The rocky cliffs of Cuba split the ocean from the sky as our flight descended toward the tarmac at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. It was a clear afternoon in late June, and the first thing we were told before boarding the flight from Joint Base Andrews was not to photograph from the tarmac or plane. It was the start of a week at America’s most notorious military base, where absurd restrictions would dictate what I, and other journalists, could and could not see.
One misconception about Guantánamo was cleared up before I ever got off the plane. In my mind, everything was the prison. For so long, I associated this place with concertina wire, guard towers, and orange-clad anonymous detainees. In recent years, I’d reported on some of those same detainees, now liberated, and I learned that my prejudices and fears about the vast majority of these men had been unfounded. They welcomed me into the community of brotherhood they had forged, and I was now visiting the place where so much of their lives had been stolen. I pressed my face to the window to see the prison where people I consider friends were tortured.
From the air, I saw security posts along what seemed to be the perimeter of the base, but it obviously wasn’t the prison. “Where the fuck is it?” I thought with increasingly desperate glances out the window of the mostly empty chartered flight. I had a three-seat row to myself, television screens, pillows, blankets, and a full in-flight lunch service. Hundreds of Muslim men had arrived by air decades before to this very airstrip, beaten, shackled, hooded, and pissing all over themselves.
“Just landed,” I texted Mohamedou Ould Salahi on my T-Mobile burner smartphone. “It’s Swain.” A few hours later, Salahi, or “The Mauritanian,” shot back, “Hi. Did they put you in prison?”
I soon learned that just about anything with photojournalistic value was off limits. As Guantánamo has aged, a shift has occurred in what the military wants journalists to cover. Under the current rules, members of the media are brought here to focus on the military commission proceedings at “Camp Justice,” where a very large, very cold, and very classified courtroom has been constructed to deal with the few remaining detainees who were ever charged with decades-old crimes against the United States. Press access to anything outside the court is described as a “courtesy” and subject to arbitrary restrictions.
Salahi, my unofficial tour guide, had always been hooded when taken outside the prison. He had accurately predicted the first day of my trip that my military handler would placate us with little tourist excursions to various parts of the bay, as if we had sailed in on a Disney cruise. “They want you to see McDonald’s and, like, the beach. That’s not where the detainees were held,” he said as we passed voice notes back and forth. “[It’s where] the detainees were held [that] you need to take photos of.”
Over the course of my visit, I checked in with at least five former detainees who collectively spent lifetimes imprisoned here. Most didn’t know about the novel media restrictions. “Did you go to Camp Echo?” Yemeni Sabri al-Qurashi texted me from Kazakhstan. Al-Qurashi has always maintained that he was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After 12 years at Guantánamo, he was relocated to a country that has continued to treat him like a “terrorist” and where he has not been granted asylum, despite assurances from the State Department that he would be treated well.
“Ask them to see Camp Delta 2, 3, 4, and Camp 5, and Camp Echo, and Camp 6, and Camp Platinum,” Salahi urged from his new home in Amsterdam.
“You can take pictures of the detainees, but not the face,” said Sufiyan Barhoumi, who was eligible for release from Guantánamo under the Obama administration after all charges against him were dropped but had to wait five more years because Donald Trump halted transfers. He has been struggling to adjust to life as a free man back home in Algeria since April 2022.
“Take pictures of what you can!”
As recently as 2018, reporters and photographers were allowed into the prison itself. Now, though, media isn’t brought anywhere close to the permanent prison complex that houses the remaining 30 detainees. I was informed that members of the media would not be allowed to photograph even the old Camp X-Ray, the long-abandoned outdoor prison that held the very first detainees. I was shocked, since Camp X-Ray was listed as an approved location under the 2023 media guidelines. This took all locations that were even remotely related to the base’s role as a detention site completely out of play. Denying any new visual documentation of the defunct former facility seemed egregious and irrational, especially following the unprecedented access given to the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, in early 2023. The Biden administration had permitted her to tour the site and interview detainees as an independent investigator, and her findings were published two days after I had arrived at the base.
“This is just another indication that the most consistent thing about Guantánamo is inconsistency,” said former detainee Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who was released from Guantánamo without charge in 2005. Begg is the current director of CAGE, a U.K.-based advocacy group for other victims of the war on terror. “It seems that rules change and guidelines change according to who happens to be in charge. So your frustration as a journalist, I can see — imagine, as a prisoner, where you have to live in that kind of environment, where you can quote the standard operating procedure better than the staff sergeant, but he’ll say, ‘Well, no, we just changed that.’”
“I really don’t understand this treatment,” Salahi fumed over WhatsApp. “If they don’t let you go and see what went on, or at least the place where the torture took place, what do they want? This is complete stonewalling; this makes me really very upset as a victim of that place.”
Salahi wasn’t wrong. The locations I was allowed to photograph were of little journalistic value, and many had been recently documented by a behemoth in the news industry: the New York Times. That photo essay, titled “Guantánamo Bay: Beyond the Prison,” had garnered fervent criticism on social media, in part because it seemed to take a page out of the military’s playbook by ignoring Guantánamo’s sordid, torturous past to focus instead on the similarities between the base and a college campus. Mark Fallon, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service counterterrorism special agent, explained why the little transparency that had once existed has dwindled to no access at all.
The U.S. government is “hoping to control the narrative about what the American public knows or believes about the prisoners here at Guantánamo Bay, the global war on terror, and some of the war crimes that we committed in the name of the American people, specifically torturing prisoners in violation of U.S. code and international law,” Fallon, the author of “Unjustifiable Means,” told me over a neat whiskey in the courtyard of the Navy Gateway Inns and Suites hotel one evening. He was the testifying witness that week in pretrial proceedings against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the detainee charged in the USS Cole bombing case. Fallon had helmed the original investigation into the Cole bombing, the attack on a U.S. naval ship in the port of Aden, Yemen, in 2000 that killed 17 Americans. Fallon later worked as an investigator at Guantánamo before the CIA’s “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” program began torturing men with “enhanced interrogation techniques” across black sites — including at Guantánamo — beginning in August 2002. A few months later, Fallon, then deputy commander of the Criminal Investigation Task Force, warned his leadership at the Pentagon that the new behavior he was starting to see at Guantánamo was “the kind of stuff Congressional hearings are made of.”
“What they try to do is ensure that what is going on here does not impact the contemporary conscience of the American public,” Fallon continued. “Because if it does, there may be greater calls for accountability against those that tortured in our name. And the longer that you can keep that from occurring, the safer, not just [for] the torturers but [for] the torture advocates, the torture lobby. Those who believe that torture should be used as an instrument of national policy are in jeopardy. Their legacies are in jeopardy.”
In truth, I had already started photographing out of spite. The prison might not exist here, but the ugly, cheaply manufactured urban sprawl of late-capitalist America did. Anything especially hideous and uncanny became a target for my lens. “Free candy” written in dust on the back of a white transport van. Dead crabs. A lone foldable chair inside an empty concrete room in the hotel. A grimy carpeted bathroom. Random graffiti tags of the logo of the infamous mercenary company Blackwater. Feral cats.
The tropical heat and general pro-war crime vibes were getting to me, so I started following Salahi’s advice: “Just write about the hotel. Concentrate on that. And eating from McDonald’s. If I was you, I would just do my whole article about the lifestyle. The staff. Just write about that because that’s where you have access.”
There was only one truly American way to forget the crime scene underfoot at Guantánamo Bay and that was to drink. At the Tiki Bar, armed military police stood in pairs while young soldiers, support staff, and visitors to the base all converged under multicolored lights and neon signs to fuel their historical amnesia and try to find someone to go home with. One young man was so wasted that I had to push him off me. Another member of the military, seeing my must-be-displayed-at-all-times press badge, told me he was a “dolphin trainer.” After confiding that he wasn’t allowed to speak to me, he added a gentle reminder that journalists weren’t welcome: “Fuck the media!”
Later in the week, a Navy ship docked at the port, and the sprawling military base was suddenly overrun with sailors looking for something to do on their one night off. That afternoon, our military media escort gave three hitchhikers a ride in our white transport van. I climbed into the middle row of the van as they quietly offered me a “juice” from the backseat. The orange juice bottle contained a mixed Disaronno cocktail. “Oh, y’all have nutcrackers out here?!” I said, reminded of the fruit punch drinks illegally sold at beaches in New York City. No one understood what I was talking about. Still, they asked me to come to the beach with them, and I agreed. They let me keep the secret drink.
We climbed boulders and called insults to each other while swimming in the warm water. That evening, I went to dinner with a colleague at O’Kelly’s, an Irish pub run by Jamaican staff where the best thing on the menu is fajitas. There, I ran into the three men again. The group swelled, and more men gathered around our table, ordering an obscene number of Jell-O shots. As the only age-appropriate and single woman in the entire bar, I was assailed with brazen pickup lines. One man offered to go in the bathroom and take an unsolicited “dick pic” to send me. I tried to make a joke out of it: He didn’t need to go all the way to the bathroom since I had a disposable flash film camera I had bought at Guantánamo’s only store. To my horror, he snatched the camera, held my gaze, and shoved it down his pants. The flash went off. The entire table erupted with howls of laughter. Suddenly, the 21+ wristband I’d been given at the door, with the sexual assault hotline number printed on it, made more sense.
The constant humidity reminded me of my childhood in Sarasota, Florida, only 700 miles across the Caribbean from Camp Delta. Consumed with anxiety, I was barely sleeping. Court started early each morning. The defendant, al-Nashiri, opted out of attending the pretrial arguments all week, so we never saw him in person. The sleep deprivation, and the disconnect between physically being at Guantánamo but not seeing any prisoners or prison cells, was slowly chipping away at my sense of reality.
But I still had a job to do. I was reduced to begging the public affairs officer, Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cole, to at least take me on a drive-by of the detention center and Camp X-Ray. After spending countless hours together, he seemed committed to letting me photograph as much as possible, as I had arrived with a large DSLR and the job title of “photo editor.” While I was ostensibly there only to cover the al-Nashiri pretrial hearings, Cole recognized that journalists have other interests, especially if it’s the first time they’ve come to the base. I wanted to photograph as many of the permissible “b-roll” locations as possible.
All my photography had to be completed before Thursday afternoon, when we had our operational security, or OPSEC, review. An extensive list of “protected information” meant that my extremely tightly cropped photographs had to be viewed by various military public affairs officers, or PAOs, and security officials prior to publication.
By now, I had already experienced how quickly photographing at Guantánamo could go south. Forgetting myself in the intense midday sun outside the media center, I grabbed my Canon and pointed it straight up at the sky. I wanted to get a silly photo of a familiar raptor — a turkey vulture — soaring overhead. As I lowered the lens, remembering where I was, it was already too late. Men, one with a gun strapped across his chest, had quickly closed in, surrounding me, to ask where my PAO was — I shouldn’t have been using my camera without him there. Stunned, I asked, “Can I take a photo of the gun?” before confessing I had been a bad girl and pleading with them to not tell my new friend Cole that I’d unwittingly broken the rules.
With the OPSEC review looming and my sanity slipping, I climbed into Cole’s transport van for one last photo excursion. We would drive by Camp X-Ray on our way to the Skyline overlook, which offered a scenic view over the sprawling base below. “No photos,” Cole reminded.
I could barely see anything. It was far below us, and the van climbed steadily, hardly slowing down. “There it is,” Cole said. A few minutes later, we stood high above the bay at dusk. Dark clouds swirled like smoke overhead as a gentle rain began. Unable to see through my drenched glasses, I took them off and the landscape blurred even more. I felt myself starting to cry. I had come all this way to see the reality of Guantánamo Bay, only to find myself blocked at every turn.
It’s always embarrassing to be in tears as a woman in a professional setting. I tried to regain my composure, overwhelmed and frustrated to be denied a true view of a place that defined my country’s abject moral failure. I thought I understood a little of how slowly the years had gone for the prisoners. A week here was an eternity, but two decades wasn’t long enough for the military to come to grips with what it had done. There was Guantánamo, still open, still making the same mistakes. Defeated and demoralized, I’d never been more professionally disappointed. Standing atop that hill, I felt as if I were watching Sisyphus’s boulder — the journalist’s goal of getting the American public to care about Guantánamo — roll back down to the bottom.
Cole had explained that it wasn’t his decision to nix Camp X-Ray, but rather the Naval Station Guantánamo Bay PAO Joycelyn Biggs who had decided it was off limits. Biggs was stressed. “The entire Navy is short staffed,” she told me on a phone call when I asked her about it. “Every single photo that you take, someone in my office has to look at it and vet it. That is work hours. That is resources that are being diverted from my office.” She wanted me to understand that I wasn’t her problem, that I was there to cover the court: “Anything that you do outside of [military commission] trials is a courtesy.”
For all of Biggs’s concerns that allowing photos of Camp X-Ray would lengthen the OPSEC review, I had to laugh when the entire process for all three journalists visiting that week took just over 10 minutes. What a strain on resources. Everyone crowded around as Biggs’s deputy flipped through my photos.
“What is this?!” Cole asked about a clear plastic tube.
“It was in the lighthouse bathroom,” I replied.
“And you just took a picture of it?”
“And you wanna publish it? And you’re gonna be like ‘They use this [to] torture people?’” Cole asked. It did remind me of the painful nasogastric tubes they had used to force-feed hunger striking detainees. But I laughed and said that he had just given me a perfect quote for the photo’s caption.
“I hate you,” Cole said.
Despite my irritations, a kind of nostalgia emerged when I described the sights, sounds, smells, and frustrations of this visit to my formerly imprisoned friends.
“When you describe to me every corner, all the details of GTMO, I feel like I am with you,” Barhoumi said in a voice memo. “I feel like I never left this place.” When I complained about the lack of access and general censorship, he could relate. “I feel you,” he told me. “It depends on who is in charge, that’s my experience. You have to have a big heart because they will piss you off. Just use your wisdom and keep going.”
After only a week, I was ready to leave. The constant monitoring and prescreening of my images had been invasive. To decompress, I sat at the marina near the hotel at sunset and watched the sky fade from blue to black as the eerie red glow of the dock’s flood lights spilled into the green water like blood.
I tried to imagine a distant future when former detainees could visit this place as free men and when, perhaps, Guantánamo would become a monument for national reflection. I hoped that they, too, would one day watch the sun slowly sink beneath the wide-open sky and make peace with the place that had permanently derailed their lives. “I would love the place to be converted to a museum, just like Robben Island. I would volunteer and work sometime,” Salahi told me. “I think the former detainees should run it.”
My plane back to Washington, D.C., took off late one afternoon from the empty Guantánamo runway. I looked out the window for a final chance to see the prison. I thought about the remaining 16 men there who have been cleared for release but are still waiting for their own liftoff. I wondered what the rest of their lives would look like. I thought again of al-Qurashi and the paintings he’d made while imprisoned here. His painting of a wooden ship fighting to stay afloat in rough seas stuck me as a metaphor for this place.
What an injustice it was, I thought, that so many of the men who had suffered needlessly here still weren’t truly free. In a perfect world, former detainees would see this prison close. They would be exonerated, get an apology, receive reparations, and find help with rehabilitation. They would be allowed to visit the McDonald’s and the beaches and watch the dusk settle over the crystalline water that teemed with life.
Cuba faded into the distance through the small window. I never did see the prison, just as those detained there had never seen anything of Guantánamo beyond their bars. And apart from the handful of obscure photos that manage to survive OPSEC review, they probably never will.