26 February 2007

The Iraqi Prisoner Portrait Project

Sometime last summer I found a story (in a now unknown source) on the prints that Daniel Heyman was producing aas part of a team investigating torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. For some reason I never posted on his work. However, this weekend a friend sent me a link to an public radio interview with Heyman. You can find another interview with him here at War News Radio which is produced by students at Swathmore College.*

Here is the statement Heyman prepared as background for the prints he now is exhibiting at The Print Center in Phiadelphia:

"In March 2006 I traveled to Amman, Jordan, and in August I traveled to Istanbul to participate in interviews of former detainees from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Philadelphia attorney Susan Burke (Burke Pyle, LLC.) and Detroit attorney Shereef Akeel (Akeel & Valentine, PLC), joined by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Human Rights Watch are mounting a class action lawsuit on behalf of the tortured former detainees, and travel frequently to the Middle East to meet with them. Burke invited me in my capacity as an artist, to accompany them to Amman to join in the interviews of the former prisoners, driven to Amman from Baghdad. Each of the Iraqis was tortured in Abu Ghraib. None of the Iraqis were ever formally accused of any crime, and each was released without charges.

I went to Jordan to bear witness to the victims’ stories in a visual medium, in this case drypoint prints and watercolors, in an effort to attach individual faces to the Abu Ghraib story, that has interested me since first hearing of it 2004. Working with journalist Tara McKelvey, (also invited by Burke), who conducted the interviews, I drew the client’s portrait directly onto a copper plate using a stylus. I scratched the testimony I heard as it was being spoken backwards onto the plates so that once printed, the words would read forward. After three days I finished the last of my 8 copper plates and changed to painting the portraits and text in watercolor paints, completing 10. My goal was to give a voice to these victims in a way that is more direct and more human than what is available through newspaper or TV articles. This past August I returned again with Burke and Akeel, this time to Istanbul, again to witness interviews of more former detainees. I completed 10 drypoints and 9 watercolors. The major difference on this excursion was that the lawyers brought with them some two hundred non-public photos taken in the torture ward of Abu Ghraib, and, after each interview, asked the prisoners to identify
anything they could in each of the pictures. "

I think these prints successfully walk the line between, on the one hand, the anonymity of the Abu Ghriab photos and how they have been presented in the press and, on the other hand, the need to present the vitims of U.S. torture policy as individuals. Heyman manages to personalize the experience of prisoners without exposing them to further humiliation. I guess my question is how one might get his prints - and similar work - out of museums and galleries.

[The works pictured in this post all are © Daniel Heyman.]

* I will leave to one side my thoughts on the distance between this Swarthmore enterprise and the ways the UofR student radio station (WRUR) has been integrated into the least adventuresome npr station on earth (WXXI Rochester) over the past couple of years.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been working with Daniel Heyman to let people know about his work, for about 6 months. In addition to showing the work in traditional gallery settings, and speaking to art-world people and art students about the project, he has been speaking and showing slides of his work to groups whose main focus is not art but human rights. Last fall he spoke on a panel at the ACLU member conference, and would like to continue on this path. And we're grateful to American Public Media's Weekend America for giving Daniel's project exposure to a national, more general audience.

27 February, 2007 08:54  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I noticed on his web site that he'd been taking part in panels sponsored by the ACLU etc. Thanks for the comment and for your efforts. I think his work is terrific.

27 February, 2007 09:18  

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