This Week in Photography Books: Debi Cornwall


I’m listening to the hum of the fan beside me.

A magenta bag, filled with birthday socks, sits glowing in
the sunlight by the window.

Thankfully, I’m free.

Free to say what I like in this space each week. (Thanks, Rob.) Free to wear what I’d like, and go where I please.

These freedoms come at a cost, as we all know.

The United States government, through war and covert (i.e. CIA-led) actions, has undermined freedom, democracy, and sovereignty elsewhere. Countless have died in wars in other places, like Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, as we’ve maintained our position at the top of the global economic food chain.

Given our original sins, slavery and the genocide of Native America, we shouldn’t be surprised that we also fomented revolution, claimed territory by force, committed assassinations, and installed puppet regimes in foreign countries.

(As much as I dislike Vlad Putin, he’s always pointing out that we’ve done the same things he’s accused of…)

The Monroe Doctrine was conjured to claim our sphere of influence over this part of the world. We’re seeing a return to that bygone era, (Shout out to Professor Timothy Lomperis, Freshman Year at Duke,) where major powers like the US, Russia and China patrol their own waters, and balance each other out.

Add to the list of things nasty things we’ve done in the name of democracy: torture.

Yes, in the early years of the War on Terror, George W. Bush had some lawyers, (we’re looking at you John Yoo,) come up with legal justification for “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

Including: water boarding, slapping, sleep deprivation, sexual touching, being forced to live in your own shit and piss, no access to light, little activity, hooding, general humiliation, and being shackled in painful positions.

I’m likely leaving a few out.

These black sites are on all of us, as citizens.
We’re complicit.

These discussions will be before us again, as Trump’s new nominee to head the CIA once ran a black site herself, and has been outwardly in favor of torture, according to this article in The Atlantic.

But Barack Obama famously promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and didn’t, so again, this issue crosses political affiliations.

I’ve been thinking about it all morning, having read/looked at Debi Cornwall’s excellent “Welcome to Camp America,” published by Radius Books in Santa Fe.

Straight up, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy this one as much as some of the others I’ve reviewed lately. It’s a bit clinical for my liking. Such opinions are, of course, subjective, and it’s obviously a well-made production of important work.

It’s informative, and rich, and succeeds in many ways.

But since I try to always keep it real, and have been gushingly-over-the-top in my praise of late, I thought I’d tell the truth.

I like that the book forced me to pay attention. Like the other books I’ve featured lately, this one has multiple themes that repeat throughout, interrupting each other in a rhythm, so you’ll never get bored.

There are dry, formal landscape photos taken from inside the areas she was allowed to photograph at Gitmo.

Then, there are fold out pieces, untethered and interspersed, which feature former detainees who were freed, and have been patriated to other countries, Uighurs and Egyptians in places like Albania.

Always these men are photographed from behind. (A nod to the military regulation at Gitmo that says no faces are to be photographed? More likely, as Fred Ritchin suggests in his essay, it was out of empathy for the men’s privacy.)

Personally, I don’t like the unbound tactic. But I’m a big fan of the use of Arabic text, as it reminds us there is more than the American perspective to consider.

My favorite photos are the still life objects available at the gift shop. Dolls, and stuffed animals and lip balm?

Dial 911 for the tacky police.

There are smudgy, difficult-to-read pages depicting the actual torture techniques employed in the Bush Era, and a lawsuit/ story that plays out, slowly over the book, in first person.

Eventually, we realize it’s from the standpoint of a soldier who was playing an unresponsive inmate in a drill, only the soldiers kicking the shit out of him didn’t think it was a drill, and then the tapes were destroyed.

There are always tapes, with people like this, and they’re always getting destroyed. It’s like something out of that Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson movie from back when they were both important.

What was that called?

That reminds me, in the book, that soldier who got beat up by mistake even said the safe-word was literally “Code Red,” like that movie, god, what was its name?

At first, jolting between that many types of images, and words, and styles of viewing, with overfolds and pull outs, it felt like a bit much.

I questioned what the personal connection was, between the artist and the subject, because clearly there was one. Nobody jumps through that many military hoops to get access, and publishes damaging information, in a photobook, without an ax to grind.

It goes against human nature.

So there it was, in Ms. Cornwall’s statement at the end of the book. “For twelve years I practiced as a wrongful conviction lawyer representing innocent exonerees in civil rights suits in the United States.”

That would do it.

I learned a lot from this book, and think it’s kickass in many ways. It’s just that it left me feeling a bit cold.

You know who else was cold?

One of the torture victims, when he was left shivering, naked, in his own excrement, while the air conditioning was turned on full blast.

I read that in this book. I expect it will stay with me for a while.

As it should.

Bottom Line: A fascinating, multi-layered look at Gitmo

To purchase “Welcome to Camp America,” click hereĀ 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Does seem a bit “clinical,” but then- that does mirror the subject matter, does it not? I’m at a loss since I don’t have the book in hand, but from what you’ve posted, it does seem rather involving and comprehensive- and at the heart of it, is some exceptional photography.

    Particularly timely now that Gina Haspel is scheduled to become CIA Chief- she who enjoyed and presided over the waterboarding of one suspect a record 83 times (or was it 84?). The same “Bloody” Gina* also made sure those very incriminating torture tapes got burned up good.

    *As named by her CIA peers.

    • Jonathan Blaustein

      Thanks for chiming in, Stan. Trump sure loves his dictators, killers, torturers and racists. (Putin, Duterte, Haspel, and all those “very fine people” in Charlottesville.)