Welcome to Camp America: Beyond Gitmo  //  An Exhibition of Photographs by Debi Cornwall

The Carriage House Gallery, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at 357 Benefit Street   //   September 14 – october 17, 2017   //   Gallery Hours: M-F 10-4

About the Artist

Debi Cornwall (Brown ’95, Harvard Law School ’00) is a conceptual documentary artist who returned to visual expression in 2014 after a 12-year career as a civil rights lawyer. Her work interrogates American power, marrying empathy and dark humor with systemic critique. Informed by her experience representing innocent DNA exonerees, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay (Radius Books 2017) offers a vivid and disorienting perspective on Guantánamo Bay and the global diaspora of men once held there, after they have been cleared and freed. The subject of one-woman exhibitions in China, Switzerland, and South Korea, Camp America is shown at the Public Humanities Center’s Carriage House Gallery in conjunction with the conference.

About the Exhibition

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States retaliated, seeking to root out those responsible, as well as their sympathizers, who were believed to be living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. Bombers dropped leaflets in local languages over Afghanistan and Pakistan offering thousands of dollars in rewards for each “foreign fighter” turned over to U.S. forces. For rural villagers, $5,000 went a very long way. American criminal law recognizes that anyone receiving a financial benefit for pointing the finger has an incentive to lie. And in fact many of those turned in for bounty were innocent: they were doing charity work with their families, studying Islam, doing business, attempting to flee the hostilities. But nobody took the time to vet those turned over to American authorities in the fog of war.

In any case, American criminal law did not apply. Those rounded up were not brought to face charges in the United States. Instead, they were sent to the U.S. Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (known as “Gitmo” based on its military call letters, GTMO), for interrogation and intelligence gathering. As President Barack Obama admitted in 2015 following the publication of a summary of a classified Senate report on interrogation tactics used at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere in the so-called War on Terror, “we tortured some folks.” The offshore site was chosen precisely because it was not on U.S. soil, ensuring those held would not receive the protections of U.S. courts, where any evidence gained by the use of torture would be inadmissible. In the words of one military defense lawyer, Gitmo was “the legal equivalent of outer space.” It took years of litigation for the Supreme Court to affirm inmates’ rights to representation and to challenge the legal and factual basis of their detention. But the vast majority of those held spent years imprisoned without charge or trial; the U.S. reputation as a worldwide leader in human rights has been forever compromised.

In the almost 16 years since Gitmo’s prisons opened on Jan. 11, 2002, 780 men have been held there, but not as “prisoners of war.” This language matters: “prisoners of war” are protected by international law, the Geneva Conventions against Torture. “Enemy combatants” or “unprivileged belligerents,” terms that never existed before, do not. Scores have been cleared and released, leaving 41 men in custody. Five of those have been cleared for release but cannot return home due to war, political threats, or other factors as determined by U.S. authorities, so third countries must be found and secret agreements negotiated for their transfer. None are likely to be released under the Trump administration. Twenty-six are “forever prisoners” held under indefinite “law of war” detention without charge or trial. Of the remaining ten men, three have been convicted and seven face prosecution in military commission proceedings.

After so long, how to invite a fresh look? When we hear “Guantánamo Bay” now, we think of its prisons. But the 45 square miles on the Southeastern coast of Cuba comprising the Naval Base were controlled by the United States for over a century before the first detainees arrived. A 1903 lease provides that the land will remain under U.S. control until both countries agree in writing that it will revert to Cuba. Before January 11, 2001, Gitmo was known as a way station for American servicemen, a tropical paradise ideal for rest and relaxation. This perception of Gitmo as a Caribbean playground persists despite the changed circumstances. Gift-shop souvenirs tout Guantánamo as a tropical paradise. “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier could have,” a military escort declared at the start of a media tour. “There’s so much fun to be had here!” Indeed, for those with freedom of movement, options for play abound: the pool complex, the Marble Head Lanes bowling alley, the Lateral Hazards golf course, water sports. The series Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play documents this show, juxtaposing residential and leisure spaces of prisoners and guards in a place where military regulations forbid photographing faces. While the experiences of prisoners and guards cannot be equated, there is one point of human connection: nobody has chosen to live in this place. Daily life for members of both groups is defined by order, rules, and boredom. Everyone, it seems, is counting the days until they can leave. Of course, the remaining captives do not know whether that day will ever come.

But what of those cleared and released from Guantánamo? The series Beyond Gitmo comprises collaborative environmental portraits with 14 former captives now living in 9 countries, from Albania to Qatar. Each image replicates, in the free world, the military’s “no faces” rule, commenting on alienation of indefinite detention and how these men will remain forever marked by Guantánamo.

Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay has been exhibited in China, Switzerland, Korea, and France. The newly released book, which juxtaposes photographs, archival material and first-person texts in Arabic and English with essays by British Guantánamo releasee Moazzam Begg, International Center for Photography Dean Emeritus Fred Ritchin, and civil-rights-lawyer-turned-artist Debi Cornwall (MCM ’95), was shortlisted for the 2017 les Rencontres d’Arles (France) Photo-Text Book Award.

— TEXT by Debi Cornwall

Through a Brown Arts Initiative Fitt Artist-in-Residence Grant, Debi Cornwall will be in residence at Brown from September 10-15, 2017.  For a schedule of events associated with her residence, please check the Schedule page of this website.