Nov 7 9:00 PM

A visual journalist: Janet Hamlin on sketching Guantanamo's courts

"Sketching Guantanamo," a new book of the artwork of Janet Hamlin.
Janet Hamlin Illustration

Cameras are not allowed in the courtrooms of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. There's only one visual source available when the media wants to report on 9/11 legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay: The courtroom sketches of New York-based illustrator Janet Hamlin. Many of Hamlin's sketches of the hearings have been compiled in a new book, "Sketching Guantanamo."

Hamlin's body of work demonstrates what she calls the "expressive feel" of figurative art. After working as a courtroom artist for the Associated Press, she was assigned by the agency to cover military tribunals at Guantanamo. She then returned as a freelance pool artist to cover the 9/11 hearings.

At Guantanamo Bay, Hamlin's work receives close scrutiny. She can only view the 9/11 suspects through a glass window three panels thick, or on a split-screen monitor in a separate room. The sound she hears from the courtroom is delayed 40 seconds, to prevent sensitive information from leaking. Every sketch that reaches public view carries a white sticker signed by a security officer who is present during the proceedings. Hamlin has been forced to erase confidential details from her drawings. But she tells Al Jazeera America that through the difficult conditions, she knows she serves an important role, creating what she calls "visual Polaroids" of the tribunals for the world to see. 

Q. You write in "Sketching Guantanamo," "My drawings are sort of a visual journalism." What do you mean by that and how do you go about doing your work?

A. I try to think of what I'm seeing and how I can best show it to everybody else. So, much like a journalist, you frame. You think about what you want to show and how you want to frame it.

A courtroom is an organic environment, so that's going to constantly change, but as an artist I sort of have to visually edit. There are so many things that can't always fit, when there's a lot of action or a lot of witnesses. So I try to frame it so that you see what's actually there, where it is in proximity. But I take out things that simply can't fit in. Not every book is going to go in there, not every person. So that's where the visual journalism falls into place.

And it's also the idea of being somewhat neutral. Not lacking in emotion, but honest, as honest visually as I can be, to let the viewer make their own assessments or judgments.

Q. Looking at your drawings, I thought that you had the freedom to get up close to the suspects and then to see the broader view, and now I realize that you were in this constrained space. How are you able to get so many angles?

A. Well, there is a certain amount of freedom. … [The] military kind of met me halfway. Because I kind of made a pitch, saying, "Look, look at how much better my drawings were when I was sitting close to the detainees. This is such an important trial. Is there any way I can get in the other side of the glass? You know, I'll sit with two guys beside me, I'll wear noise-canceling headphones, whatever it takes to engender your trust so I can actually be in that environment."

And they wrote back and they said, "Sorry, it's not going to happen. You don't have the security clearance." The concern is I'm going to see some paperwork, or something happening that I shouldn't, or hear something. So they created this room of split screen views where they have cameras positioned on each detainee's face. … I've got sort of the judge's eye view of the detainees and it's actually pretty luxurious, as far as that goes, because there's no people between me and them, like there is in the actual courtroom. 

Q. Seeing the same 9/11 suspects over the years — and especially with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, because you capture so many of his quirks, his actions — do you feel that you have any more insight into them as people?

A. This is their one opportunity where they're actually — all five — in the same room together. They're actually allowed during breaks, sometimes, to just talk to each other.

So I'm seeing very animated people, and I'm not feeling I'm always capturing that. But they're pretty animated during the whole procedure. They're talking with translators, they're gesturing to each other, they're passing pieces of paper to the judges or to each other, they're praying. During the breaks, I feel like I get more of the insight, in terms of what they do when everybody's left. Because I've been allowed, sometimes, to stay and sketch on.

Janet Hamlin writes about this sketch dated Aug. 9, 2010, "Omar Khadr got upset as they showed video of four soldiers wearing blue latex gloves trying to examine him. He was non-cooperative and upset in the video."
Janet Hamlin Illustration

Q. One striking image shows Omar Khadr, one of the youngest Guantanamo detainees, who was accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. In the drawing, Khadr is visually uncomfortable while he's seeing a video of guards trying to examine him. What was going through your mind as you were creating this drawing, and how did you want to present this moment?

A. They were showing that he didn't want to come to court, and [the guards] had the gloves on, and you could see that [Khadr] was visibly upset and he was resisting. And when they showed the video of that, you know, when he had his head in his hands, and … his shoulders kind of coming up and the way that his white tunic kind of draped, it was a sad moment, body language-wise. It upset him to look at it, you could see it was an upsetting moment to relive that time, when he wasn't willing to come, and he was being forced to come to court … His body language at that time felt like it told a story that I needed to capture. This is his feeling clearly coming through in his posture, and that was my goal, to show that.

Family members of Sept. 11 victims view the proceedings, in a sketch dated Jan. 28. 2013.
Janet Hamlin Illustration

Q. You've also been able to interact with family members of Sept. 11 victims who have chosen to come down to witness the proceedings. What is it like to interact with them and what do you feel you've learned from them?

A. I've had a couple of different perspectives. I mean, the family members, whenever they share their stories, it's very difficult. You know, they're sitting in court and they're holding pictures of their loved ones and then we hear their stories.

Initially, I felt concerned that I might be perceived as sort of [a] predatory person, like encroaching or opportunistic. And that's not at all my intent. And fortunately, they haven't perceived that either. They've come over and they've let me know that my sketches mean a lot to them, which… feels good to hear, but at the same time, this whole thing, it's just … it's just a really sensitive and intense thing.

It's not a light thing going on. People's lives at stake – people lost and people in that room being tried. I mean, it's just a really … there's no way around it, sorry. It's … I'm … I'm feeling a lot when I'm trying to sketch but at the same time I try to tamp it down so that I can stay focused.

Q. In your book, you share sketches and photos of how conditions are for the detainees. One of your drawings includes a detainee's easel, after some detainees learned how to draw "a simple, Disney-like rose." Do you think that everyone, including the Guantanamo detainees, should have access to art?

A. Personally, I don't see why not. People might feel they should have access to nothing, but there's questions as to whether all of them have charges or not. You know, should people stop learning if they're behind bars? Should they stop having access to anything, you know? I don't think so. I think people should have the ability to express, to continue to grow, and to learn.

To see them learning to draw a Disney flower, I mean, that just felt really wrong. But, you know, it was the lesson that was being shown, and I thought it was a poignant example of sort of a yin and a yang. You're in a prison and you're seeing a lesson about a stylized rose. So that felt like a kind of moving sketch to grab, to draw.

I've seen some incredible art. There's an art gallery that was published online of art done by detainees. I've seen that there are lessons to learn English, there are videos, there are books. I don't feel like I'm in a position to make a judgment on whether they should be given that or not. I think enrichment should be given to all people, but this is just my humble opinion.

Q. What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public has about Guantanamo Bay?

A. Well, I think people forget that it's a base where families live. You know, I grew up most of my life, or at least up until high school, on military bases. … My father was an Air Force pilot, we were stationed as a family on base. … So when I landed [in Guantanamo], it was very familiar, in a way that a McDonald’s or a Target might feel, you know?

They purposefully make these bases familiar. There's a high school, there's a bowling alley, there's bars, there's McDonald's. It's a home for people. And then on the other side of that island there's camps, or prisons. People forget that it's a base first and it became this other thing secondly.

The perception of Camp X-Ray, [the temporary Guantanamo site where alleged Al-Qaeda and Taliban members were kept in 2002,] seems to still be the perception of Guantanamo. There's a lot that we don't see. There's a lot that we don't know about, a lot that I haven't seen. So it's hard for me to say definitively, but I think that people don't realize that it's a home base. 

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