17 July 2019

Repurposing an Unclassified Central Intelligence Agency Archive

17 July 2019 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In a recent book published by The Eyes, George Selley appropriates unclassified CIA documents in a multi-layered narrative, addressing the excess of politics with an ambiguity hinting at humour.

© George Selley, spread from the book A Study of Assassination

In 1997, following the passing of a law on the right of information, the CIA released historically classified documents. Among them, a folder unambiguously entitled A Study of Assassination, undated but estimated to have been published in 1953. At the time, Guatemala had democratically elected Colonel Arbenz, who announced drastic land reforms threatening the United States agricultural leadership in the Latin American country - The United Fruit Company owned one fifth of the entire country and almost solely controlled the sale of bananas worldwide.

The United States replied with what in the CIA was called the Guatemalan Destabilization Program – a propaganda campaign mixed with an armed offensive that led to the overthrowing of “communist imperialist” Arbenz, and the installation of exiled military dictator Carlos Castillos Armas as leader. The rest of history is unclassified, with Guatemala facing 31 years of repressive military rule and the deaths of more than 100,000 of the country’s citizens.

© George Selley, spread from the book A Study of Assassination

Yet, the document unveiling the deadly United States manipulation “has been approved for release on 12 July 95”, one can read on George Selley’s book cover. A photographer, filmmaker and researcher, Selley appropriated this archive and compiled the findings into a binder book. Inserted into the inside cover, readers can find a full reproduction of a chilling manual entitled A Study of Assassination, which teaches with explicit detail how to undergo a murder. From bare hands - though “very few are skilful enough to do it well”, the manual warns - to firearms, the manual was meant to “educate” mercenaries in the “act of killing”. “Abdominal wounds were once nearly always mortal, but modern medical treatment has made this no longer true”, one can further read.

Selley’s work pushes the appropriation further in the way of photomontages combining excerpts of the manual’s text with photographs from that time - portraits of Eisenhower and his unofficial victims; scenes from street protests and firing; as well as ads for United Fruit bananas. Conceived as a tool of propaganda, these advertising posters turned the fruit into a fun and sexy symbol, masking its reality as a means of control over the country by the United States. Two histories coexist in these photomontages - one told in 1954 and one unveiled decades later, revealing the sinister story of capitalism at all costs.

© George Selley, spread from the book A Study of Assassination

The narrative forms layers over layers. To the photomontages, Selley adds excerpts from police reports, newspaper clips, and a series of fictitious documents. In a series of photographs, he stages scenes from the manual, tracking for example a man in the street, his shadow becoming more oppressive with each step. In the end, fiction and documentation coexist as if mimicking the governmental lies and art of misinformation, and as a reader we don’t know whether to smile or cry.


A Study of Assassination by George Selley

Published by The Eyes Publishing // Designed by Pete Jeffs and George Selley

Languages: English and French

192 pages (original CIA assassination manual reproduction included) // 25 x 30 cm // €39



George Selley is a London-based photographer, filmmaker and researcher currently teaching photography at Fine Arts College in Camden. He is a recent graduate of MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication. His work has been published in Dazed, Huck, The British Journal of Photography, Artpress and Fisheye Magazine, among others. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes