Photo Exhibit Restores Dignity To Victims of U.S. Torture

The U.S. military used a camera as a torture device at Abu Grahib. "I wanted to use the camera to restore these peoples' humanity," says Chris Bartlett.

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:

Detained January 20, 2004 – May 28, 2004 Bartlett: “He was put in a steel cage a meter wide and a meter high. ‘I asked why they are doing this, so they hit me.'”

Detained November, 2005 – May, 2006 “He does not remember how long he was in that cell, but he thinks it was a month. Then they took him to Abu Ghraib. ‘First they got me naked, and they tied my hands to the door. My detention lasted six months. I was always naked, always tied to the door, they brought the dogs to us.'”

Detained August, 2003 – March, 2004 “They have made the prisoners dance. ‘If they didn’t dance in the disco room, they would have been beaten. After 12 hours, they would end up in a hospital room. One of the men told me, “you’re better off with one leg. You don’t have to go there.”‘”

Detained from January to July 2004 “Divorced with seven children, she is an accountant in Baghdad. ‘They put me in a room and they put my son in a cage in front of me.’ The soldier said to her, ‘Confess that you know terrorists or I will send you to a place where they will rape you. They will do things to you that you could never imagine.'”

Detained December 16,2003 – March 10, 2004. “One of 10 siblings, he raised sheep, cattle, and goats for sale at the market. He had never been arrested before, never had any dealings with the authorities. They came for him at night. The soldiers knocked on the door. His mother, carrying her six-year-old daughter, went to open the door. A bomb, ‘with nails in it,’ blew open the door, killing his mother and sister. They put him in a vehicle, covering his head with a piece of clothing stained with his mother’s blood. He was released after three months at Abu Ghraib. He was never charged or accused of doing anything wrong.”

Detained October 3, 2003 – October 13, 2004. At Abu Ghraib, he stood on a cardboard box, hooded and holding electric wires. “They forced him to lie on the ground, loudspeakers blasting music into his ears. The ordeal lasted only a day, ‘but it felt like two years.’ They beat him regularly, and, on three occasions, subjected him to electric shock treatments. ‘It feels like your eyes will explode,’ a soldier said, ‘we are doing what the interrogators want. They want us to make your life very difficult so you will answer the questions.’ After his release, he founded the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons in Baghdad. ‘There is not one person in prison in Iraq who has not been subjected to some kind of abuse.'”

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