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The Visual South, Part I: Unseen Scenes Of Guantanamo

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The current issue ofOxford Americanmagazine (known as "the Southern magazine of good writing") is titled the "Visual South Issue." In its100 under 100list, the magazine identifies "the most talented and thrilling up-and-coming artists in the South." This week, we'll take a look at five of the photographers on that list.

<em>Suggestion Box, Camp America, </em>from the series, <em>Guantanamo Bay, </em>2006
/ Christopher Sims
Christopher Sims
Suggestion Box, Camp America, from the series, Guantanamo Bay, 2006

Christopher Sims used to be a photo archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He would spend hours and hours each day looking at photos of war, he explains over the phone from his home in North Carolina, where he's an instructor at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies.

Although the museum's photo collection is one of the largest of its kind, Sims explains, "there were a lot of things that were missing, and that's because they were never photographed in the first place — or because they didn't survive the war."

Sims had that in mind during and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I knew I didn't want to go to Afghanistan or Iraq myself because there were a lot of people already doing that," he says. "I was interested in finding, just like at the Holocaust museum, the places that there weren't photographs of. I was thinking of an archive for the future, and searching for images in the collection that other people weren't concentrating on."

That idea took him through much rigmarole and red tape to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — home to the American Naval base and its controversial prison, created during the Bush administration. Sims went once in 2006, and again in 2010.

"[Guantanamo Bay] holds a certain meaning to us," he says, "but we don't really know what the place looks like."

Because access to the prison is very limited for photographers, Sims focused on the scenes that are a backdrop to what happens on the base, rather than the people: the landscape, the architecture, the mundane details of daily life.

"You think Guantanamo, and you think its going to be a very high-tech, formidable prison system in a base that's sophisticated and up-to-date," he says. "The base as a whole kind of feels like a leftover from the Cold War. ... It's this very unique place — a U.S. military base in a communist country on a tropical island."

This peripheral approach to war shows up in Sims' other work, too. The photos in his series "Theater of War" were not taken in the Middle East, though it may initially appear that way. The images actually show "the fictitious Iraqi and Afghan villages on the training grounds of U.S. Army bases, places largely unknown to most Americans," explains.

<em>Observing Helicopter, Fort Irwin, California,</em> from the series, <em>Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan,</em> 2006
/ Christopher Sims
Christopher Sims
Observing Helicopter, Fort Irwin, California, from the series, Theater of War: The Pretend Villages of Iraq and Afghanistan, 2006
<em>Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana</em><em>,</em> 2006 (left) and <em>Desert Mosque, Fort Irwin, California</em><em>, </em>2006, from <em>Theater of War</em>
/ Christopher Sims
Christopher Sims
Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana, 2006 (left) and Desert Mosque, Fort Irwin, California, 2006, from Theater of War

As to whether or not he considers himself a "Southern photographer," Sims is somewhat on the fence. But the sound of his 1-year-old chattering in the background reveals a little something. "He's obsessed with horses," Sims says. His wife is from Louisville, Ky., and, accordingly, they just celebrated the Kentucky Derby this past weekend.

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Claire O'Neill