18 May 2016
18 May 2016 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Debi Cornwall invites us to break with the standardised images of Guantánamo Bay, turning her camera instead on to the humanity of those caught up in the system.
As of January 2017, 41 men are still imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, also referred to as "Gitmo." Most have been held for well over decade without charge, trial or conviction, but were cleared for release years ago. Rather than replicating images already emblazoned on our collective consciousness - orange jumpsuits and barbed wire - Debi Cornwall looks at the grim absurdity of the place through images of residential and leisure spaces for all those displaced here: both prisoners and the military personnel who guard them.
You moved from law to documentary photography. That’s quite a change. How did that happen?
During college, I had studied photography at RISD and worked as a stringer for the Associated Press. After graduation I found a job as an investigator for the public defender’s office, and went on to law school. From time to time during my 12 years practicing as a civil rights lawyer, I wondered what it would be like to live differently, to exercise the creative, less analytical side of my brain and spend time connecting with people rather than cross-examining them. During what was meant to be a three-month sabbatical, I realised I was ready to find out.
Your photographic work seems to be an extension of your previous law practice. How do you see it?
Very much so. As a lawyer representing innocent DNA exonerees, I worked to identify and expose systemic misconduct in law enforcement, both to improve the criminal justice system and to help compensate my clients for their years of lost liberty. Now I look at many of the same issues, still focusing on both the systemic and the very personal, but visually. Lawyers tend to speak in technical language, mainly to each other. It’s rare that litigation changes minds. Now I am thrilled to engage with a wider audience. We can ignore arguments we disagree with, but we cannot unsee.
Why did you decide to photograph at Guantánamo Bay?
My original concept was to photograph men cleared and released from Guantánamo Bay (known as “Gitmo”), but I didn’t get very far with that idea at first. So I submitted a proposal to military authorities for permission to photograph daily life for both prisoners and guards at the U.S. Naval Station. Guantánamo is such a mysterious American site, and in Cuba, no less.
Following the 11 September attacks, hundreds of men have been held there in our names, for years, without charge or trial. Yet most Americans, it seems, have stopped looking. Over the last 14 years, we have been numbed with the same images of orange jumpsuits and barbed wire. As someone concerned with due process and the rule of law, I wanted to see this place for myself. My goal was to find a new visual strategy that would invite people to look anew, to see the humanity of those caught up in this system, and to shift the debate about “closing Gitmo.”
How difficult was it to get access to Guantánamo and how did the limited freedom affect the execution of your images?
My first hurdle was to figure out whom to ask for permission to photograph at Gitmo. Once I identified the relevant authorities and submitted a proposal, I went through a background check and waited. It took nine months for clearance to arrive. Permission was conditioned on my signing a ten-page list of rules: I would follow a prescribed media tour and be accompanied at all times by a military escort. Photographs of faces were forbidden, as were photographs of locking mechanisms, defensive positions, infrastructure and certain sections of the coastline. Military censors would review every image daily directly off my digital memory cards. Any images violating the rules would be deleted. My strategy was to work within these limitations. “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier could have,” my military escort declared when I first arrived. “There’s so much fun to be had here.” So I looked at what I was being asked to see.
In the series of Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play, there is this image (just above) which shows all these drinks, sodas and beers, framed by two of the biggest and most competitive soda brands. This made me think it could have been taken anywhere in the States. Can you talk about this image. What are your thoughts behind it?
I had never set foot on a military base before visiting Gitmo. What struck me was the ordinary, if not amplified, American-ness of this place. Strolling the aisles of the NEX, a government-subsidised shopping centre, I could have been in any Walmart in America - until I came across these signs: Budweiser Marines, Budweiser Navy.
On a literal level, one of the few things to do on the base after hours is to drink. But more fundamentally, this branding made me curious to investigate the role of commerce in supporting and normalising the exercise of military power. On my last trip, I bought armloads of souvenirs, many of them made in China, touting Gitmo as a Caribbean paradise. Images of these objects, from toddler-sized t-shirts to beer cozies to golf balls, became the series, Gitmo on Sale: Souvenirs from the War on Terror.
You are planning a touring exhibition and publication of a book with images from Beyond Gitmo, along images from Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play and Gitmo on Sale. Where are you planning to take this travelling exhibition?
After photographing at Gitmo three times, I was finally able to carry out my original idea. Over the last year I travelled to nine countries, from Albania to Qatar, and photographed 14 men once held as terrorists, after they had been cleared and released. Of the 780 men held at Guantánamo, only ten have been charged with a crime. The vast majority were innocent, kidnapped and sold for bounty. Some cleared men returned home, but others were transferred to third countries where they do not speak the language. Together, we collaborated to find locations to make photographs reflecting their experiences: the profound disorientation of indefinite detention, displacement and reentry. We replicated, in the free world, the military’s “no faces” rule. Their bodies may be free, but Guantánamo Bay will always mark them.
The first exhibition I have planned is for the Centre de la Photographie in Geneva. I hope to tour the exhibition across the United States and Europe, in both fine-art and educational venues. At each site I will give a community lecture in the hope of inspiring audiences to ask new questions about our assumptions and fears, and the human experience of those caught up in the “War on Terror.” Ultimately, we have the power to choose whether our actions will live up to our ideals.
Debi Cornwall is a conceptual documentary artist based in the United States. Her photographs examine the human experience of injustice, trauma and transition, and explore the ways in which spaces reflect conflict and its aftermath. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter.