Our Labors Bear Strange Fruit

From Holden:

CUNY’s Graduate Center in Manhattan seems to be biased towards the truth.

Behind glass-paneled cabinets set along a hallway inside CUNY’s Graduate Center in Manhattan, the faces of young and old Iraqi citizens killed by American troops peer out.

The displays, an art project devised by students in a Ph.D. photography seminar class at the Graduate Center in Midtown, resemble blown-up versions of the “Portraits of Grief” vignettes that the New York Times published in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks to memorialize and personalize the thousands of victims. In this version, the killer isn’t Al Qaeda suicide terrorists but America itself.

“The project is about our complicity,” said the class’s professor, Geoffrey Batchen, a professor in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY’s doctoral granting institution. “The people who made the exhibition decided rather than show more atrocity pictures, they would try to deal with the question of the atrocity itself.”

The posters contain a snapshot portrait of an Iraqi civilian, accompanied by a brief textual sketch of the person’s life and a description of the person’s violent death at the hands of American soldiers.

In one display, Ali Rekaad, a boy with close-cropped hair and a bucktoothed smile is described as a “future football star.” He was “killed, along with his mother, father, sisters, and two young brothers, by an American helicopter gunship that bombed their tent in Makr al-Deeb Province at 2:45 a.m. on May 19, 2004,” the poster says.

Another poster shows a picture of an infant, Rowand Suleiman. “The birth of Rowand Suleiman was a joyful event for Mohammed Suleiman, an engineer living in Baghdad, and his wife. The baby was killed, the poster says, by an “American cluster bomb” found by her brother while playing outside their home.

Khalid Ali Saleh, “a gentle soldier,” is described as a retired Iraqi colonel, who liked showing his grandchildren “the garden of fragrant herbs he had been cultivating in his spare time.” He was “killed by an American tank round on April 7, 2003, while being driven to his home in Baghdad. A second round of fire from the 20-MM tank gun set the car ablaze, incinerating Mr. Saleh in front of the eyes of a relative who had managed to drag herself from the vehicle.”

Among the victims is a boy who “loved to look at stars” and a student, shot dead by American soldiers while “celebrating high-exam scores,” who was a “lover of music.”


One portrait describes Mohammed Al-Izmerly as an “acclaimed chemist and scholar” who “decided to turn his daughter Nuha’s bedroom into a kind of family archive. The small room where he’d once kissed his daughter goodnight was now filled with pictures of Nuha and her sisters.” The poster says the chemist was killed “while in custody at a camp near Baghdad International Airport.”


Mr. Batchen, whose course is called “The Photograph in the World,” said the exhibition deliberately included only portraits of Iraqis killed by Americans. “We’re in the United States,” he said. “Our military is undertaking these activities.” But he said the exhibition was not “explicitly an anti-war project.”