At the height of the Iraq War in 2006, attorney Susan Burke invited fashion photographer Chris Bartlett to focus his lens on a new subject. The human rights lawyer had filed civil lawsuits on behalf of a number of Iraqis who claimed to have been arrested, tortured, and released without charges by Defense Department subcontractors. She was in the process of collecting testimonies from the detainees in Jordan and Turkey, and she wanted Bartlett to photograph them.
“One of the instruments of degradation — of torture — towards the detainees was a camera,” Bartlett recently said in an interview with Proof, recalling the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib, which had far-reaching implications for America’s moral standing in the world. “So, the idea was to take these beautiful portraits of these people and try to bring humanity back to them through the portraiture, and then pair that with the testimony they were giving in the other room.”
The resulting medium format images, on display at Photoville this month, reveal people still struggling to recover their dignity and comprehend what happened to them. Their eyes confront the viewer who, as part of a democratic society, is implicated in the dark spiral of poor decision-making that led to such abuses of power.
It’s difficult to read the stories behind Bartlett’s portraits. The only woman photographed in the series, an accountant and mother of seven from Baghdad, said she was put in a room with her son locked in a cage before her. Interrogators told her if she didn’t confess she knew terrorists, she’d be sent to a place where she’d be raped. “They will do things to you that you could never imagine,” they said. The woman was eventually freed without charges.
Another of Bartlett’s portraits features a detainee whose silver hair is lit by a soft, northern light. He was also photographed at Abu Ghraib. In that more famous picture, he stood on a cardboard box while holding an electric wire. “There is not one person in prison in Iraq who has not been subjected to some kind of abuse,” he stated in his testimony.
“Hearing the stories was very difficult, and as an American really made me feel ashamed,” Bartlett told Hyperallergic. “Some of [the subjects] really projected a feeling of being damaged by the experience. Others seemed more resilient. I was surprised that they did not feel animosity or anger. It was more of a feeling of why. Why if you were coming to liberate us did you torture us? One man said that they were better off under Saddam.”
Take a look at some images from the series below.
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