Publication Date
June 3, 2009

The Documentary Photography Project initiative of the Open Society Institute (OSI) and National Security and Human Rights Campaign presented a discussion of the role of documentary photography in providing accountability for torture and depicting the human stories behind these abuses. Amy Yenkin, Director of the OSI Documentary Photography Project, introduced the event and the "Moving Walls" exhibition of documenting human rights abuses, created in order to inform the public, gain support, and increase demands for justice. The event included the Moving Walls 15 " exhibition  of Chris Bartlett’s photos. (To access the portraits, select “Chris Bartlett” through this link.)

The Documentary Photography Project assembled this panel with cognisance of attempts to build public support for a non-partisan commission to investigate and report on what has been characterised as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees held since September 11 2001 by the United States (US). This discussion reviewed the historical and medical evidence of torture since, as indicated here, the post-2001 US government Presidential endorsement of torture as an interrogation method of these detainees, and the legal efforts towards bringing about accountability of those who inflicted the torture and gave orders for its use. A part of the discussion focused on the role of photographic images in the human rights campaigning.

Panellists for the discussion were:

  • Matthew Alexander, former US Air Force Interrogator, Iraq
  • Chris Bartlett, Photographer (Moving Walls 15 Exhibition)
  • Susan Burke, Attorney, Burke O'Neil LLC
  • Allen Keller, Director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, New York University Medical Center, New York, NY, US
  • Stephen Rickard, Director, Open Society Institute-Washington, DC, US (Moderator)

The panel was organised 5 years after the release of the Abu Ghraib (Iraq) photos, which were, as stated on the OSI website, “images that shocked the world with their graphic depiction of abuse, humiliation, and torture of detainee”. The discussion was held at the time that the US government debated the release of additional torture photographs, resulting in the May 13 2009 decision by the US President to prevent the release of the images based on their potential to inflame anger against the US military and endanger active troops.

Panellist Susan Burke remarked on how much it means to victims of torture that citizens of the country sponsoring the act are concerned with bringing the perpetrators to justice. She reviewed a legal attempt to sue specific corporate actors for conspiracy as a tactic for seeking social justice and accountability for torture perpetrated in the post-September-11 2001-2008 period. Her law office in Baghdad, Iraq, continues to collect testimony of torture victims, based on the fact that victims do not always come forward immediately. They plan to continue to represent these victims in US courts.

Allen Keller spoke from a medical perspective about the meaning of words, photos, and actions associated with the effort to bring the actuality of these practices to the US public. His team did physical and psychological evaluations of victims, including prisoners at the US military prison in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba. He reviewed for the panel the manner of torture and the factors that caused the clinical findings, particularly the imposition of a complete loss of control on the individuals. He emphasised the meaning for those detainees with whom he had contact of communicating apology and of the efforts to bring about justice.

Responding to a legal team request, Chris Bartlett chose to photograph the detainees using the techniques of commercial portraiture accompanied by a presentation in text of the details of their abuse. His hope was to bring people into relationship with the images prior to presenting the more difficult material on their detention and treatment. He hoped to touch the humanity in his viewers by presenting the dignity of his subjects.

Matthew Alexander spoke of the role of interrogator and leveraging one's humanity, integrity, and cultural sensitivity as an interrogator. He stated that style of interrogation has more to do with individual values than the interrogator training or role definition. He reviewed the strategy used on his first assignment in Iraq in which he asked the reasons that the prisoner hated Americans, and, having heard them, he apologised. He recommended, as a result of this experience, relationship-building as a successful means of interrogation. He stated that prejudice is the root cause of poor interrogation and of use of torture as a tool. He believes that those who used torture as an interrogation tactic were approaching interrogation as retaliation because of prejudice. He spoke of the danger of the precedent of officers being confirmed for promotion who both give and follow unlawful orders, including those surrounding unlawful interrogation techniques.

Chris Bartlett responded to the question of what surprised him in his role as photographer: He stated that it was the positive receptivity of his subjects to someone trying to make more public their victimisation, to bring perpetrators to justice, and to bring about public demands for social justice. Other panellists echoed the positive responses to apology, accountability, and attempts to bring about justice.

An attendee asked for reactions to the possible release of classified photos. Susan Burke said that her clients want the photos released as a matter of accountability and a stimulus to bring about justice. The photos, as she stated, bring about pain in the victims, but they still stand by the need for their release. Matthew Alexander explained that the short-term effect of releasing the photos might cause retaliation. However, he felt that the long-term effect is more important and that, like apology, those now under the aegis of Al Qaeda due to its recruiting based on the US use of torture will accept and respect the re-establishment of accountability in the US. Allen Keller suggested that the photo release might not need to be public, but might serve equally well by releasing the photos to a publicly acceptable panel who could release a review written in the context of accountability.

An attendee asked about the moral aspects of torture. As a photographer, Chris Bartlett explained that he chose a stance that was not unbiased and, in fact, was aimed to editorialise and convey his moral beliefs about torture. Allen Keller spoke about attempts to confuse the language describing the acts so as to exclude them from the moral definition of torture. He stated that trying to set the methods outside the moral principles against torture endangers all human rights protesters, who might be subjected to them, in all countries. He favoured using the definitions established internationally prior to the Former President George W. Bush administration, which involved itself in attempting to redefine interrogation methods.

The discussion turned to problematic aspects of moving forward. The moderator expressed the thought that the entire story has not been sufficiently publicly presented. Others argued that the language used has clouded the issues as publicly presented. An attendee asked Susan Burke why she chose a photographer and writer to bring along to meet the detainees. She stated that the images published by Amnesty International inspired her. She felt that there was a need for documentation, which she sees as a giving the victims the "minor" benefit of knowledge that their stories are being publicly documented.

The final statements included the desire for sufficient public pressure to move forward with official apologies and legal action against the perpetrators. Allen Keller pressed for the increased use of the Abu Ghraib photos and the Bartlett photos, as well as the film Torture on Trial, made for the project, to increase public knowledge and calls for full disclosure, accountability, and apology. Matthew Alexander spoke to the need for the military to understand that its work should enhance, not oppose, the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights organisations.


OSI website, September 24 2009 and October 17 2012. Image credit: © Katharina Hesse