Daniel Heyman’s Iraqi Portraits give voice to the former detainees of Abu Ghraib Prison. Between 2006 and 2008, Heyman traveled to Jordan and Turkey with American lawyer Susan Burke to witness the testimony of former prisoners held at Abu Ghraib and later released without charges. Burke was building a case in US federal court against private contractors who provided interrogation and translation services, and were involved in the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons. Heyman accompanied her team on five trips to the Middle East between 2006 and 2008, meeting with forty former detainees of Abu Ghraib’s notorious “hard site,” and later with witnesses to the Blackwater/Nisour Square shooting that left seventeen Iraqi civilians dead and twenty injured.
The detainees met with lawyers, translators, note takers, and Heyman in hotel rooms. While lawyers collected statements for the lawsuit, Heyman sketched the likenesses of the detainees. Moved by the power of each detainee’s words, he began transcribing their testimonies directly onto his images. His portraits capture the humanity of these innocent Iraqis. In contrast to the anonymous figures—hooded and caped, or naked in piles—in the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, Heyman presents us with individuals. They are farmers, doctors, shopkeepers, teachers, taxi drivers, husbands and fathers who speak of their fears for their families. They pose naturally, dressed as they were at the time of the interviews, most in western-style clothing, a few in keffiyeh and thwab (the traditional Middle Eastern headdress and robe). The texts surrounding the portraits are heartbreaking. They detail the trauma, overwhelming fear, and humiliation that detainees experienced at the hands of Americans. They document the changing attitude of some Iraqi’s toward Americans, who they first viewed as liberators and later as occupiers. They tell of the horror of being dragged from one’s bed in the middle of the night. And, they make specific and personal the litany of abuses that have come to be associated with Abu Ghraib Prison: rape, threats of rape, and other forms of sexual assault; being forced to watch family members being tortured and abused; being hung by their arms for days until the pain from their dislocated shoulders made them loose consciousness; repeated beatings; forced nudity; hooding; isolation; being urinated on; and being prevented from praying and abiding by their religious practices.
The exhibition, curated by Bell Gallery director Jo-Ann Conklin, continues with portraits of witnesses of the Blackwater/Nisour Square shootings and a monumental (11 x 15 ft), expressionistic print entitled When Photographers are Blinded, Eagles' Wings are Clipped. While the Iraqi Portraits serves a dual purpose as documentation and art, When Photographers are Blinded … represents Heyman’s personal response to the war. The title and subject were inspired by photojournalist Michael Kambler, who referred to photojournalists in Iraq as “blinded” by military censorship. The print—an etching on plywood—unites a number of symbolic components: a photographer wearing a blindfold; a naked man hanging upside down with an arrow through his heart and a rose covering his genitals; a man lying prone on the ground, retching; eagles with broken (clipped) wings; “boots on the ground,” some missing one leg; and a collapsing house of cards containing depictions of Assyrian reliefs, car bombings, and the bombing of Shiite Al Askari Mosque. This massive, powerful work coalesces into a warning about censorship and the potential decline of American democracy.
Painter and printmaker Daniel Heyman lives in Philadelphia and teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and Princeton University. He received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College. An exhibition of his Iraqi War images entitled Bearing Witness traveled throughout the state between 2010 and 2012, and his work has been exhibited in major institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Princeton University Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library. Heyman is the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim and PEW Foundations, and has held residencies at the Yaddow Colony and the MacDowell Colony. His work is in the collections of Yale University Art Gallery and Beinecke Library, Yale University; Baltimore Museum of Art; Hood Museum of Art and Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College; Davidson Art Center, Wesleyan University; Davis Art Museum, Wellesley College; Getty Research Institute; Library of Congress, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College; Portland Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, among others.