The magazine of photography and ideas
How to Witness Nothing (and Everything)
Photographer Edmund Clark and historian Crofton Black trace a network of black-site prisons.
In principle, to testify—not being a witness but testifying, attesting, ‘bearing witness’—is always to render public. The value of publicity, that is of broad daylight (phenomenality, openness, popularity, res publica and politics) seems associated in some essential way with that of testimony. The idea of a secret testimony seems thus a contradiction in terms. Especially when the experience of the secret itself implies some inner witness, some third party in oneself that one calls to witness. —Jacques Derrida
A giant cross stands on a mountaintop overlooking the city, outlined at night in bright white neon. A German citizen saw this view, twelve years ago, from a hotel room in Skopje, Macedonia. The American embassy is nearby, across the park, past the zoo. He was passed to the CIA after 23 days of interrogation in this room, by Macedonian government personnel. The layout fits my copy of his hand-drawn plan: top floor opposite the lift. His description of the view matches too; the cross, a broken chimney. Other details of his testimony differ from what is here now: the hotel has fewer floors; blue venetian blinds replace curtains; a smaller table. Have any of the three star fixtures and fittings been touched by us both? Do we share the same bed?
These words are written in room 11 of this side street hotel. I am trying to make sense of four years spent tracking and photographing sites of extraordinary rendition. I have witnessed nothing during this time, but the making of these photographs has become an act of testimony. It was not possible to see the secret journeys of extraordinary rendition or the interrogations that punctuated them, but it has been possible to glimpse the places and networks that circled them.
The photographs in this project show only surfaces of these events through detectable traces and liminal sites or objects: unremarkable streets, facades, furnishings, ornaments and detritus. It is the opacity of these images that reveals something of the condition of extraordinary rendition. Look at them and they show nothing. Look into them and they are charged with significance. They are veneers of the everyday under which the purveyors of detention and interrogation operated in plain sight. This is the banal complicity of today’s global war; the everyday absurdity and dread of Kafka’s world made real.
Assembling a large format camera and tripod in a remote car park on the edge of Fayetteville airport, North Carolina, a man approaches from the low white building to enquire as to my purpose. We both know there is only one reason for my being there. I explain that I am photographing locations associated with extraordinary rendition and that his company has been mentioned in that context. He denies any involvement but acknowledges that I have the right to be there, requesting only that I don’t photograph his employees. I agree. Minutes later he returns with a point-and-shoot camera and says that he has the right to photograph me too, taking several shots of me and the number plate of my hire car. As I drive away, a police car appears and follows me to the airport perimeter.
Looking for meaning in unexpected areas began with the weak points of business accountability: the traceable bureaucracy of invoices, documents of incorporation and billing reconciliations from companies using the familiar paths and carriages of executive travel and global exchange. Pieces of paper bearing the traces of small-town and Small and Medium Enterprise America, seeking profit from the outsourcing of detainee transportation. Visually compelling and eloquent, as well as sources of evidence, they are the product of a circuitous journey by researcher Crofton Black, working for lawyers on behalf of the transported, to find links and join dots; to see through the bureaucratic and circumstantial to the forensic. The structure of this book is an evocation of this network, with a system of cross-referencing to suggest alternative paths through the forest of documents and images; an experience that by turns sheds light on the process and acknowledges its impenetrability.
Equally cogent are the documents and reports that seek to define the scale and experiences of extraordinary rendition. These include police files, human rights reports, national and transnational inquiries and internal secret service investigations. It is here that testimony of those caught up in the so-called Global War on Terror can be found and is reproduced, in fragments, in this book. So too can the counter-forensics of secrecy, censorship and obfuscation that shade the paths to accountability.
The documents and photographs in this project are archaeological. These are artefacts of research; things made by man; excavated, extracted, revealed. As traces of absence, or evidence, or that which makes anything evident (videre—to see—at its heart), their purpose is as part of a present forensic process into the procedure of extraordinary rendition. The existing narrative—where it can be seen at all—is easily obscured by denial and secrecy. It is perhaps as a record of such negative evidence—and as a document of negative publicity—that this work may form part of a future discourse and future history.
This feature is adapted from the Aperture book Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition.
Announcing Aperture magazine's fall 2020 issue