A Study of Assassination

In 1997, as part of the freedom of information act, a document was released by the CIA entitled “A Study of Assassination.” The document was undated and unsigned but had an estimated original publication date of 1953. The manual was released as part of a collection of Central Intelligence Agency files relating to the Guatemalan Destabilization Programme. The programme aimed to overthrow the newly democratically elected leader of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who had announced large scale land reforms. At that time, the largest land owner in Guatemala by far (and indeed Central America generally) was the US global corporation, The United Fruit Company. United Fruit - called the “Octopus” by Guatemalans - wielded massive power at the time, reaching its tentacle like arms deep into railroads, ports, shipping and especially banana plantations. In total United Fruit owned one fifth of the entire country, and almost solely controlled the worlds sale of bananas. Arbenz proposed to buy back much of United Fruits land (90% of which it didn’t use).

With the help of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays – the “father of PR”, and the CIA, United Fruit began an extremely effective global PR campaign to frame the Guatemalan leader Arbenz as a communist, and nothing more than a soviet puppet. Eisenhower, president at the time, had deep financial ties with United Fruit, and Alan Dulles, director of the CIA owned a law firm that negotiated United Fruits business in the region. In June 1954, an offensive consisting of CIA trained mercenaries and CIA aerial support overthrew Arbenz, and instilled exiled military dictator Carlos Castillos Armas as leader. The “Assassination Manual” is believed to have been created in order to “educate” the mercenaries in the “act of killing”. However, it is said that the mercenaries couldn’t make sense of the manual – some thought it was a joke – and many were said to have torn it up. After the operation, CIA Director Dulles said that the country had been saved from “communist Imperialism” and declared the addition of “a new and glorious chapter to the already great tradition of the American States”. This “success” lead to 31 years of repressive military rule and the deaths of more than 100,000 Guatemalans, the country would not see stability again until 1990. The “Octopus” increased its control and flourished in the region for decades. Dulles’s predecessor at the CIA Walter Bedell Smith, would go on to become vice president of United Fruit.

Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, United Fruit continued to mould the public perception of the banana as a healthy, fun loving and innocent fruit, through mass advertisement, music, and popular culture. This huge PR campaign was extremely successful, and contributed to the bananas symbolic association with humour, sex and liberation – associations that last, still to this day.

This project is broken into two sets of images. The first is concerned with re-purposing the manual using found imagery. By combining pages of the document with archival press images of the time; united fruit advertisement campaigns; and cold war propaganda, the meaning of the documents is transformed. Connotations commonly associated with the banana of humour, sex, liberation and the American Dream are juxtaposed with its sinister history of oppression, capitalist imperialism and genocide - challenging our conceptions of the bananas symbolism. The document itself represents the bureaucracy of war, the everyday processes of a global intelligence agency - the banality of power. Such documents seem to always have an element of the absurd: a memo requesting a “delivery address for a heat seeking missile system”; a leaked email advising covert agents to “buy something at duty free”; a CIA “Assassination Manual” that begins: “assassination will never be authorized by any US Headquarters”. After a while, one begins to question their authenticity. It seems there’s almost a dry humour behind them. Playing on these questions of fact, fiction and absurdity, while also referencing the CIA’s tactics of misinformation - the second set of images in the project are completely fictitious. Pairing documents from the manual and Guatemalan police reports with staged imagery and improvised documentary, they are the result of the photographer following the Assassination Manual, literally, with his camera.

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