Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay Debi Cornwall

This project arose from my past career as a civil-rights lawyer in the United States.

For twelve years, I filed lawsuits on behalf of innocent men convicted for crimes they did not commit. Each case was exposed and reformed systemic abuses of power within the criminal justice system.

When I returned to visual expression in 2014, the offshore ‘War on Terror’ prisons constructed at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba presented the same kinds of questions. Since January 11, 2002, up to 780 Muslim men have been impris- oned there, subjected to torture, and held without charge or trial. Under presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, the vast majority of ‘detainees’ were cleared and released, either returning home, or, if the U.S. government deemed it necessary, transferred to third countries. Fifty-nine countries, including Italy, have accepted transfers. In 2018, almost seventeen years on, 40 men remain in indefinite detention. Five of those were cleared for release years ago.

Access to the 45 square miles of the US-controlled territory in Guantánamo Bay (known as ‘Gitmo’ after its call sign, GTMO), is controlled by the United States military, which decides who may visit, what they may see, and what may be photographed. Military escorts accompany photographers at all times, and review every frame in daily ‘Operational Security Review.’ Anything that violates the long list of prohibitions is deleted. As a result, in the public imagination Gitmo is reduced to orange jumpsuits, barbed wire, and fatigues. Many have stopped looking.

My strategy was to make a different kind of picture, inviting a fresh look at the place established in the name of our safety. “Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay” incorporates three bodies of visual work. First, I proposed to document everyday life for both prisoners and guards. What does daily life look like in a place where nobody has chosen to live? After nine months and a background check, I was cleared to go. When I first arrived, my military escort told me: “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier could have. There’s so much fun here!” So I looked at what I was being asked to see. The first visual chapter, “Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play”, juxtaposes the “fun” – the bowling alley, the golf course, the pool and beach – with the carceral reality, guard spaces and inmate spaces, the show and hints at the darker, hidden, reality. Most of these photographs are devoid of people since military authorities prohibit photographing any faces.

Before my third and last trip to Guantánamo, I asked for permission to work with a medium- format film camera. My request was denied, since it would be impossible to do Operational Security Review on undeveloped negatives. So, summoning my legal background, I negotiated. I suggested that my escort look through the viewfinder and approve each frame before each shot. I suggested that military authorities keep custody of my film and equipment to ensure I did not secretly photograph after hours. But still the answer was no. Finally, I appealed to the Admiral, proposing to hand carry dry chemicals on the charter flight, set up a mobile darkroom, process all film on site, and digitize it on a scanner I would ship ahead. Permission granted. In the end, I developed 20 rolls of film in my hotel bathtub under the watch of military escorts.

Next, I discovered a gift shop on the base, and brought everything I could carry on the charter flight home. “Gitmo on Sale” documents these souvenirs, as well as objects that the prison buys from private suppliers like the orange uniforms, shackles and shoes.

Finally, I sought out men who had been cleared and released from Guantánamo Bay. They are going through something very similar to what my former clients within the United States experience after exoneration. But unlike most exonerees, the men released from Guantánamo have no official statement that they were wrongly held. No trial aired evidence against them, no jury acquitted, no judge declared them innocent. Life after Guantánamo Bay is exponentially more complicated, especially for those building a life in a new country, often in a new language, far from their families. Most transferees are subjected to seemingly arbitrary restrictions on their liberty as a result of secret agreements with the United States. Some are denied official identification documents, others are routinely followed by police. Barriers arise for even the most basic necessities: opening a bank account, registering for a cellphone, finding a home and a job. How to explain to a potential employer that 12-year gap on your cv?

With 14 men in nine countries, from Albania to Qatar, I collaborated to make environmental portraits reflecting the experience of life after Guantánamo Bay. For each man who returned home, we chose locations of relevance to his life. For those transferred, like the Yemeni in Slovakia and the Uighurs in Albania, we found locations emphasizing the profound disorientation of rebuilding a life in a completely foreign environment. Each portrait is framed as though we were still at Guantánamo Bay: no faces are shown. Their bodies may be free, but ‘Gitmo’ will always mark these men. They still reside in Camp America.

Debi Cornwall - Smoke Break, Camp America


Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay by Debi Cornwall

Number of photo

36 prints


14 color prints mounted on forex (framed) 8 color prints mounted on forex 2 direct prints on smart-x 1 wallpaper (to be produced) 11 prints on forex


See technical rider

Frame size

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Set Up

Text material must be printed at the expense of the hosting organization. We provide introduction text, biography and captions both in italian and english. The production of the 3 enlargements (200 x 250 cm) and of the 11 still life images (24 x 30 cm) must be printed at the expense of the hosting organization. The dimensions of the 3 enlargements and 11 still life images can be changed according to the space, if agreed with the curator in advance.

Linear development

34 linear mt minimum (spaces not included)

Download the datasheet