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Restoring Dignity


Now engaged to be married, selling cars now for a living, he steps back from the camera. His Abu Gharib ID bracelet is offered to view, a photo of him on the bracelet is faded and yet coiled in his open palm--the bracelet is evidence. They forced him to lie down in urine and feces, kicking him in the side until he fainted. Photography was part of the torture. 

Chris Bartlett's Iraqi Detainees Photography Project recognized that photography was part of torture, used to objectify the men, further their humiliation. Passed around among the guards, the images later went worldwide. The images featured in his exhibition do the long work of repair, restoring dignity to these same men. 

If there is something to be said about finding God in these images, finding God from a particular liturgical community of praxis, grounded in the work of resistance, let me step back from the image into the following two points of the present viewing.

First, Easter is a time for the Church to celebrate the Risen Christ. Many churches today comprehend the trauma that survivors of violence experience. Shelly Rambo's Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining critiques the vision of healing many people seem to have, that especially in the case of trauma, survivors have more of a Holy Saturday experience than a resurrection. The role of one who accompanies the survivor is that of witness. She celebrates the courage of the survivor in the face of an ongoing death.  The Wounded healer, Henri Nouwen's potent reflection of the ministry of healing from his experience as a wounded, another's increasing agency to accompany others, begins with the healing healer's self-work. Jesus appears to followers and will show Thomas the wounds of his crucifixion. The healer, as Nouwen describes, heals out of the grace of his wounds. 

Second, as a Catholic Social Justice Advocate I am admittedly quick to find Jesus in any victim of injustice. The crucified. Witness Against Torture has led me to the cross, shown me the contemporary crucifixion of Guantanamo and the relationship to Bagram and Abu Ghraib. The apparatus that included paramilitary, psychologists and CIA black sites. The description of the enhanced interrogation techniques, the evolution of the practice of waterboarding from medieval ages to Vietnam era SERE training. The cross, the ongoing wounds...Against Torture we unite in a rhetoric of no. As activists we always see the already and not yet from the vantage of the cross. Easter stories, risings, not so much. 

 The photographs

Chris Bartlett shows us the men's gaze. The accompanying narrative is a summary of their standing at the time of the portrait, including some account of the torture they endured. The gaze and the narrative interrogate the viewer's complicity. The black and white of the photographs de-ethnicizes the men. The formal frame of the face shorns the viewer of clues, context as to culture and geography. Only the men, their face, and the suggestion of a feeling. While one face seems to emerge from a deep black space, another, positioned beside a window, has turned his glance into the light. Bartlett works with still-life fashion items, pairing handbags, arranging a purse strap. The men he shows us have been objectified already, commodities of the war on terror. In these portraits, he has managed to insert his own shame at being an American into the composition of shadow and light, always staging the shaded side left, the light, the look into the light, as a visual cue to what is read as truth, or the light of God, or the hope of a better future.

-*-*-*-

<https://chrisbartlettstudio.com/SOCIAL-JUSTICE/IRAQI-DETAINEE/1> accessed 7 April 2021.

"I hated myself for Abu Ghraib Abuse" <https://www.bbc.com/news/44031774> accessed 7 April 2021.

<https://www.1854.photography/2015/11/chris-bartlett-iraqi-detainees/> accessed 7 April 2021.

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