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Q & A with Guantanamo Courtroom Artist Janet Hamlin | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Cameras are prohibited inside the Guantanamo Bay courtroom, and Janet Hamlin is most famous as the Guantanamo Bay courtroom artist who allowed the world to see the inside of the Guantanamo military tribunals, bringing us illustrations of Al Qaeda detainees such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, USS Cole bombing mastermind Walid Bin Attash, and many others. She has visited Guantanamo Bay eleven times in the past four years, and was the sole courtroom artist for the Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

Janet Hamlin was the only courtroom artist permitted to attend the arraignment of the 5 major Al Qaeda suspects charged with plotting, financing, or organizing the 9/11 attacks, and they are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi. Asharq Al-Awsat accompanied Jane Hamlin on this occasion and witnessed first hand how she is swiftly able to illustrate images of the detainees whilst sitting in court, providing the international media with a first-hand look at what was taking place inside the arraignment. Hamlin was also famously criticized by Khalid Sheikh Mohamed for drawing his nose too prominently, forcing her to alter her sketch. .

The following is the text of the interview.

Q) Can you please tell our Arab readers a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to be a courtroom artist at Guantanamo Bay?

A) I am a graduate of the Art Center College of Designs in Pasadena, where I specialized in illustration. After graduating I moved to New York and pursued a career as a commercial artist. The Associated Press is one of my clients, and the art director at the time, Scott Johnson, began sending me to courts as a court artist. I began that side of my career drawing the Michael Skakel trial in Norwalk, Connecticut. When there arose a need for a court artist in Guantanamo to draw Omar Khadr in 2006 I was sent there. Since then, I have continued to visually cover the commissions, sent by various media as a freelance artist.

Q) Can you tell us a little bit about other illustrations that you have done outside of court, such as book covers or portraits?

A) I have worked on all kinds of projects with clients such as the Wall Street Journal, Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Simon and Schuster, etc, and on projects such as portraits, book covers, Harry Potter merchandising, medical, magazines, and editorial, music and sports illustrations. I am fortunate in enjoying a diverse creative career.

Q) Have you considered putting together a book of all your Guantanamo courtroom drawings?

A) Yes, I believe a book of all my Guantanamo sketches would be of interest, as they are a visual chronicle of the commissions.

Q) How many times have you visited Guantanamo Bay?

A) I have visited Guantanamo Bay over 11 times now in the past 4 years.

Q) What is the highest that you have ever been paid for an illustration, and who was it of?

A) I believe it was a court sketch at a trial in Connecticut of now-resigned Governor [John G.] Rowland. Several media outlets used the work, and the original was purchased.

Q) Is it possible to draw both illustrations and real life impressions, such as those done in the British courts?

A) I draw whatever I can in the court room; I want the scenes to be as honest and true as possible. The only time there is a sense of an impression, is if evidence is projected on a screen for a brief moment. I must then quickly study it, then draw, because it is removed from the screen. Each drawing is finished before I leave the court, and approved before release.

Q) What is it like to be a court artist? Are there any special laws that you have to take into consideration when drawing detainees?

A) I am not allowed to draw certain individual’s features. I must change features if they are deemed unflattering, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose. I try to be neutral and draw the most important things first with details that help to tell the story.

Q) How many drawings do you do every month?

A) It varies, depending on my assignments. If I am working on a book, it can be 20. In court, I will do 2-6 drawings a day. Last month I did 26 drawings in 8 days for the Omar Khadr hearing.

Q) Do you consider this to be a good job?

A) I consider myself very fortunate to be able to make a living doing art. I could not have imagined that being an artist would bring me to Guantanamo Bay. There are many talented people in the world, so this is something I do not take for granted.

Q) Do you require special security clearance to work in court?

A) Yes, security clearance, and an understanding of the things that I must be sensitive towards, such as not drawing certain people for instance.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us about some of the more bizarre situations or experiences you have encountered as a courtroom artist at Guantanamo Bay?

A) Two things- the now well-known story of having to alter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nose, and there was also an instance when I had to sit in the hall because a witness did not want me to draw them. The irony is that I cannot draw people without approval, so there was no danger.

Q) Can there be more than one courtroom artist in court at a time?

A) [There is] only one in Guantanamo as seats are strictly limited, but in other courts you will often see several artists if the trial is of great public interest.

Q) Do detainees have the right to criticize your illustrations of them, and has this ever happened to you, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

A) Yes, they are, although no other detainee has had any negative reaction to my sketches, to my knowledge.

Q) What was your impression of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and do you think it was your court drawing of him that catapulted you into the limelight?

A) My impression of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is that he is clearly very intelligent and emphatic about his beliefs. As an artist I am behind the scenes, but the drawing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed definitely and most unexpectedly brought my name forward.

Q) Which about the 5 major Guantanamo detainees at the 9/11 arraignment, did you find anyone easier to draw than the other?

A) The court venue is challenging. We are in the back of the court, behind glass in a viewing room some distance from them. They are seated sideways, so I must often look at the television monitors in order to get a better sense of detail. No one is easier [to draw] than the other.

Q) On an ordinary day in court, how long do you spend drawing?

A) About 6-8 hours, though at times this has gone on to 10 hours, with a few breaks.

Q) Do you think the detainees follow your illustrations in the international news?

A) Well, other than the International Red Cross photos, the only images going out to the world are my sketches, so I think they must see them. Newspapers, TV, etc, are accessible in the camps.