Meet Chelsea Manning's official portrait artist

How did a little known Philadelphia artist end up painting the only authorized portrait of one of America's most famous inmates?


Ever since Bradley Manning announced her decision to live openly as Chelsea Manning, nearly every outlet has used the same photo to illustrate the incarcerated private: a grainy black-and-white selfie in which Manning sits in a driver’s seat, her face framed by a platinum wig, her expression frozen somewhere between an uncomfortable smile and a steely glare.

That image was never meant for the masses — it was attached to a private email Manning sent to her therapist and her commanding officer in 2010. The picture was subsequently released during Manning's trial for leaking a trove of documents to WikiLeaks. When it emerged in August 2013, it redefined how we saw Manning and heralded her decision, announced a week later, to formally change genders.

"is this seriously the ONLY picture the media has of Chelsea Manning?"

In the year since it emerged, that crude selfie has appeared on CNN, the Huffington Post, New York Times, New York Post, BBC, the Wall Street Journal, and countless other outlets. There’s a reason for the ubiquity of the photo: Under Army Regulation 190-47, prisoners of the Army Corrections Systems — where Manning is serving her 35-year sentence —  "will not be photographed, except in support of medical documentation and for official identification purposes." The want of Manning portraits hasn’t gone unnoticed. As one Gawker commenter recently asked, "is this seriously the ONLY picture the media has of Chelsea Manning?"

Chelsea Manning Selfie

Surprisingly, the answer to that question is no. Since last spring there has existed an alternative to Manning’s selfie: an official, full-profile, color portrait of Chelsea Manning created with her own authorization from inside Ft. Leavenworth. Except it’s not a photograph — it’s an illustration created by a relatively unknown Philadelphia-based artist.

By day, Alicia Neal is an image-quality editor for a cable service provider, sourcing and coordinating up-to-date pictures for video games and TV shows. But by night, Neal — who holds a BFA from The University of the Arts — is an artist: she paints colorful, strange and sweet portraits: pieces like "Cuddles," in which a bearded man spoons a furry centipede; and "A Colorful Imagination," where a beautiful woman in a white dress sits cradling a blue brain in her lap. Neal shows her work in coffee shops, sometimes by herself, sometimes as part of group shows.

Then last spring Emma Cape, a campaign organizer of the Chelsea Manning Support Network who heard about Neal from a friend of a friend, reached out to her. Would the illustrator, Cape asked, be interested in creating an official portrait of Chelsea Manning? "I was super nervous," Neal says, but she agreed to submit a test sketch.

Manning doesn’t like the widely circulated black-and-white photo

Chelsea Manning is acutely aware of the way she is depicted in the media. "I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much," Manning wrote to Adrian Lamo, who eventually reported Manning, in the spring of 2010. "If it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy [sic]…"

Manning doesn’t like the widely circulated black-and-white photo says Cape, who speaks with the inmate once a week. "[Manning] says that that was a selfie, that it was never meant for public consumption…she sent it to one person, not expecting that the whole world would get to see it."

Chelsea Manning Sketch 1

In an attempt to "humanize" Manning and offer news outlets an image that takes into account how Manning would like to be represented, the organization decided to create a new profile for her. But the restrictions of her incarceration meant that Manning couldn’t have a new picture taken. The organization struck on the idea of a painted portrait, but even that would be difficult. Because of restrictive visitation rights at Ft. Leavenworth military prison, the portrait would have to be sent back and forth for revisions through the mail.

Manning drew a rough self-portrait of herself and sent it to the Support Network. There, they scanned the image and sent it out to a few artists for their renditions. Those artists included recognizable names like Molly Crabapple, as well as less widely known artists like Neal.

Manning’s original self-portrait was "really, really simple — maybe what you’d expect from a high schooler."

Manning’s original self-portrait, Neal told me, was "really, really simple — maybe what you’d expect from a high schooler." She was told that Manning wanted "black-framed glasses and more feminine features, like lipstick." Neal’s painting was the one Manning liked best, and so she was chosen to paint Chelsea’s first — and so far only — authorized portrait.

"I had some performance anxiety," Neal says. "Normally when I work with a client, I get to speak to them directly to get their opinion. Not being able to speak with Chelsea directly was even more nerve-wracking." Over the next two months, Neal sent drafts to Cape, who would forward them onto Manning for notes and wait for a response before relaying edits back to the artist. "The direction they wanted to go in was sort of a political portrait," Neal says. "They wanted something that was professional, but also casual."

Chelsea Manning Sketch 2

Three iterations later, they landed on a final version: Manning sports long, loose blonde curls; a white shirt, the top button undone; and a surprisingly generous smile for someone facing decades in prison. The portrait was first used for a press release prior to San Francisco’s 2014 LGBTQ Pride Celebration, where Manning was named Honorary Grand Marshal. Media outlets have been slow to adopt the depiction. The Guardian recently used it for an editorial piece Manning wrote, but countless other publications still rely on the selfie.

Painting the sole authorized portrait of one of America’s most famous inmates hasn’t brought Neal as much attention as one might expect — she told me I was the first reporter to reach out to her. But there is a more personal reward for being involved in this project. "I have transgendered friends," Neal says. "I’ve watched them go through their transitions and how hard it is… I felt really honored to be able to help her with that." At the same time, she worries what Manning thinks of the final portrait. "Maybe she hates it, and that’s really scary."

As for Manning, Cape says that she’s largely pleased with how the portrait turned out. Apart from one point. "The only criticism Chelsea had," Cape says, "is that since she’s been in prison, she’s been working out every day. Now, she has a slimmer-looking face."

Chelsea Manning Final High Rez
All artwork by Alicia Neal