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In 1929, when the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky paid a visit to Stalin’s first Gulag camp at the Solovetsky Islands, the guards “cleaned up” the camp, camouflaging all signs of brutality. In one isolation ward, inmates were given newspapers to feign normalcy. Hoping that the nation’s revered author would see through the sham, the prisoners held the newspapers upside down. But Gorky refused to disbelieve the camp’s simulacrum. In his glowing newspaper report, he celebrated the heroism of the guards safeguarding the communist revolution. Millions would perish in Gulags over the next decade.
The story of Gorky’s visit dramatizes the abyss between the facade of political prisons presented to the press and the hidden truth of suffering that lies beyond the reach of the camera and the pen. An observer confronts a “regime of seeing” regulating the visible and must choose between accepting or distrusting one’s sight.
Gitmo, the “War on Terror” prison at the US Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is no exception to this staging of obfuscations. Media access to the American military detention center, where Muslim men have been held in solitary confinement without due process for over 16 years, is strictly controlled. On offer is a standard media tour with plenty of photo ops. “It’s quite a show. And a spectacular diversion from what happens behind closed doors,” writes Debi Cornwall in her unique photo book Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay (2017, Radius Books).
In 2014 and 2015, after a nine-month clearance process, Cornwall, a former civil rights lawyer, photographed Gitmo under the watchful gaze of military escorts. Her digital image files were checked daily, and she had to develop her film in front of the censors. At Gitmo, Cornwall toured sample cells displaying “comfort items,” from toothpaste and blankets to shower shoes and Qur’ans. She saw the detainee library replete with hundreds of DVDs and the Harry Potter series in Arabic and Pashto. She photographed chain link pens, the detainee hospital, the Navy Exchange store, and off-duty recreational areas, including a pool complex and an 18-hole golf course. One military escort told her, “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier could have. There’s so much fun to be had here!”
In her book, Cornwall scrutinizes America’s most heavily guarded prison through a deconstructive lens that uncouples the visible from the familiar. Her images act as X-rays that expose the logic of a penal system responsible for torture.
Written in English and Arabic, Welcome to Camp America layers archival materials — affidavits, declassified military documents, detainees’ family photos — with three types of photographed work. The first group consists of images Cornwall took during her visits, subject to 12 pages of public affairs rules, such as “no frontal facial views, profiles, 3/4 views, or any view revealing a detainee’s identity.” Most of these show empty spaces of incarceration and recreation for the staff. Untitled, these pictures throw the viewer into a disorienting and disturbing maze of the prison, inviting the imagination to inhabit each one: a kiddie pool, a prayer rug in a metal cell with a taped arrow pointing to Mecca, a claustrophobic solitary cell, drawn hospital curtains, a closed tiki bar, a stained reclining chair with ankle shackles. A few images show Gitmo’s uniformed guards without revealing their faces.
Cornwall has an eye for the deadpan ordinary detail that lacerates with banality — shopping carts at the base store, the back of a Ronald McDonald statue, a pool-side chaise. The Gitmo she shows us is hygienic, modular, efficient, mass-produced, and recognizably American in its logic, ubiquity, and form.
The second class of images are of former Guantanamo inmates that Cornwall photographed in the countries where they have been resettled: Albania, Algeria, Egypt, France, Germany, Slovakia, and others. These fold-in photos are freely inserted into the book whose multifaceted design mimics a hard-bound government dossier. Each former prisoner stands with his back to the viewer among an alien landscape. The caption includes the person’s name and country origins, the location of the photo, and the number of years, months, and days they were held at Gitmo. The text ends with the same refrain: “Charges never filed.” These views of the men’s backs heighten the sense of their estrangement from their surroundings, and the erasure of their identity by the system.
The book also contains studio images of Gitmo-themed memorabilia sold at the base store: a crop tee for a teddy bear with a sign: “It Don’t Get GITMO Than That” ($9.99); a bobble head of Fidel Castro called “Radio GTMO: Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard” ($20); a Guantanamo Bay purse clasp ($5.99), mug ($7.99), and camouflaged beer cozy ($10), and other darkly humorous merchandise.
Braiding these images with archival texts — sworn statements of beatings, CIA instructions for “enhanced interrogation,” and excerpts of detainee interviews — Cornwall destabilizes Gitmo’s facade of normalcy through incisive juxtapositions and interpolations.
“Over the last fifteen years, most Americans have stopped looking,” says Cornwall about Gitmo’s disappearance from America’s consciousness and conscience. Forcing us to reexamine this recent, ongoing chapter of American history, Welcome to Camp America offers another way of seeing and exposing political deception from its backside.
A number of Cornwall’s images are now on view at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (June 14-August 25), where gallery-goers can experience them in large-format prints, up to 40 x 50 inches in size.