THESE PHOTOGRAPHS WERE made on and around US military bases in Japan, Korea and Guam, a part of the world designated by the Pentagon as “PACOM,” the U.S. Pacific Command. The Pentagon divides the world into six separate regional commands and PACOM is the largest, covering half the surface of the world. The military component of U.S. influence in this region is mainly centered at these bases across Japan, Korea, and on the U.S. territory of Guam in the western Pacific.
In 2008, following the publication of my book Phantom Shanghai, and after living many years in China, I decided to focus on something unrelated to China. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to make pictures unconnected to China’s relentless topicality. Finally I settled on the idea of revisiting some of the places I first explored as a young photographer living in Tokyo in the mid-1970s. That’s when I first became aware of this network of U.S. bases in Asia.
Revisiting these places, more than thirty years later, I was struck by how little life had changed on the bases, whereas outside, in the host countries, and in the region, vast shifts had taken place. A friend, hearing ab out my new project, commented: “Oh, you’re photographing places hidden by history.” That notion, that history can hide as well as reveal, seems a useful perspective from which to consider this network of distinctly American spaces. Neither open to or hidden from their host communities, the bases are dated symbols that nonetheless remain potent expressions of what it means to win a world war and retain an eroded yet enduring supremacy in a changed world more than sixty years later.
One huge part of that change, to state the obvious, has been China’s emergence as an economic power. This emergence means, among other things, that China now has the wherewithal to involve itself in the waters and airspace near its borders to a degree that wasn’t possible in previous decades. These international waters and airspace are a part of PACOM’s area of responsibility, where the U.S. has long patrolled and conducted exercises. China has an obvious interest in what takes place off its shores, but what is new is the demonstrated capability to make that interest known.
And so, as much as I wanted to step back from China with this new body of work, I found that China, just over the horizon, was a backdrop to everything I was seeing on and around the bases. These are photographs from the watery edge of the receding American Century as this yet-to-be-named new century engulfs us, oblivious to the Pentagon’s lines drawn on a map of the world.
-Greg Girard, Half the Surface of the World, Photography, 2008-2009