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Debi Cornwall, “Smoke Break, Camp America, US Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” (2014) (all images courtesy of Radius Books)

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.

Debi Cornwall, “Prayer Rug with Arrow to Mecca, Camp Echo, US Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” (2015)

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).

Debi Cornwall, “Sami, Sudanese (Qatar), held: 5 years, 4 months, 16 days; released: April 30, 2008; charges: never filed” (2015)

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!”

Debi Cornwall, “Compliant Detainee Media Room, Camp 5” (2014-2015)

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.

Debi Cornwall, “Marble Head Lanes” (2014)

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.

Debi Cornwall, “Hamza, Tunisian (Slovakia), held: 12 years, 11 months, 19 days; cleared: June 12, 2009; transferred to Slovakia: November 20, 2014; charges: never filed” (2015)

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.

Debi Cornwall, “Toddler Tee ($7.99)” (2015)

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.

Debi Cornwall, “Fidel Bobblehead ($20)” (2015)

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.

Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantanamo Bay by Debi Cornwall is published by Radius Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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Lev Feigin

Lev Feigin is a Philadelphia writer, flâneur, and, occasionally, photographer. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. You can follow...

3 replies on “Inside Guantanamo Bay: A Photographer Documents America’s Most Heavily Guarded Prison”

  1. Nothing about the hard working and dedicated US personnel who serve there honorably and with integrity 24/7/365? Nothing about the “Gitmo Cocktails” of human bodily fluids “splashed” onto guards by unlawful combatant detainees? Nothing about random assaults on guards or threats to guards personal safety and that of their families? These photos attempt to make a mockery of the US military detention facility and US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, two different and distinct places and missions. The confluence of these two bring discredit upon the photographer. Gitmo is the finest military detention facility on earth. 731 unlawful combatants have been RELEASED, and NONE have been beheaded, executed, blown up, hacked to death, dragged naked and lifeless through the streets, drowned or burned alive. Detainees enjoy FREE Quran’s, halal and special holy Muslim holiday meals, prayer rugs & beads, white robes, beards, world class health care, services of US military Muslim chaplains, directions to Mecca, TV, DVD’s, a library, recreation and artificial turf sports field. Little of that photographed as well. For a REAL Gitmo story, read “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior,” by MAJ (RET) Montgomery J. Granger, former ranking US Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, FEB-JUN 2002. Hooah!

    1. As someone with family currently serving in the US military, I appreciate and respect your service and I will check out your story.
      Meanwhile, how nice it would be if we did not have the need for either story! Since 2003 when the US invaded Iraq on false pretenses, aside from U.S. and other countries’ troops’ death and health tolls, there have been 204,130 Iraqi civilian deaths. After 15 years, this “war on terror”, the longest war in US history, has cost US taxpayers 5.6 TRILLION DOLLARS, a figure that includes the Pentagon’s war fund plus future social services for veterans. That breaks down to $32 MILLION per hour, or, in further perspective, every US taxpayer has spent $24,000 on this war so far.
      What exactly is ANY war FOR at this point? The US is escalating shadowy anti-terror operations across the world, now in at least 76 nations – that’s 40% of the countries on this planet. Seems like we’re making a lot of enemies out there. Meanwhile we can’t even take care of our own people (and our own crumbling infrastructure), and we have our own rising rates of terrorism right here in America in the form of white men committing random public massacres in our schools, malls, churches, concerts, and rallies, and yet THESE terrorists are never prosecuted as “terrorists”.
      Endless war is not the answer. It’s the problem. And if you look around the world – and right here at home – it’s NOT WORKING! Let’s try some ENDLESS PEACE! Maybe “freedom” isn’t free, but peace IS.

      1. That’s all very nice. I’ve been humming “Give Peace a Chance” all day, but in reality, bad people try to do bad things to good people all day, every day. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iran during the decade long Iran/Iraq War. He also used them against his own people, Iraqi Kurds after the First Gulf War. He had developed the worlds largest artillery, powerful enough to land rounds on Isreali heads. He fired scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. He was in violation of UN sanctions for over 12 years, allowed al Qaeda training camps inside Iraq, and harbored known terrorists, such as Abu Abbas, mastermind of the Achille Lauro highjacking and murderer of American Leon Klinghoffer. The UN Security Council voted UNANIMOUSLY to allow the use of force against Saddam Hussein, and a coalition of 39 countries participated in the invasion of Iraq, where we still have forces today. Chemical weapon munitions were found in Iraq, and more has been discovered in Syria. FYI – we still have US military in Germany, Japan and Italy over 73 years after the end of WWII. These are among the most peaceful and economically viable countries on earth, not in spite of the US, but because of the US. We are there as liberators and friends. The Global War on Terror is alive and well and living in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Brussels, New York, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and many, many other places. You either don’t know these facts or choose to ignore them. Either way, you are an enemy enabler. This is a dirty, dangerous and cruel world we live in, and dangerous and loyal men and women are prepared to do violent things on our behalf so that we can sleep at night, and then wake up and thank them and God for our freedom and liberty. You’re welcome.

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