Janet Hamlin has been the sole court illustrator documenting the trials at the US Prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2006. Her book, Sketching Guantanamo will be published in October.
Valentino: How did you come to work at Guantanamo?
Hamlin: The Associated Press was one of my clients and it was their turn to pool report from Guantanamo. They sent me for the first three trips and after that I started going as a freelancer. So, I kind of had a rut in the road, having been there the first three times. And it is a strange venue.
Valentino: What’s strange about it?
Hamlin: Usually, in the United States we can sit in the same physical space as the charged person, but in GITMO we are in a walled, glassed-in booth in the back that’s soundproof. So, you’re drawing from a distance. You’re drawing from the back and you’re drawing with a sound delay. The other thing is you’re dealing with is the constraint of your work being signed off by the Pentagon or the Homeland Security officer. Everything has to be signed and labeled before it can go out to media.
Valentino: Why do court sketches at Guantanamo need to be approved?
Hamlin: My understanding is I can’t draw any doors because they don’t want to show exits and entries into the courtroom, in case it’s a terror target. I can’t draw any of the guards or security personnel because they want to remain anonymous for security reasons. They don’t allow me any kind of long distance glasses anymore because they’re worried that I would be able to copy documents that they might be passing back and forth.
Valentino: How much pushback do you give the government when they issue these rules?
Hamlin: I’ve pushed back two or three times. At some point there has to be some resistance or some reasoning here. Initially, when I first started going down there I wasn’t allowed to draw faces.
Valentino: Which might be difficult for a court illustrator.
Hamlin: Right. When you can’t draw the face of the accused. Another time, I went to draw Majid Kahn – who had plead guilty. I did four sketches and they took them in to show his lawyer. He freaked out and said he didn’t want the sketches to move at all. They literally confiscated the sketches. I said “this is the last form of transparency, you’re censoring the last visual thing that can come out of court,” and I said “I am not leaving until we can resolve this.” I did a sit-in in the court room for four hours while they made phone calls until we finally got the drawings approved. It was a passive aggressive stance, that works.
Valentino: Are you allowed to sharpen your pencils in the court?
Hamlin: I pre-sharpen multiple pencils beforehand. It’s a secure space, so no blades.
Valentino: Do you ever feel the US government is trying to hinder your work as a journalist?
Hamlin: No, well, I don’t think they’re consciously trying to hinder. I did ask them to let me into the physical courtroom. I said “I’ll wear noise canceling headphones I’ll let two agents sit on either side of me to watch what I sketch. I’ll let you do whatever you need to whatever I produce.” They didn’t give me that clearance, but they did give me access to a separate room with monitors that are statically trained on each detainee. So – ironically – my best drawings are often done from a separate building from a monitor.
Valentino: How does that change your approach to creating? Sketching from a monitor is very different from sitting on a bench doing a portrait.
Hamlin: What you’re getting is the contained view. Sometimes I have tried to visualize the whole scene from the monitors but now I try to spend half the day in actual court and half in the monitor space. It’s a challenging venue because of the limitations.
Valentino: One of your drawings from a recent set of pre-trial hearings shows Navy Commander Walter Ruiz [The defense attorney who represents Mustafa al-Hawsawi] holding up emptied envelopes. Why did that come up in court?
Hamlin: Walter Ruiz was saying that all their mail and communications have been censored. Usually, when you have a lawyer and an accused they have a right to private communications. What also has come up in court is that the rooms that they would meet with the defendants in had smoke detectors that were actually listening devices. He was saying that all of their mail has been gone through, when they have tried to mail things to the detainees he has gotten back opened and emptied envelopes marked “return to sender” without the contents. Their lack of ability to communicate with the detainees is already challenged by distance and yet with military interference, it’s even harder. I thought that was an interesting point and visual.
Valentino: Earlier this year there was an incident in which the feed from the court into the spectators gallery and closed circuit TVs was switched off. What happened? Is there still a kill switch?
Hamlin: Well, what outraged everyone was that there is a kill switch. There is always is going to be a kill switch. The person that approves my drawings sits up on the judge’s right hand and he is supposed to be the only person that’s muting the sound. And when he does mute it, all we hear is white noise. What happened was he didn’t touch the button – somebody else remotely muted it. Which made all of us aware of the fact that this guy wasn’t the only person censoring. There was somebody else the whole time with the ability to mute and censor, and that the whole thing is being listened in on. You feel sometimes like you are in a big play scene or something and you are all puppets being manipulated, to a degree. In other words, all along this man was supposed to be the only person with the power to mute, but there was, in fact CIA in another building that had that control. We are told now that [The CIA] no longer can mute and are no longer listening.
Valentino: But, in light of the revelations about the NSA are you surprised?
Hamlin: No. In the back of my mind when I am doing these sketches I’m thinking ‘of course this is all being recorded and archived somewhere.’ It’s the same thing that I heard, they actually have two sets of court recorders. They have people in the actual courtroom recording what we don’t hear – the uncensored- and they have a whole other team recording what the public can hear.
Valentino: Is there much of a delay to access the censored transcripts?
Hamlin: Lately they are making a real effort to get transcripts to us pretty quickly. Also, what the journalists do is they take verbatim notes and share them with each other. They have to support each other – the media. That’s unusual because normally people are trying to scoop and get the lead.
Valentino: Last month the judge in the 9/11 trial, Army Colonel James Pohl upheld a rule which prohibited defense attorneys from using coil bound notebooks with their defendants.
Hamlin: It is the same problem they had with the journalists having spiral notebooks where they think that somebody is going to unravel that wire and make a weapon or a shiv or something else out of it. Pick locks, who knows?
Valentino: At last count  detainees remained on a hunger strike, down from 106 earlier this year. How is the hunger strike talked about when you’re at Guantanamo?
Hamlin: They don’t allow us to go to the camps or see anything or do anything with the detainees other than court – for that you have to do a whole separate trip. My understanding with the hunger strikes is that if a detainee eats one meal, skips three, and then eats a meal it is considered a hunger strike. The other thing is, their bodies are their only voices. It’s the last vestige of communication and control that they have. It’s a pretty sad statement that they were making. The numbers have gone down because I think the impact was made and more people have been released. But it is kept very separate from us.
Valentino: The use of torture – or ‘enhanced interrogation’— on detainees is not allowed to come up at the trials. But it is widely know that Kahlid Sheik Muhammed was waterboarded 183 times.
Hamlin: We all know that it’s happened, this is part of the problem with the trials there. There are obvious things that everyone knows about, but they still have these rigid barriers around it and you can’t admit it. But I have heard the word ‘torture’ brought up several times in the pre-trial hearings. They used to white that out, but now they’re just letting it play out.
Valentino: Do you ever struggle with how to portray individuals who have been accused of - and in the case of KSM, admitted too- very serious crimes?
Hamlin: Inevitably I am going to come into this work. But what I am trying to do is let their body language or what they’re wearing or what they’re doing or how they’re acting – I try to capture that - and let them tell people what they’re like.
Valentino: Are you frustrated with the process there as a sketch artist?
Hamlin: My father was in the military and I am trying to understand the military’s perspective. But, at the same time I want to see the justice and see these efforts pay off: convictions made and a sentence set. It is frustrating. I think everybody is frustrated. You’ve got a room full of brilliant people and they’re all hitting walls with each other. They have these dockets and these goals and they are trying to move along at a pace and it’s like trying to run in quicksand.
This interview originally appeared in Zeit Online.
Valentino is in Hamburg, Germany on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship through the International Center for Journalists