Truth Comes a Bit Closer


Here’s a fuzzy photograph of Fuad al Rubiah on his graduation day. He is walking, diploma in hand, the sharp line of his pressed gray slacks peeking from below his billowing black gown. He wears shiny black shoes and plastic glasses. His smile is striking—it’s wide, genuine, and spontaneous.

Images of Guantanamo detainees collected by Margot Herster from their families

Beside this is a picture of al Rubiah with his children. No cap or glasses this time. His son and daughter are on his knees, and his hands are so wide they cover the children’s slender upper arms. His daughter, on his left, is kissing his cheek. He is smiling again. This is a private smile, eyes shut. Overexposure washes red over the right edge.

Images of Guantanamo detainees collected by Margot Herster from their families

These are pictures of pictures, taken before al Rubiah, a Kuwaiti, was picked up in Pakistan and transported to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains. His photos are among 88 exhibited in Guantanamo: Pictures From Home. Questions of Justice. How they got from a modest home in Kuwait to the walls of the Fotofest gallery in Houston is a story of relationships flourishing in the voids between East and West, Muslim and Christian, caged and free.

Margot Herster is why the exhibit exists. Herster, a 29-year-old Austin-based photographer and artist, is married to Scott Sullivan, a lawyer with international law firm Allen & Overy. In March 2005, Sullivan traveled to Guantanamo to meet 11 detainees he’d agreed to represent. When her husband returned, Herster had “a million questions. Being a visual person, I really wanted to know, Who are [the detainees]? What do they look like?”

But Sullivan could say little. Issues of national security and client confidentiality limited him to generalities. “One of the few things he could tell me was that the men were all really small,” Herster says. “One was so small his feet didn’t touch the floor when he sat in his folding chair.”

That wasn’t the description Herster expected of the “worst of the worst” said to be confined in Guantanamo. She wanted to know more. Despite her connection through Sullivan, Herster was trapped in the same information gap as the rest of America.

“Guantanamo is all about information control,” Herster says. “Before you go to [Guantanamo] as a photographer, you’re given a list of regulations. You may not photograph any identifying features, including faces or ID numbers—anything that could tell you who an individual is. So the pictures are often blurry, or the head is cut off, or it’s of shackled hands or feet. Photographers shoot from a distance, through a cage, or through a barbed wire fence. The photographer’s position in Guantanamo is one of distance, and the pictures show that.”

So her question—who are the detainees?—seemed unanswerable.

A few months later, two more lawyers from Allen & Overy traveled to Yemen to meet the families of their clients. The lawyers needed two things: first, to find out what their clients looked like to ensure that the men they met at Guantanamo were the same men they’d been hired to help. After all, there was no official notification for families that their loved ones had been detained—they simply disappeared. So some lawyers were hired by families of the disappeared on the suspicion that their fathers or brothers were at Guantanamo. The lawyers needed to know the right man when they saw him.

Perhaps more importantly, the lawyers needed to establish a relationship with their clients’ families. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees should have access to due process, most Guantanamo residents had been imprisoned for two years or more and had contact with no one but their captors. When the lawyers went to meet them, they needed proof that they were actually lawyers and not clever interrogators lying to earn the detainee’s trust.

So Sarah Havens and Doug Cox went to Yemen for a week to meet the detainees’ families. While there, they took over 700 pictures: some documenting the captives’ lives before Guantanamo, some capturing the crippled routine of the families that carry on in their loved ones’ absence. Some showed Cox, tall and trim, in a suit flanked by men wearing white robes and red headdresses. All these pictures would serve to assure the prisoner, I was hired by your family. I am here for you. Trust me.

Images of Guantanamo detainees collected by Margot Herster from their families

When Cox and Havens returned, Herster seized on their photo collection. “I became obsessed with going through them and trying to glean what information I could about [the detainees],” she says. She was struck by the relationship between the families and the lawyers. “The pictures were so warm and inviting,” Herster says. “These families had really opened their homes to these strangers. So the project evolved from there. Was it the same for all the lawyers?”

The project became Guantanamo. Herster contacted every lawyer she could find representing detainees. Their experiences, she found, paralleled those of Havens and Cox. The detainees’ families, whether wealthy Saudis or impoverished Afghans, opened their homes to the lawyers, cooking them elaborate meals and sharing photo albums documenting their loved ones before they became “unlawful enemy combatants.”

Herster collected more than 2,000 photographs, supplemented by stories of the lawyers’ travels and audio recordings of some detainees’ status-review sessions. Selections from these materials, along with a video of Guantanamo lawyers speaking about their clients, make up the exhibit.

Guantanamo was born of a relationship—that of Herster to her husband—but it also documents the relationship between corporate lawyers from blue-chip firms and languishing so-called terrorists. “The lawyers took the case because of professional responsibility,” Herster says, “but then they became emotionally involved.”

This is a major component of the exhibit. On one wall, a flat-screen TV plays a short video in which six lawyers tell stories about their clients. One lawyer, Christine Huskey, discusses her first and last meetings with an unnamed client. Lean and angular, with cropped dark hair and wearing a black, military-style jacket, Huskey looks the part of the deadly serious Washington lawyer. She says, “We talked like friends. That’s what he wanted, a friend. He liked sports, so I told him about doing triathalons. But … now, well, this part is going to make me sad.” Her face changes as she says this. She nods and folds her hands. “He’s depressed. He’s really depressed. And the last time I went there he gave me his last will and testament. And now I’m going to cry, so you have to stop.” She turns away, and the camera cuts off.

In the audio segment, which plays in a bare white room with benches, clips of military hearings are scattered among stories by the lawyers. One, Josh Colangelo-Bryan, tells of his client, Juma’s, suicide. “In spring of 2005, he talked about the sense of isolation. He looked at me and said, ‘What do I do to keep myself from going crazy?’ And when you think about someone who’s locked up 23, 24 hours a day with virtually no ability to communicate with others, virtually nothing to occupy his mind, there’s certainly not a good answer to that question. In October 2005, I saw Juma. We met for half an hour or so. Certainly he spoke of some of the hopelessness he was feeling. But there wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary about it. After about an hour he said he needed to use the bathroom. I called the MPs in, and I left to give him privacy because the bathroom is only behind a steel mesh wall. After a few minutes, he hadn’t said he was ready, so I waited a few more minutes. At that point, I started to get very anxious, and I decided to see what was happening. I opened the door, and the first thing I saw was a big puddle of blood. And I looked up and saw Juma hanging by his neck from that steel mesh wall. I ran over, and I was literally 2 inches away from his face, but I couldn’t get to him because of that wall. I yelled his name as loud as I could, but no response. He seemed to be unconscious. He had a gash on his arm. I couldn’t get to him, so I yelled for the MPs. They ran in and fumbled with the keys for a minute and opened the door and cut him loose. They put him on the floor right in front of me. There was blood everywhere. I yelled for the MPs to do CPR, but the armed guard there just told me I had to get out of the room. As I walked out, I heard Juma gasping for air.”

This is an unbearable story, but the listener is aware that she is experiencing it removed two degrees. The lawyer feels for the prisoner. The listener feels for the lawyer. But this chain, however remote, does create a human link, through art, between us and them.

Not all the stories evoke despair. Perhaps every visitor’s favorite detainee is Fahmi al Tawlaqi, the 4-foot, 11-inch, self-described ladies man who said in his tribunal review that he couldn’t be a Taliban recruit because he loved magazines and hashish. Since being detained in Guantanamo in 2002, he has developed a love of rap, which he may first have been exposed to during one of the interrogation sessions, in which detainees are subjected to blasted Eminem. Featured among his photos is an image of him posing, serious-faced, against a background of a pastel waterfall and rainbow. He says he wants to put it on his profile when he gets out.

When will he get out? A few of the show’s detainees have been released or are slated for release. For most, there is no trial in the foreseeable future. Their lawyers, including Herster’s husband, will continue to visit Guantanamo about once every three months, passing news between detainees and their families; taking pictures; delivering gifts. The reason is ostensibly professional: The lawyers must maintain a relationship with the detainees and their families so that when the trial date does come, the relationship will be in place. In reality, they are helping keep the detainees alive by bolstering their hope and providing a connection to the world that goes on without them. They do this as lawyers, and as friends.

Guantanamo: Pictures from Home. Questions of Justice will show at Fotofest until May 19 before going to New York City for a yearlong showing at the Open Society Institute. As Herster and I sat on the steps of Fotofest a few days before her show opened, she allowed herself to reflect. We squinted, side by side in silence for a while. Then the wind blew her brown curls in her face. She pushed them back.

“So,” I ask. “You got your show. Did you find out what you needed to know?”

“No,” she says. “But it got me closer.”

Emily DePrang, a former Texas Observer intern, is a freelance writer living in Houston.