Sketching Injustice: The Official Court Drawings From Guantanamo Bay

By Jillian SteinhauerOctober 17, 2013

Sketching Injustice: The Official Court Drawings From Guantanamo Bay

Sketching Guantanamo by Janet Hamlin

ONE MIGHT THINK it would be difficult to write an apolitical book about US military operations at Guantanamo Bay, and yet Janet Hamlin’s Sketching Guantanamo: Court Sketches of the Military Tribunals, 2006–2013 is just such a book. Up until this year, when artist Molly Crabapple joined her in the courtrooms, Hamlin was the only artist drawing the military proceedings at Guantanamo; since photographs and filming are not allowed, this meant that Hamlin was, for many years, the only person supplying a visual record.

That makes Hamlin’s book important — and there’s no denying it is. But its tone, which amounts to carefully considered neutrality, raises significant questions about the responsibility of someone who’s witnessed the workings of possibly the most controversial courtrooms of the 21st century. Hamlin sees herself as more than a court artist; as she writes in the book, she considers her work “visual journalism.” In that case, the questions become even more pressing: Is objectivity possible, and is it optimal? Is there a point at which neutrality becomes complicity?



The tribunals by which the military tries prisoners at Guantanamo were created in 2006, when Congress, at the request of then president George W. Bush, passed the Military Commissions Act. The act “authorize[s] trial by military commission for violations of the law of war, and for other purposes” — commissions whose faithfulness to traditional trials and treatment of prisoners was hazy at best. In one notable passage, the act specifically states, “No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.” The Geneva Conventions are the internationally agreed-upon standards for conducting war. Among other things, they prohibit torture.

The act also, conveniently, suspended the rights of military detainees to habeas corpus, a.k.a. the writ that allows prisoners to challenge the lawfulness of their imprisonment. “No court, justice, or judge,” the act reads,

shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.

Note the use of the word “properly”: the lawfulness of the imprisonment has already been determined by the United States government, doer of no wrong, maker of no mistakes.

The Military Commissions Act of 2006 created a legal black hole to accompany the physical one that was the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, founded in 2002.  It’s common knowledge that at Guantanamo, prisoners were abused and tortured in innumerable ways — sleep deprivation, waterboarding, solitary confinement and other tactics the government has tried to dismiss as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — causing them to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed, and often attempt suicide. Some of those prisoners were al-Qaeda operatives and war criminals; a good many were probably innocents who had been captured and sold in Afghanistan in exchange for a bounty offered by the US government. A report by Seton Hall University Law School found that 80 percent of Guantanamo prisoners fell into this category. The Military Commissions Act ensured they had no way out.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional for not allowing prisoners the right to habeas corpus. The next year, President Obama seemed like he would make good on his word to close the Guantanamo camps when he announced the suspension of the military tribunals. But months later, The New York Times reported that he was leaning toward resuming them, and indeed, he went on to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, which updated the Military Commissions Act with a handful of reforms. The commissions began again in 2011 and continue to this day. There are 164 prisoners left at Guantanamo. In June, 106 of them were on hunger strike. That number has since gone down to 15, but the detainees continue to struggle to be heard.


Hamlin was first dispatched to Guantanamo in 2006, on behalf of the Associated Press. She has attended and drawn the military commissions since the very beginning, watching the system evolve and keeping pace as best she can. At first, she was forbidden to sketch the detainees’ facial features; then, for some reason, she was allowed. In the beginning, she was able to draw the outlines of jury members while keeping their faces blurred; then, for some reason, she wasn’t anymore.

Sketch of  a tribunal by Janet Hamlin
Sketching Guantanamo: Court Sketches of the Military Tribunals, 2006-2013

Reprinted with permission, courtesy of Fantagraphics


One rule that hasn’t changed is approval: Hamlin must have her drawings okay’d before they leave the courtroom, not just by the military but, remarkably, by the detainees as well. (In one famous incident that made headlines and the Daily Show, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom the 9/11 Commission Report calls “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” demanded that Hamlin fix the depiction of his nose. Agreeing that it wasn’t quite right, she did.) A little white sticker reading “Clearance of Sketch Artist Courtroom Drawings” and signed by a court security officer is affixed to the bottom of each sketch. It appears on nearly every page of Sketching Guantanamo, an incessant, rectangular reminder of the censorship shaping the drawings that make up this book.

When it comes to the larger of the two Guantanamo courtrooms, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 conspirators are being tried, Hamlin isn’t even allowed inside. She and other journalists must sit in a separate room at the back, separated from the proceedings by three panes of thick, soundproof glass. Not only that, but sound from the trial is broadcast into the room on a 40-second delay, to allow an officer who sits near the judge to censor classified material, if need be. In Hamlin’s words, “What we are seeing looks like a badly dubbed movie.”

Given these circumstances, Hamlin’s animated, colorful, and detailed sketches constitute a nearly heroic effort. The fact that she’s been able to give us thoughtful close-ups of everyone from Canadian Omar Khadr, the youngest convicted war criminal in modern history, to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attests to her perseverance and skill as an artist. Her portraits and scenes breathe life — including that most familiar quality of human existence, tedium — into an operation shrouded in political secrecy. When Hamlin draws Khadr’s clenched, angular shoulders and his tired, weary face, he becomes a real person. Mohammed appears in the sketches alternately impassioned, disinterested, and, when he shows up one day in a camouflage vest, menacing — until we read the accompanying caption, in which Hamlin explains that the item “is a hunting vest and can be found at Sears.” Details like these make the book well worth reading.

Above: Sketch of  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by Janet Hamlin

Below: Sketch of  Omar Khadr by Janet Hamlin
Sketching Guantanamo: Court Sketches of the Military Tribunals, 2006-2013

Reprinted with permission, courtesy of Fantagraphics


But the details are also the downfall, because Hamlin and her editor have forgotten to zoom out. Sketching Guantanamo is written very much from the perspective of insiders — the essays and texts not by Hamlin come from fellow journalists who’ve covered Guantanamo, lieutenant colonel and defense lawyer Jon Jackson, and Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security. Some of them write about specific detainees and their cases, others pay tribute to Hamlin herself. Either way, what’s sorely lacking throughout is context. The writing in the book rarely extends beyond the courtroom in any meaningful way. Nowhere does it mention that the majority of men who ended up in Guantanamo were probably innocent. That a US-induced bounty system put them there. That half of the prisoners still at Gitmo were cleared to leave years ago. The only allusion to the hunger strike is a pair of brief, black-and-white sketches showing the restraint chair and a cheery doctor holding the liquid nutrition used for force-feeding. Information about the book’s primary subject, the military commissions, is given mostly piecemeal, with the best and most helpful summary coming in the afterword on the second-to-last page, which renders it not particularly useful unless you read the book again.

In the case of a different topic, lacunae like these might be forgivable. In the case of Guantanamo, they’re troubling at best. What’s more, they’re combined with a set of drawings that, by their very existence, inevitably legitimize the military commissions, which many human rights groups continue to challenge. Hamlin’s visual record is important, and she’s made her sketches with the noble causes of transparency and posterity in mind, but neither she nor we can escape that approval sticker. The military and the government are watching, limiting what we can see. Under such circumstances, Hamlin’s objectivity becomes tunnel vision: it replicates the status quo.

I’m not suggesting that Hamlin must become an outspoken activist, nor that she must write about Guantanamo in impassioned language and use creepy emoticon faces for guards whose actual faces she can’t draw, as Molly Crabapple has. Crabapple said herself, in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “Janet, when she draws — and she’s a brilliant artist — she is, she’s becoming a camera. She’s trying to be as objective as she can so she can create a record for history, which is a very, very important thing.” I am suggesting, however, that if Hamlin is going to aim for objectivity and pin her work to the cause of information, then she must offer as much of that information as possible.

There are some insightful choices and moments in Sketching Guantanamo. The chapter devoted to Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, offers Hamdan’s own words and thoughts on his trial, both in Arabic and in translation. Hearing directly from a former detainee who went through the process is invaluable. “I would ask the lawyers how an officer from the side of the government could determine my fate, when they don’t know or understand about Arabs or even Yemeni tradition at least, and they have no idea about Islam,” he says. In the final section, which features photos and sketches from outside the courtrooms and around the camp, Hamlin includes pictures she took of several Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group in China, protesting their plight. Their presence hints at the wrongful imprisonment and desperation that comprise so much of the Guantanamo story.

As for the bulk of the images, the courtroom sketches, they do offer something beyond humanity for individual prisoners: a broad portrait of the “War on Terror.” Hamlin’s drawings sketch it out in great, unflattering detail — the white men subjugating the brown ones, the Westerners controlling the Easterners, the Christians lording it over the Muslims. It’s impossible to look at these pictures and think we’re really getting anywhere, even if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were to be sentenced to death. In a series of makeshift courtrooms, with a series of shifty rules, a bunch of men are making it up as they go along.


Jillian Steinhauer is a senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Jillian Steinhauer is senior editor of the art blogazine Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other places. For smaller doses, you can also find her Twitter.


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