15 years later: Abu Ghraib and the faces of torture in Iraq

We meet photographer Chris Bartlett, who’s trying to make his portraits of Iraq’s prisoners still matter, more than a decade after pictures of their abuse first surfaced in America

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The images were nasty, brutish and utterly damning.

It was April 28, 2004, when America’s CBS News revealed the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at the hands of their US prison guards. Some 12 months earlier, American-led troops had invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, the country’s dictator of nearly 25 years. One year on, and some of those who were sent to “liberate” the Arab state as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom were being implicated in torture at the jail.

The blue touch paper was lit and the published shots went global. These photographic revelations portrayed prisoners, stripped naked, piled into a grotesque human pyramid and coerced to simulate indecent acts. One image depicted a man – Ali Shallal Al Qaisi –standing on a box, while hooded, holding electrical cables.

At the time, I was really unhappy with the Iraq war and Bush's decisions

Lynndie England, a US Army reservist, was shown clutching another inmate via a strap made to appear like a dog leash. England, who was given a three-year jail term and a dishonourable discharge for her actions, would subsequently describe herself as “the face of the prisoner abuse scandal”.

Abu Ghraib quickly became a byword for ­torture, but even before the 2003 invasion the ­prison had a nefarious reputation. During the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein, the jail, ­located 32 kilometres west of Baghdad, was a place where thousands were incarcerated,­ ­tortured and killed. It was later closed, but, when the Americans defeated Hussein, they reopened the facility for their own purposes. And just as Iraqis were jailed and tortured there by the merciless Hussein regime, so they were jailed and tortured by their occupiers and so-called "saviours".

Victims in the spotlight

As those fateful shots went viral, American photographer Chris Bartlett was plying his trade as a commercial still-life shooter in the fashion industry. While much of the world froze in the face of the Abu Ghraib revelations, it stunned Bartlett into action. "I was shocked, like a lot of people," Bartlett says, speaking exclusively to The National. "At the time, I was really unhappy with the Iraq war and [President George W] Bush's decisions and I was trying to figure out some way to get involved." So he turned to what he knows best: photography.

Installation at Photoville, 2014 in Brooklyn, N.Y. of Chris Bartlett’s Iraqi Detainee project. Photo by Chris Bartlett
Chris Bartlett’s Iraqi Detainee project installed at an exhibition in Photoville New York. Chris Bartlett

A writer friend, Donovan Webster, who had composed one of the first stories about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Vanity Fair, soon put Bartlett in touch with lawyer Susan Burke. She had taken on the cases of former detainees who were suing the US Department of Defence for unlawful imprisonment and torture. Burke, in turn, put him in touch with the inmates who were willing to become subjects in Bartlett's portrait project.

I tried to take as beautiful and respectful portraits as I could, to show that these were normal people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time

Between 2006 and 2007, Bartlett travelled to Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, where the ex-detainees, who had been held at Abu Ghraib or other American prisons in Iraq, spoke of their experiences to Burke and a group of human rights campaigners. It was harrowing to hear, as these experiences included being electrocuted. He sat there, as they recounted some of their most “powerful and upsetting” accounts and, with his camera in hand, set about trying to restore their dignity.

“The camera became a torture instrument” by the Americans who used it to capture their mistreatment of Iraqi detainees, says Bartlett, who now resides in Connecticut but works in New York, and has also lived in Paris and Milan. “So, I tried to take that idea and flip it – and try and take as beautiful and respectful portraits as I could, to show that these were normal people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, and were the victims of a horrible policy.”

One woman and 15 men

Out of the thousands of former inmates who were apprehended by US forces and sent to prison, despite having committed no criminal offence, Bartlett managed to persuade 16 to pose for a portrait. There were 15 men and only one woman. They came from all over: some had been caught in the scandal, others hadn't, but all had a similar story of torture to tell. "Abu Ghraib was certainly the most notorious prison, but not the only one, and some would argue not even the worst," Bartlett explains. As Abu Ghraib had become the symbol of the abuse the world over, this handful of people were willing to become the human face of a resistance, to stand up against the kind of cruelty that had been imposed upon them years before.

And while Bartlett knows the names of each and every one of them, he agreed to keep their identities confidential. Except for Al Qaisi – also known as “the hooded man” – who, he says, has been very public with his experience.

Therein lay a challenge, however: how to uncover his subjects’ souls, and yet respect their privacy – and preserve their dignities – at the same time. It was important to him that he didn’t “impose a style”, effectively going back to basics. “I did not want to get tricky,” Bartlett ­explains. “It was not about making it like a photo show or an advertising campaign. It was all natural light and I set up a studio near the windows in my hotel rooms. It was relatively fast and very simple. I just wanted to make them feel comfortable and essentially look straight into their eyes.”

Portrait of photographer Chris Bartlett. Courtesy Chris Bartlett
Portrait of photographer Chris Bartlett. Courtesy Chris Bartlett

The resulting images, shot using medium ­format film – not digital – and produced in black and white, sparkle for their elegant ­simplicity. The subjects retain a dignity far ­removed from the scenes of torture that have since metastasised online.

Bartlett’s portraits may capture a brief moment in time, but look closely and subtle expressions of self-worth, defiance and, above all, humanity emerge. They are simple, but carry a profound message, one that boldly looks to humanise ordinary people trying to escape a painful past.

'We're flawed, just like everyone else in the world'

He says his intention was “more about projecting honesty and compassion” where “words were almost less important”. There was, he recalls, a delicacy required in the act of shooting subjects who were still suffering from the shock and trauma of torture and humiliation. “I was just grateful – and the feedback I got was that they were grateful, too,” he adds. “They were really grateful to have some people who took an interest in them and who were trying to right the wrongs – or at least show the world that wrongs had been committed.”

Most of all, the interrogation techniques enacted under the George W Bush administration were abhorrent, stresses Bartlett. He contends that the ramifications of the so-called "­enhanced interrogation" methods adopted by the Bush White House are still being felt today, not least by those tortured Iraqis who still live with post-traumatic stress disorder. And, as such, he disputes any notion of American exceptionalism. "We're flawed, just like everyone else is in the world."

We [Americans] would like to think of ourselves as better – but we're not

It’s this inherent belief and, he says, his father’s influence as an Episcopal priest that has seen him gravitate towards photographic projects with a heavy focus on social justice. He’s also shot portraits of political dissidents and former political prisoners in Burma. “We [Americans] would like to think of ourselves as better – but we’re not,” he adds.

In 2008, Bartlett exhibited the Iraqi prisoners’ portraits in the US at New York’s Open Society Foundations’ Moving Walls exhibition – but he found little response from the press. His work remained relatively unseen for years after, until he found success in 2014, when he showed his pictures at the annual Photoville exhibition in New York, which generated more publicity. He also exhibited in Hamburg a year later, which was similarly successful, particularly as Al Qaisi himself, who today lives in Germany, was able to attend the opening.

Haj Ali (Ali Alqaisi) viewing his portrait in Hamburg Germany at the Hamburg Triennale, 2105. Photo by Chris Bartlett
Ali Al Qaisi viewing his portrait by photographer Chris Bartlett in Hamburg, Germany. Chris Bartlett

15 years later

Now, Bartlett is hoping to revisit his detainee work and, years after he shot the former Iraqi inmates, is keen to update his portfolio. But as it's more than a decade later, he understands some of the people he captured on camera have since died, mostly as a result of sectarian violence in Iraq. Al Qaisi, now 56, has managed to survive, but still suffers from the physical and psychological impacts of his Abu Ghraib torment. Salah Al Ejaili, 48, is another former Abu Ghraib inmate and journalist who survived, although he was not part of Bartlett's project. He lives in Sweden, and has also spoken out about the great mental pain and anguish he suffers from, caused by his treatment back then.

I'd like to get these pictures in front of decision-makers, to people who have this idea that torture is a viable thing for a military to do

Bartlett, who still widely practises fashion industry photography, says enough time has passed to able to throw a fresh perspective on an old project. "I want to do updated portraits and interviews," he says. "It will be a logistical and financial feat if I can actually pull it off." More importantly, he wants answers. What are the prisoners' views of the US now? What have their lives been like since? How does it ­compare to life before the invasion? How has their treatment by the US affected their daily lives? "And I feel how these questions are answered will determine where I go with more in-depth queries," he explains.

In April 2014, the Iraqi Justice Ministry announced the closure of the prison due to ­security concerns. Most recently, in February this year, a private military company was ­finally called on to answer to criminal charges for its alleged role in the torture of Iraqis during the American invasion. The US ­Pentagon used Caci Premier Technology to provide civilian ­interrogators for the prison. The company still works with the US ­Department of Defence to this day, and, until recently, has fought to stop the case from being heard. But now, after a 10-year ­battle, a group of Iraqi victims of Abu Ghraib will get their day in court.

Given that exactly 15 years has elapsed since CBS News published those nasty, brutish and utterly damning photos, Bartlett, who turns 60 this summer, has had plenty of time to reflect on how to make his work matter today. “I’d like to get these pictures in front of decision-­makers,” he decides. “To people who have this idea that torture is a viable thing for a military to do. I’d like to get them to at least pause and think beyond the fear and retribution-centred mindset.”

As America’s current president once insisted that “torture works”, perhaps there’s never been a better time.

Bartlett's other project: The faces of dissent in Burma

Alongside his project photographing prisoners in Iraq, Chris Bartlett also travelled to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), to take portraits of former political prisoners and National League for Democracy supporters. The result is an affecting collection of portraits, both in monochrome and colour, that makes up A Peaceful Rebellion – The Faces of Dissent in Burma. This photographic project shines a spotlight on the plights of more than 40 activists.

Bartlett took many of these photos in Yangon (which used to be called Rangoon), the largest city in Myanmar, in 2012 and 2013. He went to a media-training seminar, to the offices of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, and a nearby hospital. Every subject had a different – and yet strikingly similar – story to tell. “Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s secretary who spent 15 years under house arrest, has joked that you don’t ask a democracy activist of a certain age in Burma whether he’s been to prison,” writes Bartlett on his website. “You ask him instead to tell you how many times.”

The portraits include those of Dr U Htun Hlaing, a former political prisoner and Minister of Parliament (1990), who now runs a medical clinic in the Shan State. You’ll see Daw Myint Seen, who ran the National League for Democracy Committee for women. Then there’s Naing Ngan Lin, who was detained for two months for political activities, and who then went on to become a Member of Parliament in 2012. And Nay Chi Win, who's said to have been the unofficial strategist and advisor to Aung San Suu Khi before the 2012 by-election.

“Old or young, male or female, they carry no calling card, no means of overt identification,” writes Bartlett. “But the work of dissidence five decades into a struggle against authoritarian rule is a full-time engagement. It isn’t always a story of boisterous revolution and constant carnage. It is a story of endurance and dedication that begins at the lebel of the mind, the capacity to just say: no.

“It continues and extends into work as diverse and shape shifting as the needs of Burmese society.”

Find more information and images on Chris Bartlett's website chrisbartlettstudio.com.