After You’ve Been Burned by Hot Soup You Blow in Your Yogurt (2005-2012)

Amateur digital photographers produced some of the most incisive post-9/11 photographs. Created by participants and bystanders, Abu Ghraib revealed the dehumanization engendered by war and abuse of power; snapshots of U.S.-bound flag-covered caskets fixed the cost of war in American life; images of insurgent attacks and violent threats document inhumanity. After You’ve Been Burned by Hot Soup You Blow in Your Yogurt presents Guantánamo through the lens of U.S. attorney-photographers who, by circumstance, developed personal relationships with the men behind the prison’s closed doors and highlights the power of photography to build trust and facilitate relationships in extreme circumstances of anxiety and isolation.

 

THE UNITED STATES HAS DETAINED APPROXIMATELY 750 PEOPLE AT THE U.S. NAVAL STATION IN GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA SINCE IT OPENED IN JANUARY 2002 AS A DETENTION CENTER FOR ALLEGED “UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANTS” IN THE “WAR ON TERROR.” OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS, ABOUT HALF OF THESE MEN HAVE BEEN RELEASED TO THEIR HOME COUNTRIES. LITTLE INFORMATION IS GIVEN AS TO WHY. APPROXIMATELY 390 REMAIN AT GUANTANAMO, UNCERTAIN AS TO THEIR FUTURE.

 

IN 2002, U.S. ATTORNEYS BEGAN SEEKING TRIALS FOR GUANTANAMO DETAINEES. THE LEGAL PRINCIPLE ON WHICH THEY RELIED WAS HABEAS CORPUS, WHICH TRANSLATES FROM LATIN AS “SHOW THE BODY.” IT MEANS THAT THE GOVERNMENT MUST DEMONSTRATE IT HAS A VALID JUSTIFICATION FOR IMPRISONING SOMEONE. 

 

TWO YEARS LATER, THE LAWYERS WON AT THE SUPREME COURT, RESULTING IN A PROCESS BY WHICH DETAINEES COULD CHALLENGE THEIR DETENTION IN U.S. COURTS. ATTORNEYS SIGNED UP TO TAKE ON DETAINEE CASES, RECEIVED A LIST OF NAMES AND TRAVELED TO GUANTANAMO TO MEET THEIR CLIENTS. THEIR MISSION WAS STRAIGHT-FORWARD – GET THE INFORMATION THEY NEEDED TO PRESENT TO THE COURT ABOUT THEIR CLIENTS’ ACTIONS AND CIRCUMSTANCES. THEY NEEDED A STORY TO TELL A JUDGE, IF THEY EVER GOT TO A JUDGE, ABOUT WHY THEIR CLIENTS WERE WRONGFULLY DETAINED.

 

Pictures from Home began with eleven stories. Stories of eleven men, whose images flickered in my imagination. I had never seen them before; civilians weren’t allowed.

 

On March 6, 2005, my link to these men began. My husband took a plane from New York to Fort Lauderdale, and then from Fort Lauderdale to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was to meet eleven men from Yemen detained there as terrorism suspects.

 

I met him in Miami on his way back from Cuba. He got out of the taxi, where I was waiting for him at the hotel.  So what happened? He couldn’t say.

 

I wanted to know about the detainees. Who are they? What do they look like?

 

What I can tell you, he said, is that most of them are small. One of them, Fahmi, he is really small. His feet don’t touch the ground. 

 

Attorneys Sarah Havens and Doug Cox are my husband’s colleagues. They were the best ones to go to Yemen to meet with the families of the eleven men they represent. They speak Arabic.

 

They said maybe you should come to photograph?  The families were awaiting news of relatives who had been absent for over three years; I didn’t want to intrude. They went alone.

 

When Sarah and Doug got back, I wanted to see pictures. I looked over and over again. Houses, landscapes, brothers, fathers, siblings, daughters, sons, cars, gifts, animals, stores. My eleven stories were adorned.

 

From there my collection began. I wanted more pictures, more stories. I went to other law firms. Did they have pictures? Could I have them? It turns out they did. Five law firms agreed they could give me their pictures, and there were videos too. 

 

The pictures were my first entry to these men. But they weren’t enough. I wanted to know more. So I started meeting with the lawyers who had been meeting with the detainees. I asked about each man. They wanted to tell me all the reasons why their clients’ should have trials, why it could be a mistake that they are in Guantanamo, how they have been mistreated, and how the procedures at Guantanamo are unfair, unconstitutional, inhumane.

 

And then the story of the pictures and the stories came out. It’s a story about trust.

 

After you have been burned by hot soup, you blow in your yogurt.” This is a saying in Yemen, one of the lawyers told me. Several detainees said it to him to explain their hesitancy, their lack of faith. Could the lawyers be interrogators?

 

This is where the photographs, videos and little stories came in. They were evidence. Documents of relationships. The lawyers brought their pictures to Guantanamo to show the detainees that they had met with their families, the families invited them into their homes, they shook hands. In their videos, they verbalized this message.

 

Fragments of their personal details corroborated that the lawyers knew something about who they were, where they come from.

 

The pictures and videos traveled one way, from the families to the prison. But the stories went back and forth through the lawyers. Stories about what is going on at home traveled to the detainees. And stories from inside Guantanamo traveled to the families. Both the detainees and their families only want to send happy messages.

 

The pictures became treasured objects, passed from detainee to detainee.

 

Margot Herster, March 2007

 

526_GIFT SARAH CHOSE FOR ABDULAZIZ’S MOTHER. NOTE TRANSLATION: “DON’T DESPAIR, SOMEONE IN THE SKY IS TAKING CARE.”

 

Abdulaziz said he wanted jewelry for his mother and his wife, something that they could wear all the time and remember him. He said, ‘I have three daughters, a wife and a mother. I love them all very much and I want to give them presents but I can’t. I obviously have no money; I don’t have any access to anything. Would it be possible for you to go and bring gifts for them from me?’ So he became very thoughtful and thought of something specific he wanted for each of his daughters, his wife, and his mother and gave specific instructions for us.

FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH ABDULAZIZ’S ATTORNEYS, SARAH HAVENS AND DOUGLAS COX

 

136_SARAH AND DOUG EATING LUNCH AT ALI’S HOME

At Guantánamo, Ali said, ‘Is my brother Faris smoking?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ So we end up looking through the pictures and there is one picture in which there is something sticking through his fingers which is, in fact, a spoon. Ali had noticed that and feared that Faris had started smoking.

 

FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH ALI’S ATTORNEYS, SARAH HAVENS AND DOUGLAS COX

 

1000_FAHMI’S FATHER’S CAR

 

Fahmi’s father called us before we went to Yemen and said, ‘The next time you see Fahmi, you have to tell him that I got a new Mercedes.’ I don’t know if he said new. He said, ‘I have a Mercedes, and Fahmi will be very excited about it. When he gets out he’ll get to drive it.’

 

When we told Fahmi in Guantánamo, ‘Hey, you’re dad called the other day and wanted us to tell you he got a Mercedes for a car,’ Fahmi’s eyes just lit up, he was just so excited. He said ‘Did you find out the year?’ And I said no. ‘Did you find out the color?’ No. ‘Did you find out what model it was?’ No. ‘What were you doing on the phone with him then if you weren’t finding out all that stuff?’

 

We arrived in Taez where his father lives and he came to meet us. The first thing we asked when we met him was to show us the Mercedes. He said, ‘Here it is.’ I think every panel was painted a different color, the Mercedes insignia had been ripped off the front, and there was a rug on the dashboard. When we showed Fahmi our picture he asked us to tell his father to get rid of the car.

FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH FAHMI’S ATTORNEYS, SARAH HAVENS AND DOUGLAS COX

530_RIYAD’S FATHER

Riyad is such a fragile character and seems so alone and does not have much family that can support him through this. The fact that it was going to be difficult to find Riyad’s dad, that it was something really important and meaningful to Riyad was weighing heavily on Doug in Yemen.

 

The last day we were in the hotel lobby in Sana’a. The only picture I had ever seen of Riyad’s dad was a very bad photocopy of his ID card. I saw this little old man walking through the lobby and it looked a little bit like him. He was walking toward the exit and he was talking to some of the guards standing there, saying ‘Americayeen (Arabic for Americans).’ I said, ‘You’re Riyad’s dad.’ He said, ‘Oh yes, yes.’ This poor man was so out of place in this hotel lobby. It was the nicest hotel in Sana’a with marble everywhere and giant flower arrangements with this little old man, obviously from a very modest background, basically blind and confused in the lobby. He then started asking us what happened with Riyad. He had heard that Riyad’s legs had been cut off, that they had put things in Riyad’s ears – like electric shock so that he couldn’t hear anymore and that he was blind. The minute he sat down with us he started crying. We said, ‘We saw Riyad literally eight days ago; he’s fine.’

FROM CONVERSATIONS WITH RIYAD’S ATTORNEYS, SARAH HAVENS AND DOUGLAS COX

1732-1942_ABDULLAH’S BROTHER HOLDING ABDULLAH’S DAUGHTER

1709_REPHOTOGRAPHED SNAPSHOT OF FUAD AND HIS CHILDREN; 1789-1798_FUAD’S FATHER WITH FUAD’S CHILDREN

Audio installation, 4 min 37 sec. Attorney Josh Colangelo-Bryan describes witnessing his client Juma al Dossari attempt suicide on October 15, 2005 at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

STILL FROM A VIDEO FOR ISATULLAH

One of our clients, Isatullah, whose father Haji had also been at Guantanamo, but was released earlier, watched this video we had made for him with his family about five or six times in a row. Parts showed his father or brother holding our pictures, but we paled in comparison the video of his children who the last time he’d seen was just before he was picked up by the military in Afghanistan. There were two of them he was trying to figure out which was which because they were so little when he left. He was very moved by it, and it seemed like he was trying to jump into the video almost. When his kids would say things he would talk back to them, ask them questions, answer their questions.

FROM CONVERSATION WITH ISATULLAH’S ATTORNEY, PETER RYAN