Detainees: Putting faces to the story

HOUSTON -- Time and again, citizen photography -- or its absence -- has shaped world opinion in the global war on terror.

Shaken New Yorkers captured some of the most enduring images of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

An alarmed soldier slipped souvenir snapshots under a commander's door to blow the whistle on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

The Pentagon still bans photography, official or otherwise, of flag-draped coffins bringing home America's war dead.

So, when independent lawyers offered to help skeptical Guantánamo Bay captives, held in shackles and largely isolated at the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, they, too, turned to photos to forge trust and build attorney-client relationships.

Some lawyers posed with family in Arabia to vouch for their veracity. Others brought images of home to connect with the men whom the Pentagon portrays as caged terrorists, enemy combatants.

In crude, cell-side chats, some lawyers used photos to find common ground.

Now, a foundation called FotoFest has mounted an extraordinary exhibition -- right here, in Texas, President Bush's state -- that offers a sympathetic view of some Guantánamo captives, and the lawyers who have taken up their causes, free of charge.

"There are real individuals and real people there, " says curator Wendy Watriss, as she walks along the exhibition. "They're not just faceless terrorists, and we need to understand more."

Part crude snapshots, part home-style travelogue, the 88-image exhibit with accompanying audio-video installations, on display until June 2, is called Guantánamo: Pictures from Home, Questions of Justice.

And the display is timely: It comes just as the Justice Department is seeking to curb attorney access -- after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to pass on review, this year, of Congress' decision to strip these lawyers of the opportunity to argue their clients' cases in U.S. District Court.

The exhibit ranges across two floors in a cavernous, renovated former railroad warehouse beneath a highway in downtown Houston, at FotoFest, a two-decade-old photographic arts center whose themes have for years spanned the planet -- offering portraits of everything from Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution to New Yorkers' snapshots from Ground Zero on Sept. 11, called here is new york: a democracy of photographs.

Now the lens is turned on Guantánamo, but without a single image from the remote U.S. Navy base itself.

Rather, it focuses on three dozen Guantánamo detainees using pictures before their capture or portraying them as absent fathers and sons -- and the American lawyers who have shuttled between big-city firms, the remote U.S. prison compounds in Cuba and Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula in a quest to set them free.

In one photo, a New York lawyer sits on a couch with a client's family, in Yemen.

Another shows attorneys meeting a client's father over a traditional meal, in Bahrain.

In another, the daughters of one Guantánamo captive pose with paper flowers -- fashioned from toilet paper inside Camp Delta and carried half a world away by a lawyer.

The images, says Watriss, herself a former news photographer, "are not photojournalism. They're about a particular kind of intra-professional and inter-human communication."

Watriss assembled the show from photos that Margot Herster, a former New York photography student, collected from several attorneys, among them her husband, who now teaches at the University of Texas.

There is outrage and sadness -- everything but the U.S. administration's version of these prisoners as dangerous fanatics whose freedom could threaten America.

The attorneys narrate the show, in video and audio displays, and emerge as advocates on a mission, globe trotters offering a unique bridge between cell-side chats that no camera can record and conversations with kin half a world away.

Says one attorney in a video, talking about a client: "He's very depressed, and he gave me his last will and testament . . ."

Then, nearly sobbing, she tells the videographer to stop.

Elsewhere, another lawyer soberly describes finding his captive hanging and bloody from self-inflicted wounds. His words are heard in a darkened chamber where the visitor hears crude recordings of detainee status hearings and lawyers discussing their clients' cases.

"I think it's novel that any work that could be seen as critical of the [Bush] administration would be shown in Houston, especially by a big institution like ours, " says FotoFest publicist Vinod Hopson.

Lawyers turned to their photography to overcome huge gaps. For more than two years, the Bush administration forbade lawyers from representing war-on-terror captives at Guantánamo.

Then a U.S. Supreme Court decision cracked open the cages, just a bit, for attorney-client conferences. So, slowly, in stages, America's legal establishment embraced the idea of habeas corpus counsel for "the worst of the worst."

But by the time some lawyers got to Guantánamo, their clients, after years of interrogation and isolation, didn't believe that the attorney sitting across from them was actually their advocate.