The hooded figure. That’s the image of Abu Ghraib that began living in our heads when The New Yorker published photographs taken by American soldiers along with Seymour Hersh’s historic Torture at Abu Ghraib article three years ago. By this point, the image has been significantly deadened—flattened and stylized into angry, well-intentioned iconography, the stuff of editorial cartoons and T-shirts. In becoming a symbol, it’s been detached from the gut-wrenching detail of its own origin story.
“I tried to use that image as a shorthand to comment on torture,” recalls artist Daniel Heyman , who began working on renderings of the hooded figure into silkscreen prints and etchings shortly after The New Yorker publication in spring 2004. “But it started to become ubiquitous, and I think it lost its ability to have much impact.”
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The above portfolio includes drypoint prints from Heyman’s work in Amman and Istanbul, as well as watercolors from Istanbul. For more information on Heyman and his Abu Ghraib work, visit www.danielheyman.com.
Its initial impact, however, was never lost on Heyman, who became fervently engaged in anti-war political debate. And then came an opportunity to throw back the hood of symbolism in his artwork and bring the stories of Abu Ghraib front and center.
A serendipitous meeting with Susan Burke, lead attorney in a reparations lawsuit against civilian interrogators and translators at Abu Ghraib, led to an invitation for Heyman to join Burke’s legal team on a trip to Amman, Jordan. There they would take depositions from former prisoners, and Heyman’s work could move beyond symbol and into story.
Heyman spent six days in hotel rooms in Amman during March 2006 listening to a dozen men and one woman recount abuse and humiliation. He also joined Burke’s legal team for a second set of depositions in Istanbul that August. Working quickly onto copper plates from which he would later make prints, Heyman captured words as well as images.
“I began drawing their faces as the interviews got under way, listening to the reporting of biographical information through the translator, the number of children they had, where they lived, but mostly concentrating on getting a good start on the portrait. They were often in prison many months, and the nature of these interviews was a recitation of the entirety—as much as they could remember—of all that time. So I had to listen, and wait and pick a moment to start writing that might capture the essence of their experience. As soon as I started writing, often with just a few lines established in the portrait, I focused completely on the words.”
“When I have made portraits of people in the past, I was never as concerned with the inner history of the sitter,” says Heyman. “I used the sitter’s image to convey a separate aesthetic idea. Years ago, I made larger narrative paintings that had particular stories attached to them, the sitters in front of me inhabited characters much the way an actor becomes someone else for the duration of a play.”
“But these particular people’s human identities had already been removed twice: first as wrongly accused and brutally tortured prisoners, second in the photos their captors took of them, hooded and faceless, where they became global icons but lost their individuality. I wanted the Iraqis to regain their humanity, to regain their faces and their voices.”
Nonetheless, says Heyman, his own perspective is embedded in the work: In drypoint etching the copper plates to make the prints featured in this portfolio, he had to transcribe his subjects’ words in reverse so they would be readable when pressed onto paper. The stories Heyman shares were written as if in a mirror. —Jim Gladstone