Artifacts of a Kidnapping

Artifacts of a Kidnapping: The Things They Carried Home

Glenna Gordon, 2015 Finalist

A survey of the objects brought home by ransomed kidnapping victims of terrorist groups around the world.

While Leila Kaleva was held hostage by Al Qaeda in Yemen, she was given an Arabic exercise book for children and a composition book to practice in. Kaleva emphasized that though they are extremists, Al Qaeda's reputation for being against women's education is disproved by the fact that her captors wanted her to learn Arabic. She and her husband were held captive for four-and-a-half months until the Finnish government apparently paid a ransom for their release.

The plastic handcuffs that Javier Espinosa wore while he was held hostage by IS in Syria. The Spanish journalist says he wasn't treated as badly as American hostages and others.

Javier Espinosa, a Spanish journalist who was held by IS in Syria for six months, was given this flashlight to share with other hostages while they were held in a totally dark room. They used it to eat without spilling and wasting their food and to play chess or read the Koran and jihadi propaganda literature given to them by their captors.

A Neolithic arrowhead that Wolfgang Ebner found in a cave somewhere in the Sahara Desert while he and his wife were held hostage by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group for eight months. The Austrian government eventually paid their ransom.

Though he didn't have strength to write every day, Harald Galler, who was held hostage by a group that would later become affiliated with Al Qaeda, did manage a few drawings of the places that he and other hostages were held in southern Algeria. They often saw beautiful sunsets over the rocky ridges.

Harald Ickler was wearing this t shirt when he was taken hostage by an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in the Sahara Desert in 2003. The shirt was originally grey, but turned brown and was soon covered with sweat and stains as he wore it every day during his 54-day captivity. He never washed it, and even more than a decade later, the shirt still retained a distinct odor.

Wolfgang Ebner and his wife were kidnapped while on holiday in Tunisa in 2008. These were the "Arabic Toothbrushes" they used while being held.

While Harald Ickler and a group of other tourists were held hostage in the Sahara Desert in 2003 for 54 days, they passed around this book, "The Beach," about a vacation gone wrong. Each person wrote his name on the inside cover as he or she took a turn reading the novel.            

While Harald Ickler and a group of other tourists were held hostage in the Sahara Desert in 2003 for 54 days, they passed around this book, "The Beach," about a vacation gone wrong. Each person wrote his name on the inside cover as he or she took a turn reading the novel.

On rare occasions, Nicolas Henin was given a can of tuna or milk cream, though most often he ate canned luncheon meat while he was held for nearly a year by IS. Henin is a French national who was working as a journalist in Syria when he was captured.

For the 54 days that Harald Ickler was held captive in the Sahara Desert by an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, he ate every meal out of this bowl with this spoon. Most days, he and other hostages were given a thin soup of flour and water. In the morning it had sugar, in the middle of the day, salt, and in the afternoon, "Classic," as Ickler calls it, with neither salt nor sugar. One time the mujahideen who were holding his group killed a camel and they received a bit of meat. "That was like Christmas for us," said Ickler.

Before ISIS fighters gave Nicholas Henin a toothbrush, they cut the bottom of it off so it couldn't be chiseled into a weapon. Henin, a French journalist, was held captive in Syria for ten months by Islamic extremists who later executed James Foley and other hostages and broadcast the videos to the world on youtube.

Wolfgang Ebner and his wife played cards endlessly on this well-worn deck during the eight months they were in captivity, held by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group who snatched them in Tunisia.            

This chess set was made by a group of Western hostages held in Northern Syria by IS.

Javier Espinosa was given this jihadi literature by his IS captors while he was held hostage in Syria for nearly six months.

The underarm of Nicolas Henin's jacket ripped when we was being beaten while being held hostage by IS for nearly a year. He said the worst beatings and torture didn't leave blood or scars.

Nicolas Henin and the other captives he was held with would ask for medicine - pain killers and antidiarrhetics - as often as they could, because when they actually needed them it would take several days before their guards gave them any drugs.

While he was being held hostage for nearly a year, Nicolas Henin took a pair of trousers and turned them inside out and filled them with other clothes to make a pillow. Henin, a French national, was captured by IS while working as a journalist.           

Wolfgang Ebner wrote out his last will and testament in his notebook while he was being held hostage by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group. His wife was close to death several times after falling sick and Ebner feared for his life too.

Photographer's Statement: 

Eleven years after an Al Qaeda-linked group held Harald Ickler captive in the Sahara Desert, he still hasn't washed the shirt he wore during his 54 days of captivity.

Westerners like Ickler who are held hostage by terrorist groups live at the forefront of the biggest ideological crisis of our world today: they are symbols of terror, victims of torture, survivors of captivity. 

They are the individuals who beg questions: Does paying ransoms fund terrorism? How can governments choose between citizens in captivity and foreign policy agendas? Can we prevent more Youtube videos of beheadings?

For those who somehow survive the harrowing experience, many hold on to some sort of memorabilia in the aftermath of captivity. It’s painful to remember but no one wants to forget: the burka one woman was forced to wear by Al Qaeda in Yemen, the toothbrush IS fighters chiseled down so it couldn't be used as a weapon in Syria, the jacket torn during a beating, the chess set made from equal parts cardboard and boredom. 

My pictures are of the objects hostages carried back. I’ve photographed these things as studio-style still life images, allowing ordinary objects to stand in for some of the most painful stories of our time.

Without these images, hostages remain abstract – pawns in a game of global politics and jihad. The decisions to pay ransoms can be seen as bowing to global terror. That simplistic reading changes when you see the last will and testament of an Austrian hostage in Algeria, or the pillow one hostage made by turning his pants inside out and shoving all of his clothes in it.  

Hostages exist in the grey space of the public imagination. James Foley’s execution on Youtube was watched around the world, yet the reality he and his cellmates faced as prisoners remains invisible.

To understand Foley’s death, you also have to understand his life.  I set about trying to do this on assignment for the New York Times in July and August, 2014. I met with ten hostages in six countries in Europe as I tried to understand and visualize captivity, torture, and the high stakes of hostage negotiation.

I didn’t know what objects hostages would keep – I operated on a sense of instinct that whatever I found would be interesting and would do the work of explaining the unseen lives of hostages and their experiences after they are released. Against a black backdrop, I photographed the items that define captivity: the flashlight Foley and his cellmates shared, the cans of tuna and luncheon meat they ate every day, the jihadi propaganda literature they were given to read. 

“They take us as hostages because they believe they can change the whole world,” one hostage told me.

These objects tell the story of people caught up in the mix of money and ideology that results in kidnapping. The purpose of photojournalism is to show the unseen. My goal for this ongoing project is to visualize the memories and experiences in the aftermath of captivity and to speak to what is happening to the people still being held inside other cells.

When I began this work, I made a list of hostages and gathered as much information as I could along with my colleagues at the New York Times. Sometimes I cold called and emailed hostages, and other times I used referrals from a network of international friends and journalists.

The process was painstaking – especially for those recently released, there is still a huge amount of raw trauma. Yet, many agreed to this because the idea resonates with them. I am now in active correspondence with seven additional hostages, and know of another dozen whom I would like to reach out to.

In the work I’ve already done, I’ve learned so much: what to ask on the phone and what to ask by email, how to explain my motivation and why there is value for the hostages in cooperation. 

Photographically, my pared-down visual approach parallels the gap in knowledge we have about hostages, which is mainly for the security and safety of those still in captivity as well as the privacy of backdoor deals made by governments, business, and families. Because we know so little, these objects do the heavy lifting of allowing us to understand at least a few aspects of the denial of rights and life in captivity.

Gruesome pictures of scars and blood and torture make most people turn the page or turn away. We are numb to images of violence and suffering. Nicholas Henin, a French journalist held by IS in Syria, told me that the torture he and the other hostages endured was much worse when it didn’t leave blood and scars. Using a black backdrop and studio lights, I photographed the jacket he wore, torn at the armpit, when he was tortured - a physical object that represents his experience after the fact.

Through these objects, I hope to share the story of terror in our global world by photographing the simple artifacts of captivity and allowing them to create insight for an audience that usually only sees headlines. My images capture some things we do know and stand in for all of the things that we don’t know.

“The first days, you have only fear that somebody kills you,” one hostage held in the Sahara Desert told me. And in the aftermath, he continued, “if you drink a juice, an orange juice, after this experience, you are thinking you’re in paradise.” A quote like this, paired with an image drawn in a notebook of the stark desert terrain where he was held will allow the audience to process not just what it means to be held hostage, but also what it means to finally be free.

Glenna Gordon
glenna.gordon's picture

Photography is a tool to tell specific stories about specific places. It is a way to visually explore and explain the world around me. It is a means of learning that our heroes are flawed and our enemies are human.  


I first visited Africa in 2006 after I’d finished my master's in print journalism. Soon after, I moved to Uganda where I lived and worked as a writer and reporter. I always took pictures, but it wasn’t until 2010 when I was living in Liberia that I began to focus on photography. 


My work is now a combination of personal projects and assignments in Africa and elsewhere. Recent projects include work on hostages of ISIS and Al Qaeda, the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, on Nigerian weddings, and Liberia after war.  


My images have received many awards including LensCulture’s grand prize for visual storytelling, PX3 first prize in portraiture, PDN winner for personal project, and awards from Magenta Flash Forward, Communication Arts, American Photo, and others.