By Rachel Tennenbaum
“Abdullah’s mother has turned his room into a shrine for him,” reads an excerpt from an interview with lawyer Anant Raut. “They have his favorite clothes set out, hanging on the closet. They’ve pretty much left the room as he remembers it, so it is waiting there ready for him when he comes back.”
Abdullah Al Anazi is a Saudi Arabian detained at Guantanamo Bay, and Raut is the lawyer who represented him.
This is a glimpse of one of the many text excerpts, photographs and videos that adorn the walls of the UC Santa Cruz Porter Sesnon gallery for photographer Margot Herster’s exhibition “Guantanamo; pictures from home.”
A 2004 Supreme Court decision ruling that Guantanamo Bay detainees could fight their imprisonment led many American lawyers to work in Cuba. Herster is the wife of such a lawyer, who helped represent Gitmo detainees from Yemen. After her husband’s colleagues journeyed to Yemen to create working relationships with their client’s families, she immediately asked to see their photographs.
“I was a bit shocked by their warmth, by their description of a place that I could sort of see,” Herster said. “An American lawyer trying to connect to clients’ lives. From there they used photography to build trust with their clients and become involved with their clients in a much more personal way.”
Herster found herself emotionally taken, and sought out other law firms who did work in Cuba for similar photographs. Most obliged kindly. Within a year, “Guantanamo” was ready for galleries.
“What struck me was the rawness of the pictures,” Herster said. “They weren’t intended to be shown to the public. So developing them as a story for the public is really a form of communication. It was really a question: what can I communicate to the public using these pictures?”
Micah Perks, author and Kresge College provost, first heard Herster’s interview on National Public Radio’s program “Day to Day” in April of 2007. She then decided to bring the photographer to UCSC.
“I felt strongly about the work she was doing,” Perks said. “How a photograph could create trust between a lawyer and a detainee.” In getting the show to UCSC, Perks was able to also connect the freshman core class, “Power and Representation,” to the show wa noble goal in her eyes.
“It’s powerful to see a photograph do the opposite: humanizing the ‘enemy,’” she said.
At the Sesnon Gallery, photographs, videos and interview excerpts adorn the white walls, where one gets a peek into the lives of detainees from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are photographs of lawyers and cousins, uncles, videos of children, and interview excerpts. The only images of the detainees are their passport pictures, if there are any at all.
Dr. Soraya Murray is a professor with the art department of UCSC, specializing in media.
“Guantanamo presents a kind of political art that isn’t seen enough in these times, because it so often gets misconstrued as anti-American or anti-government,” Murray said. “But the representation of many viewpoints, including those of strong dissent, are in keeping with a living democracy.”
Murray explained that the show does not include “art” in a traditional sense because it favors content over aesthetics. “When these images — originally made for official or personal uses — are selected by the artist and re-contextualized in a public contemplative context, they begin to take on a new significance,” Murray said.
But the new significance is complex and ambiguous in nature. While many detainees in Guantanamo Bay may be held for no reason, some may have actually committed crimes.
“The work doesn’t have a position as to the guilt or innocence of people at Guantanamo,” Herster said. “The pictures can’t tell us â€¦ whether they are ‘terrorists’ or ‘enemy combatants’. They can tell us a little bit about the lives and relationships of these people that are affected by their imprisonment.”
Perks reiterated this. “In representing the enemies, it’s not that they’re ‘terrorist’ or not,” she said. “We don’t even have access to that information. I personally feel that it goes against basic human rights.”
_“Guantanamo; pictures from home” will be shown at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery until Dec. 1._