
Ground rules dictate that journalists taking pictures submit them for censorship — and destroy any that show a captive’s face.
The Pentagon has also tried to discourage news organizations from using the photographs. But Carlebach says the military’s efforts overlook the point of what makes a photo iconic.
Time moves on but the instant comes to tell a larger story. “They’re kneeling with that anti-personnel barbed wire in the foreground, and it does not describe bloody-thirsty jihadists. These guys are pathetic-looking in their bright orange pajamas.”
For those who want to see a captive bowed, it provides a certain satisfaction. For those who believe the policy swept up innocents, it tells another story.
McCoy never saw it either way. He was too busy.
He’s now winding up a career that took him across the globe, and more recently saw him doing a desk job — editing video commercials for All Hands magazine.
But, no, just in case anyone is wondering, he never got into trouble for making those pictures.
A few weeks later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toured the prison camp. ‘I told him, `Hey, I’m sorry my photos caused all these problems.’ ”
“He told me not to worry about it, I was doing my job. And that was about it.”