Gitmo at Home,

Gitmo at Play


Photographer Debi Cornwall had been off the boat only a few minutes when her military escort turned to her and said “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier can have. There’s lots of fun to be had here.”

It was Cornwall’s first visit to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, and she arrived not really knowing what it was she wanted to photograph. The soldier provided her the answer.

“I was looking for something that would reflect the human experience of life in this place where nobody has chosen to live. Something different,” says Cornwall, whose resulting series Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play hones in on the fast food restaurants, BBQ pits, and playgrounds that meet the domestic and leisure needs of civilian contractors, U.S. military personnel and their families.

On January 11, 2002, the first twenty “enemy combatants” were admitted to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. Ever since, photographers have signed up for frequent media tours led by the base’s Joint Task Force (JTC). During such tours, there can be no photographs of faces, surveillance equipment, or security mechanisms. Movements are tightly controlled, the military exercises total control over digital assets. At the conclusion of all photographers’ tour, the JTC looks over the jpegs and RAW files made on base. Each year, the military enforces the deletion of thousands of files in “Operational Security Reviews.”

An exposé from within one of the most tightly controlled media environments on the planet is, essentially, impossible. Cornwall, therefore, reasoned it useless to repeat the prisoner-absent images of grey concrete corridors, floor-painted arrows and chain-link fences. She turned to the less-secure and to the unexpected. Cornwall shot “the landscape of leisure” at Guantanamo.

The gravitation toward the subject is in line with Cornwall’s own history. Despite working as a stringer for the Associated Press during her college years, she “didn’t have the courage” to pursue photography as a career and so headed off to law school instead. Only a few months after the first men were locked up in Guantanamo in 2002, Cornwall began work as a civil rights lawyer in a small downtown Manhattan law firm.

She represented men who had been wrongly convicted and served years in prison for crimes they did not commit. DNA testing exonerated them. Cornwall and the firm she worked for looked for cases that had the potential to identify, expose, and change systemic misconduct in law enforcement. But it wasn’t enough.

“As lawyers we argue in technical language within a closed circle of judges, attorneys and experts,” says Cornwall. “Even when we win we rarely change minds or reach people who weren’t already following the issue.”

Cornwall wanted to reach new audiences and to test the veracity of photography.

“When I stepped away from litigation I wanted to look at some of the same kinds of questions — injustice, wrongful imprisonment, official abuses — but from a new perspective,” she explains. “A secretive offshore site in which more than half of the remaining prisoners were cleared for release years ago and yet remained in indefinite detention, was an obvious place to look.”

Six years ago, and just two weeks after after his inauguration, President Obama issued a directive to close Guantanamo. The following week, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the move and in May 2009, the U.S. Senate voted 90–6 to block funds needed for the transfer or release of Guantanamo prisoners.

Releases have been slow. The U.S. has been aided by other nations; at least 52 countries have accepted released prisoners. At the time of writing, the number of detainees stands at 122, over half of whom have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go.

“The Yemenis pose the biggest challenge,” explains Cornwall. “About 54 of the 86 Yemenis still at Guantánamo have been cleared for release, but given the political situation in Yemen right now, it’s not going to happen any time soon. So for them, it’s third-party countries or Gitmo.”

Over the years, Guantanamo has become a site of deadlock and stasis. Americans struggle to justify its use, the world shakes its head, and the detainees live in a state of perpetual legal limbo. There is fatigue among voting Americans toward an issue that doesn’t seem to change.

“Those who were outraged early on have moved on to causes that seem winnable,” says Cornwall. “It’s so hard to sustain a movement over more than a decade of inaction.”

Cornwall hopes her photography alerts consciences the same way advocacy by the likes the Center for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve, and their released clients does. She hopes it might compliment the art-inclined tactics of projects such as Aaron HughesTea Ceremony and Witness Torture’s public protests. She hopes it might even motivate insiders to speak out.

“Soldiers, too, are seeing through the veneer of Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities,” says Cornwall. “They’re asking questions about whether this posting is worth being separated from their families. We may be seeing a new generation of enlisted personnel questioning the mission.”

Without exception, Cornwall believes all prisoners cleared for release should be transported home, or to safe havens. For those against whom there is some reliable evidence, Cornwall encourages the U.S. authorities to transfer them to the mainland and process them through the criminal justice system.

“Even with all its imperfections,” says Cornwall, “our domestic legal system is capable of processing these cases. We have done it successfully in terrorism cases brought in New York and D.C. [Exercising] indefinite detention—without formal charge, with no trials, much less fair trials where the reliability of evidence is tested in open court, or conviction beyond a reasonable doubt by an impartial jury—is a gross betrayal of the justice system we hold out as the best in the world.”

Looking to the future Cornwall is “cautiously optimistic” that Guantanamo will be closed down. It is, above all else, a political issue and she hopes President Obama will take unilateral executive action before he leaves office. Between now and then Cornwall wants to do all in her power to remind American taxpayers that they’re funding a prison in violation of human rights. Her image-making plays its part in a environment of wider protest.

She points to the other activist work that’s out there. The YouTube video of Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) being force-fed according to Guantánamo protocols was tough for her to watch.

“Force feeding — or enteral feeding as they call it — was done multiple times a day, day in and day out, for months at a time under the name of providing ‘safe, humane, legal, and transparent care’ to men whose only remaining agency over their bodies was to refuse to eat,” says Cornwall.

How bizarre and cruel it is that Cornwall trains her lens on, among other things, diner booths, supermarket carts and aisles full of Budweiser. These “aggressive decorative reminders” magnify the strange logic that has given rise to the extrajudicial prison.

“A saluting Ronald McDonald, a golf course and a kiddie pool are jarring given what we know is happening behind closed doors,” reflects Cornwall. “That disconnect, I hope, makes its own statement about the American exercise of power in this place.”

Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play is, as it turns out, just the first chapter in Cornwall’s ongoing investigation of Guantanamo and its widespread effects. She is talking to lawyers who represent detainees to develop the project, she is photographing absences in international home spaces of men cleared for release but still imprisoned, and she is photographing released men.

Five billion dollars has already been spent operating Guantanamo, and $2.8 million is spent every year to house each prisoner. For Cornwall, Guantanamo is not only an expensive failure, it is the worst type of moral failure.

“Fear has trumped our most fundamental American values,” says Cornwall. “Shipping this embarrassing problem offshore does not make it go away.”

All photos by Debi Cornwall

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