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Interview with Chris Bartlett on Capturing The Abuse of Innocents

On Thursday, July 3, 2014, I had the opportunity to chat with Chris Bartlett about his portrait series of Iraqis, who were detained and tortured by the United States military. We discussed the process, as well as the specific issue of detainee abuse he documented in this series, which is called “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals.”

This series was recently featured in the Moving Walls Exhibition, an annual photograph exhibition produced by the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project, and will be shown in the upcoming Photoville Exhibition in Brooklyn Bridge Park from September 18-28, 2014.  

Though Chris earns his living as a commercial still life photographer in the fashion industry and has worked for top fashion magazines, such as Vogue, and with legendary photographers, including Richard Avedon and Michael Reinhardt, he also shoots documentary human rights portrait photography.

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Tess Ranahan: Let’s begin with your background. When did you become interested in and start practicing photography? Did you go to school to study photography?

Chris Bartlett: I went to Kenyon College, in Ohio, and majored in history. I did a lot of photography there and sort of minored in art, but not officially. I decided I wanted to come to New York to be a fashion photographer. I came to New York the fall after graduation and ended up getting a job with this guy who was a big name fashion photographer in the ‘80s, Mike Reinhardt. I worked for a few years as an assistant and then went off on my own to become a fashion photographer. I lived in Paris for a few years, Milan for about 6 months, and then came back to New York and started shooting here. I got disillusioned with shooting fashion and models. I got asked to do product photography, to shoot still life for fashion. I found that I was better at it and enjoyed it more because of the quieter aspect. I made a complete about-face and dumped all my energy into shooting still life shots. It was good timing and it really took off.

TR:  So, you earn your living as a commercial still life photographer in the fashion industry. When and why did you become interested in applying your photography skills towards documenting human rights abuses?

CB: Throughout my whole career, I’ve always been interested in doing documentary work. Every few years, I would do a little story, most often with one of my college buddies, who is a writer. We came to New York together and were roommates. He ended up eventually writing longform for The New Yorker, The Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Then, in mid-2004 or 2005, during the height of the [Iraq] war, I was busy with, and sick of, doing my commercial work and needed an outlet. I was very much against what the Bush administration was doing with the war and wanted to do something with my photography to get involved. My writer friend, Donovan Webster, who had written one of the first articles about the detainee abuse, which was published in Vanity Fair, hooked me up with this lawyer, Susan Burke, who he met through his research. Susan had been a corporate lawyer and took this detainee case to be of help. Now, this is what she does professionally, and she has become one of the most well-known human rights attorneys. She invited me to come along and take pictures. It was spur of the moment.

TR: What did she want you to take pictures of?

CB: She said, “If you can afford to come over to Jordan and hang out, then you’re more than welcome. The only thing I want are pictures of the people that I’m working with.” She had gone over there and brought people out of Iraq who had bad experiences and then interviewed them. She brought in people from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, who were doing psychological evaluations. They weren’t actually taking testimonies–it wasn’t actually a legal proceeding–but they were gathering, documenting, their [detainees] stories. It took me about a year, but eventually I got myself over there on my own dime.

TR: What was the concept behind the project of photographing these detainees?

I was going over there aware of this, as an American they’ve never met, taking the pictures of these people who had previously been photographed in a traumatized state.

CB: Well, I could have gone over there with a digital camera and put someone in front of a wall and taken a picture of them and that would have been it. But I decided to conceptually design the whole project. One of the instruments of degradation–of torture–towards the detainees was a camera. They were used by the service men, who photographed the detainees and then shared their images all over the world. I was going over there aware of this, as an American they’ve never met, taking the pictures of these people who had previously been photographed in a traumatized state. So, the idea was to take these beautiful portraits of these people and try to bring humanity back to them through the portraiture, and then pair that with the testimony they were giving in the other room–to create that tension.

TR: Will you talk more about this tension created by pairing the portrait with the excerpt of the testimony?

CB: When you look at a portrait, you ask; who is this guy? He looks like a nice guy. Then you read the text and you’re like, what the fuck. Then you find out he’s innocent and was never charged with anything, he was just detained and abused for 6 months, and his life was turned upside down.

 TR: Can you tell us a bit about the process behind photographing the detainees?

 CB: I decided to go totally old school. I was shooting medium format camera, with film, north light, classic portrait lighting. They were in their jackets and ties, and I was talking to them and trying to be as nice and respectful as possible. Most of them didn’t speak any English. I had a translator for many of them, but not all. When I came back, through it all, I had 15 to 20 portraits, which is not a lot for that amount of time and money, but it was enough to convey the idea.

 TR: Do you have a favorite image in the series? Or, is there an image and excerpt pairing that stood out for you?

 CB: The guy with the bald head stands out. He was a policeman; he ended up getting killed after I photographed him in sectarian violence. Visually, to me, that is my favorite picture. I recently found one that was not in the Moving Walls show that I put on my website, and I really love it. I don’t know why I didn’t use it before. I find that my edits change over time. In an ideal scenario, I’ll have time to get away from it, go back and edit, get time away from it, edit it–so then it percolates.

 TR: I noticed this series is shot in black and white. Is there a rationale behind this theme?

 CB: I just like black and white portraiture. It’s purely aesthetic for me. It might be my old school eyes. With Burma, I did color reportage and I would like to do more of that. I also want to do video, which is part of what you need to do for documentaries. I very much believe in the power of the still, but I also believe that documentary video helps fill out the story. Still works for the detainee subject because it is a simple, narrower idea, and you can shoot it quickly. Other stories are more subtle and nuanced, so motion and reportage would be better.

TR: Once editing and compiling your body of work, what did you do with it?

CB: I started circulating it around. I went to all the big name magazines–nobody was interested in it because it had already been out there. They would say, “We ran that story last month.” And someone told me about Moving Walls, and I submitted it and it got in there– and that put this project on the map, and it has floated around since then.

TR: And you plan on exhibiting this project in September at the Photoville Exhibition, which is one of the largest photographic events in New York City, where various photographers display their work in shipping containers located in DUMBO to a projected audience of 80,000 people. Can you tell us about how you plan to show your work there?

This is a policy that was thought out, planned, carried out, directed on a corporate level by our government. It wasn’t just a handful of rogue soldiers who did this.

CB: For Photoville, it’s going to be a photo show about torture that has no pictures of torture. My goal is to get people to think about the issue and not walk in and see a horrible picture and be turned away because they don’t want to think about it. It’s the same manipulation, for lack of a better word, as from when I started with still life photography. I want to draw people into the issue and make them think about the issue. This is a policy that was thought out, planned, carried out, directed on a corporate level by our government. It wasn’t just a handful of rogue soldiers who did this.

TR: In an ideal world, what would you hope an audience would take away from their experience of looking at your detainee portrait series at Photoville?

CB: Whenever I start talking about this project, it’s pretty much a conversation stopper, even with people who are part of the converted. When you start talking about torture, it just bums people out. Originally, it was a project alerting the word to the abuse of innocents. For me now, it’s more about showing what happens when people in power don’t think through a clear lens. And they make decisions based on fear and they don’t consider the ramifications of their decision-making process. What I would really like to show [is] what happens when poor decision making [occurs]. And it has had far reaching implications for our popular culture, as well as eroding out national moral standing in the world. 

TR: What role do you think photography can play in eliciting social change?

CB: Obviously, it can alert the world to a troubled area or social need. But these days, it needs to do more. It must start a conversation and hopefully help to offer solutions for change.

TR: What advice would you give someone who is starting out in documentary photography?

CB: I think, as a photographer, you have to think about how you use your medium. You can’t just go out and take pictures. You have to think about why you are doing it before you pull your story together. The thing about documentary photography now is that you don’t only have to tell the story, but you have to figure out how to solve the issue. You have to use your pictures carefully and, if still photography is not the right way, maybe its video, maybe its art, painting. You have to identify what you’re trying to do with your work and then figure out the best tools to do it.

TR: Do you think you want to continue shooting portraits? Why do you gravitate towards portraiture?

This is a multi-generational struggle that has been non-violent, for the most part. It fascinates me, because these people have all been in prison and they all have been brutalized, but they are still optimistic. They don’t want to kill anyone; they just want democracy. It fascinates me that they can let go of that and keep marching forward. That area of humanity is what I’m interested in.

CB: Well, I’m really interested in people and stories. I like eyes and connecting with eyes. I’m doing a project now in Burma; photographing portraits of political dissidents and former political prisoners, who served as part of the movement that is trying to bring democracy and freedom to the country. This is a multi-generational struggle that has been non-violent, for the most part. It fascinates me, because these people have all been in prison and they all have been brutalized, but they are still optimistic. They don’t want to kill anyone; they just want democracy. It fascinates me that they can let go of that and keep marching forward. That area of humanity is what I’m interested in.

TR: What did you take away from your detainee portraiture project?

CB: It was a turning point for me in my career, because I got tremendous personal satisfaction from it as well as recognition. I just felt like doing something for the greater good with my skill. So that has gotten the fire going of making what I’m calling now, “documentary human rights portraiture.” I want that to be a bigger part of who I am as a photographer. And also part of it is for my kids. I’ve spent years photographing Hermes handbags or whatever. It’s fun and great, the photos are beautiful, but these have no lasting value. This project stuff will hopefully become part of a historical record and will be part of the issue. That’s my goal: for it to be a part of the conversation, of the issue.

- Tess Ranahan

For more information on Chris’s “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals” series, check out his artist statement for the Moving Wall Exhibition.

Also visit his website to view his comprehensive body of work.