The U.S. military used a camera as a torture device at Abu Grahib. To add further humiliation to detainees who were already put in cages, urinated on, stripped naked then stacked in macabre human pyramids, their photos were taken during these degrading acts. “I wanted to use the camera to restore these peoples’ humanity through beautiful portraiture,” says photographer Chris Bartlett, whose exhibition, “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals,” opens tonight in New York.
When confronted with images of torture, Bartlett says, even the greatest liberal or humanist among us has the tendency to flinch and look away. “It’s such a disturbing and disgusting issue that people want to turn off from it.” Bartlett, who often works in high fashion photography, shooting subjects like candy colored Tory Burch handbags, said he wanted to take “very kind, respectful, beautiful, portraits to draw people into the subject and learn more about their stories.”
“I want people to consider, what if that happened to your family member or daughter?”
In 2006, Bartlett was invited by attorney Susan Burke to Amman, Jordan to sit in on interviews with former Iraqi detainees in preparation for a lawsuit against the Department of Defense for unlawful detention and torture. The interviews were two to four hours of intense emotional testimony that included one woman’s story of being threatened with rape while she watched her son be forced into a cage by U.S. soldiers. She was held in detention for seven months in 2004, then was released with no charges. “What I heard over and over again in these interviews were ordinary people being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bartlett says. Indeed, many of Bartlett’s subjects report being held captive for up to a year’s time, then being released without any charges filed. “I want people to consider, what if that happened to your family member or daughter?”
When Bartlett joined Burke again, this time in Turkey, for another round of interviews, the dark pall over the pictures was still weighing heavily. There were close to forty former detainees who did not want their pictures taken, for those who agreed, Barttlet took the portrait in daylight on high quality film, with a deep black background and warm hued lights; an intentional difference from the small digital camera–which intensified the acidic yellows and electric greens of Abu Grahib– used to capture images detainees in crouching, cuffed, and hooded. “I wanted to put these people back in front of the camera and use photography as a humanizing force,” Bartlett says.
The exhibit opens tonight at the Photoville in the Brooklyn Bridge Park and will run through this weekend and next (Sept 25th – 28th). Here are some selected portraits, which Bartlett gave us permission us to publish. All captions are via Bartlett: