ART REVIEW: Photography Exhibition Captures the Incongruous Crush of Guantanamo Bay Prisons

With the constant turmoil in the world today, one facet of American life that's largely slipped from view is the United States government's continued imprisonment of people without access to legal counsel, the opportunity to defend themselves at trial, and have often tortured them for over a decade. President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo Bay during his first run, and ten years later, despite our stated withdrawal from Iraq, it still stands. It's no longer at the level of moral outrage because we've allowed ourselves to ignore it. Just as we accept that Flint, Michigan, hasn't had clean water for four years, we accept that America tortures and harms potentially innocent people in our name.

It was almost serendipitous -- the day I went to see Debi Cornwall's documentary photography show "Welcome to Camp America" at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, I'd just read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times from Ahmed Rabbani, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay who has been held without trial for fourteen years. 
Compliant Detainee Media Room, Camp 5
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (2014)
Chromogenic print from digital photograph
32x40 in. print, 36x44 in. frame
"Welcome to Camp America" is Debi Cornwall's masterful photo series of former detainees, all depicted from behind, alongside images of the camp itself. As if in a rebuke to the kind of thinking that turned Ahmed Rabbani into the number 1461, as he writes for the Los Angeles Times, Cornwall tells us the first names of the detainees in her pictures. The labels accompanying each photo give the subjects' countries of origin, how long they were detained at Guantanamo, whether they were cleared or transferred to another institution, and tellingly, if charges were filed (notably, no charges were ever filed). Some detainees have been moved to another prison, while others have returned to their country of origin. Tellingly, the only staff member who is given their own photo is Terry, who served from 2003-4, converted to Islam, and was honorably discharged. No longer a part of the apparatus, he becomes individualized and gets his name back.
Hamza, Tunisian (Slovakia)
Held: 12 Years, 11 Months, 19
Days Cleared: January 12, 2009
Transferred to Slovakia: November 20, 2014
Charges: never filed
Chromogenic print from digital photograph
25.6x32 in. print, 28x34 in. frame
Taking in Cornwall's images is like a crash course in seeing how facts can be whitewashed and obfuscated. It's an exercise of being shocked and horrified, but not surprised. Because it's never impacted me directly, I've never actually known what the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay looks like. I've pictured a sort of Shawshank-Redemption-looking building, its rattling gray stone and barred-up windows like teeth with braces--something that signals visually, cartoonishly, just how evil and sinister it is on the inside. As photographed by Cornwall, it's actually an innocuous-looking campsite of buildings in neat rows, an endless array of ordinary-looking white rooms with small windows. Yet over the course of "Welcome to Camp America," we see how somewhere so unspeakably awful appears so banal, even pleasant, and we see how the unlawful suffering of its detainees can even be commodified and sold. 
Toddler Tee ($7.99)
Chromogenic print from digital photograph
Even using the term "detainee" instead of "prisoner" can function as a euphemistic legal workaround. Apparently, calling Guantanamo Bay a "prison" means that its occupants would have rights under the Geneva Convention. There's the Orwellian-sounding "compliant detainees media room," where a stuffed reclining chair sits behind a pair of manacles; there's a "recreation pen" that's just a large cage; there's a room with a prayer rug and arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca. "It can't be that bad," we think--"look! They can pray!" They, not us--because it's been made clear through over a decade of mass media that the people in Guantanamo Bay are "them" and not "us."
Recreation Pen, Camp Echo
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (2015)
Chromogenic print, medium-format negative hand-developed on site under watch of military escorts
 40x50 in print, 44x54 in. frame
Prayer Rug with Arrow to Mecca, Camp Echo
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (2015)
Chromogenic print, medium-format negative hand-developed on site under watch of military escorts
40x50 in print, 44x54 in. frame
It’s almost comical how callous the idea of Guantanamo Bay souvenirs is, yet, you can buy a bobblehead doll of Fidel Castro, or a shirt reading “I <3 3="" a="" absurdity="" and="" another="" at="" away="" back="" band="" barely="" bay="" beach="" blue="" break="" captures="" cornwall="" driving="" duties.="" enjoying="" even="" example="" facing="" for="" from="" galley="" gitmo="" guantanamo="" guard="" guards="" he="" head="" her="" his="" in="" infant="" is="" just="" kiddie="" kitschy="" nameless="" nautical-themed="" nbsp="" of="" on="" one="" onsite.="" ostensibly="" out="" over="" p="" photograph="" pool="" range="" recliner="" respite="" room.="" s="" sizes="" smoke="" soundproofed="" sparkling="" stand="" staring="" the="" their="" there="" this="" three="" throughout="" uniform="" viewer="" visible="" water.="" where="" work.="">
Smoke Break, Camp America
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (2014)
Chromogenic print from digital photograph
32x40 in. print, 36x44 in. frame
On Windmill Beach
U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (2014)
Chromogenic print from digital photograph
26x39 in. print, 28x41 in. frame
As the accompanying exhibition essay notes, Cornwall isn't giving us any kind of exposé on the hours of Gitmo -- she was given strict directives of what she could and could not photograph, including no frontal, profile, or three-quarter views. Her photos had to be developed on-site and approved by the necessary authorities, who had veto power over every image she captured. Yet because she's an artist, and because she's so attuned to the visual, it's the simplicity of Cornwall's compositions that draw attention to the casual cruelties happening just out of sight, almost underplaying the horror in order to get the viewer to look and think: what's wrong with this picture?

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