Margot Herster is an artist and freelance photographer based in New York City and Austin, Texas. Herster holds an MFA in Photography, Video, and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, as well as undergraduate degrees in psychology and art history from the University of Kansas.
Herster’s work focuses on the social and psychological dynamics of family and interpersonal relationships. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including as a solo exhibition at SCALO Project Space in New York.
In response to the lack of information available about the individuals detained at Guantánamo, she developed the exhibition Guantánamo: Pictures from Home and the accompanying website: www.throughthewalls.org. The project, which combines photographic, audio, and video components, debuted as a large-scale exhibition at FotoFest in Houston in March 2007.
Legal scholars have called Guantánamo the most important civil liberties case in half a century. Since 2002, the United States has detained over 700 men, holding them virtually incommunicado after their post-9/11 capture. The administration labeled the detainees “the worst of the worst,” but officials and outside analysts have questioned the accusations against them. Government documents reveal that only 8 percent of detainees are characterized as Al Qaeda fighters, and less than half are suspected of committing hostile acts against the United States or its allies. While courts, attorneys, politicians, and human rights groups deliberate over living conditions, interrogation tactics, and the prison’s fundamental legality, those directly affected by these policies remain hidden.
The U.S strategy to obscure transparency of Guantánamo includes restrictions on photography. The only images are of faceless orange jumpsuits and shackled hands taken by military photographers and censored journalists.
My connection to this issue compelled me to develop Guantánamo: Pictures from Home. My husband is an attorney with Allen & Overy, a law firm that represents 11 Yemini nationals at Guantánamo. The more I learned about the individual detainees, the more I wanted to know: Who are they? What do they look like?
In June 2005, my husband’s colleagues traveled to Yemen to meet their clients’ families. When they returned, I asked to see their photographs. Their images hinted at the detainees’ personal and cultural lives, and revealed the burden carried by the families. Subsequently, I collected the photographs that attorneys from five major law firms, which represent 45 detainees from Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, had taken on trips to their clients’ home countries. These images, originally intended to provide evidence that the families trusted the American lawyers to represent their sons, have become treasured objects within Guantánamo. For many detainees, the photographs are the only link to their families back home.
Amateur digital photographers have produced some of the most incisive recent wartime photographs. Abu Ghraib revealed the dehumanization engendered by war and the abuse of power, and snapshots of U.S.-bound, flag-covered caskets fixed the cost of war in American life. Guantánamo: Pictures from Home highlights the power of photography to build trust and sustain family relations, and to provide the public with an intimate look into the lives of the people detained at Guantánamo.
—Margot Herster, June 2007