June 17, 2013

Meet the artists documenting America’s secret trials


A scene from The United States vs. Pfc. Bradley Manning

With media attention focused almost exclusively this week on the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, currently evading criminal charges in Hong Kong, it’s easy to forget that closer to home, another leaker is standing trial for his own offenses. Bradley Manning, who released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and classified army reports to Wikileaks in 2010, is facing court-martial at Fort Meade on twenty-two offenses, including aiding the enemy. The trial, which began on June 3, is closed to cameras and recording equipment, so except for the efforts of a handful of observers in the courtroom, it’s hard for those of us outside to follow along.

One of those observers, Wikileaks activist Clark Stoeckley, aims to rectify that problem by producing a graphic novel of the entire proceedings. In an interview with The Guardian, Stoeckley emphasizes the importance of capturing a record of the secretive trial:

“No other sketch artists are coming to the trial here in Fort Meade regularly. I’m here all the time,” said Stoeckley. “I want to record every single witness and create a visual record of what’s going on so that people can put faces to transcripts. I’m trying to capture the atmosphere in the courtroom and the characters who are part of the story … I’m doing this in a style that’s never been used in courtroom sketch art.”

The book, The United States vs. Pfc. Bradley Manning: A Graphic Account from Inside the Courtroom, will be published by OR Books as a print-on-demand title upon the trial’s completion this fall. (OR Books also published Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s manifesto, Cypherpunks.) In a first, those who pre-order the book will receive weekly emails with drawings and notes from the trial so they can stay abreast of developments.

A drawing from Sketching Guantanamo by Janet Hamlin

Fortunately for us, Stoeckley isn’t the only artist working to hold our leaders accountable as they continue to navigate the compromise between openness and security with ever-increasing opacity. Janet Hamlin, a New York-based illustrator, has observed the trials at Guantánamo Bay since 2006. A book published by Fantagraphics in October, Sketching Guantanamo, will collect Hamlin’s drawings, which form the only visual record we have of the military tribunals. As Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth states in a press release, “Janet’s courtroom sketches and commentary comprises a significant moral document, of interest to every citizen who cares about what the United States government is doing in his and her name. Sketching Guantanamo helps bring out of the shadows and into the light of public scrutiny these extra-judicial trials.”

Together, these publishing efforts reveal the important role artists can play in fighting for justice against an administration determined to maintain absolute secrecy and stifle dissent about its programs of national defense. As Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei reminded us this week in reaction to the new revelations about the extent of the NSA’s spying efforts, not everyone in the world has the right to create this kind of art. For our own sake, let’s hope people like Clark Stoeckley and Janet Hamlin continue to exercise it.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.