Courtroom artist Janet Hamlin couldn’t actually see the expression on the defendant’s face, but she already knew that Khalid Shiekh Mohammed didn’t like the way she drew him. June 5, 2008, had been a tense day in the Guantanamo Bay court. Hamlin, on assignmnent for CNN to sketch the prosecution of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had been standing for hours in an observer’s room looking through a large soundproof window (audio was heard at a 20-second delay) with her Rembrandt pastels and eraser balanced on a 16”x24” drawing surface. She had been promised a table, but that hadn’t materialized, and she was unable to see clearly if she sat down; so she stood and wedged her drawing board against the window ledge and held it with her belly as she drew. And now, Hamlin’s escort had nudged her, saying, “KSM is holding your drawings.” Hamlin remembers thinking out loud, “He’s not going to like it.” Why? “Because I don’t like it.”
“It was definitely the most difficult courtroom live action event I’ve had to draw,” says Hamlin, who has made four previous trips to Guantanamo Bay, drawing Omar Khadr and David Hicks for the Associated Press and the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In this new courtroom, all press had to sit in the windowed observer’s room in the back, due to security. From her previous experience, Hamlin was familiar with the unusual rule that all drawings must be approved by the military and the defendant before going to the media: First, to make sure that no one is depicted who shouldn’t be, but also to be certain that no defendant is portrayed in an unfavorable way. But the time constraints—as well as drawing five defendants as opposed to just one—prohibited her from going back to make Mohammed’s portrait better. Standing and drawing, in that environment, was difficult as well. “I saw him gesturing and shaking his head,” she says. In what became a famous exchange, the defendant said that he did not approve of the way Hamlin had drawn his nose, and he directed her to print out his FBI photo to use as a model.
So Hamlin packed up her things, went through the three-point security system, and walked back to the media center, where she printed out his photo and took the drawing to a trailer where she redrew the nose. “The first draft wasn’t the best likeness,” she admits, but adds that she was glad for a second opportunity. “As an artist, you want whatever’s going out to be the best image possible.” After 45 minutes, she presented a new version that satisfied everyone. The redrawn image became the illustration broadcast that evening and printed in newspapers the following day. CBS mentioned the strange turn of events, and The Wall Street Journal devoted a blog post to the sketch. “As a court artist, it’s really fun—a sink-or-swim environment,” says Hamlin. “To me, it’s history. I was raised in a military family and lived through 9/11 in Brooklyn. To record this visually, it’s a real privilege.” After 20 years in Brooklyn, she has moved upstate to Nyack, where things, presumably, are a little less hectic: She’s working on a children’s book series about bodily functions called Gross and Goofy. JAMES GADDY