“Stare Nasum “ or “Let the Nose Stand” : A Courtroom Artist’s View of the Guantanamo Bay Trials

#5 Courtroom Drawing Image 13

The white prison clothes hung on the thin man as the courtroom light illuminated his long silvery beard. His dark eyebrows cast a shadow over penetrating eyes that studied a drawing he had been handed. His eyebrows began to take a “V” shape, causing thin creases of displeasure on his forehead. This was no ordinary man; this was the alleged mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This was no ordinary place, Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba. The drawing he was studying was created by a courtroom artist, Janet Hamlin. She is the only artist that has been allowed in the courtroom since 2006. She has been the eyes of the world because cameras and video are forbidden during these trials and has made more than 25 trips to the Guantanamo Bay prison. As each drawing was completed a collective narrative came together like the story board for an animated film. She recently published a book, Sketching Guantanamo covering 2006-2013. So what disturbed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed regarding a drawing? It was the rendering of his nose! He not only felt the drawing didn’t capture his likeness, he also ordered a way to improve it. He told his interpreter that Hamlin should use the FBI photo for a reference and fix her drawing. According to Hamlin, this was not the only time her drawings were censored.

So does any detainee at Guantanamo get to “approve” each drawing of him? As a professional portrait artist, I firmly believe the answer should be no. The artist is paid to render what she sees and, maybe more important, what she feels. If the artist is squeezed between armed security guards, given a poor angle, and facing the pressure of capturing a historic moment in time, I could not care less about this guy’s nose. If I wanted exact duplication, I can go online and get the FBI photograph as the defendant himself suggested.

Courtroom artists have become few and far between. Cameras in the courtroom may be the giant asteroid that ultimately causes their extinction. But I argue that artists and their drawings have tremendous value even if cameras are allowed in all courtrooms. I have read and studied a lot lately on the Guantanamo Bay trials, including photographs, legal documents, transcripts, and articles. However, viewing courtroom drawings of these trials makes my pulse quicken with suspense by offering me a seat in the courtroom for just one moment. For one moment I’m in Cuba witnessing the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. For one moment I can see details like the colors and layout of the courtroom, the shiny highlight on the balding judge’s head, the movements of the lawyers, the defendant’s expressions, the victim’s family reactions, and the mood of the entire scene. A skilled courtroom artist’s interpretation and talent can bring all my senses to life by using colors and lines with shadows and light.

I say Hamlin’s drawing is more compelling with the original features. She is a visual journalist that is using line and color to express what reporters do with words. What I want from a courtroom artist is for her drawing to come alive and take me into the courtroom and hear the arguments and testimony through the eyes of the artist. Some may say they want a more accurate portrayal. As an artist myself, I argue that no one has a fundamental right to have their portrait drawn a certain way. First, the courtroom artist is often under huge time constraints. Second, there is no guarantee that the artist will have a close or clear view of the subject. Finally, the artist’s job is to capture the essence of the trial, not photo-realistically reproduce it. The artist wants you to feel the same emotion she felt in the courtroom during the key moments. I don’t want those moments censored any more than a reporter wants her words rewritten. I believe Janet Hamlin is a brave courtroom artist that captured what she saw. Let the original nose stay and let the spontaneity of her lines and colors remain uncensored. That, to me, is a more accurate portrayal.

This entry was influenced and details were gathered from three main sources. First, Michael Bronner’s November 13, 2013 article from The Guardian, “Sketching Guantanamo: Court artist’s new book offers rare and unique insight into the drama of the military hearings at US detention Center. I also used NPR’s story from October 22, 2013 titled At Guantanamo , ‘Sketching’ Defendants, Witnesses And KSM’s Nose. Finally I would highly recommend going to Janet Hamlin’s website to see her courtroom drawings especially the nose in question. http://www.janethamlin.com/.


About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

2 comments on ““Stare Nasum “ or “Let the Nose Stand” : A Courtroom Artist’s View of the Guantanamo Bay Trials

  1. Amy Shirk
    April 24, 2015

    Interesting read and well written!

  2. Deb Fox
    April 24, 2015

    Deb Fox
    Acquisitions/Serials Coordinator at Notre Dame Law Library

    “Johnny you rock! Artist & Literary Writer extraordinaire! Such a talented guy you are! Although there is no place like Dome (Notre Dame), IUPUI is certainly blessed you came their way. Loved your article! Keep on truckin! :)”

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2015 by in History and tagged , , .

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