Book Review: Welcome To Camp America By Debi Cornwall
By: Ilana Jael
This is the first major work and first book to be published from Debi Cornwall, but the 12 years she spent in her previous profession as a wrongful conviction lawyer before her 2014 return to creative expression are quite evident in her Welcome To Camp America. The book finds its subject matter in the US Naval Station at Guantamo Bay Cuba, which has held 780 “War On Terror” inmates since 2002 under reportedly torturous conditions. While the work’s sardonic title calls to mind idyllic summer excursions, it also contains darker resonances of detainment camps past and their lasting, tragic injustice.
This duality is one that pervades the book as shots of the luxurious accommodations available for base workers and their families are juxtaposed with photos of ominous looking equipment and prison cells illuminating the abusive prison’s inner workings. But along with orange jumpsuits, we find a playground and a bowling alley. A convenience store, a bedroom; things one could find almost anywhere else. The two faced nature of this military base is further emphasized by Cornwall’s inclusion of pages featuring trivial trinkets like mugs, key chains, and bobbleheads available in the Guantamo Bay gift shop with similarly presented spreads of leg irons and prison uniforms that hammer in the place’s true purpose. A place where soldiers can carelessly bowl or skateboard is also a place from which detainees routinely emerge missing limbs.
Welcome To Camp America’s off-white cover portrays a conspicuously blank wall, a surprisingly comfortable looking chair, and a dark window- a room that could pass for ordinary if not for a restraint featured near the bottom. But the image’s sense of starkness, a starkness that recurs throughout the work, is partially an effect of the strict rules enforced on photographers of the top-secret government base. Among other restrictions, any facial shots of individuals were prohibited, and all photographs taken were subject to government review. But the ensuing emptiness also serves to visually highlight the presence of horrors that remain uncovered and unseen. A shot of unopened curtains hints at evil behind them, and a closeup of a wire fence seems to be keeping us out us much as prisoners in. We never lose the impression of being interlopers, outsiders in an ominous world.
The information about Cornwall’s restrictions is presented in one of the book’s many textual interludes. That these interludes are presented in both English and Arabic challenges the selfishly nationalistic perspective that would justify our placing of our own desire for safety and vengeance above the rights of the camp’s “detainees”, who are referred to as such rather than prisoners because this means they are subject to less legal protections. Another interlude features an anonymous description by a military member of his painful ambush by the IRF team who was unaware the attack they were undertaking was only supposed to be a drill. It is only when his pants were pulled down and his state undergarments on full display that they stopped their brutal assault, which required the victim’s immediate hospitalization.
Also included are government documents, some almost too blurry and small-printed to read and some with words blacked out, presumably for security reasons. Their unreadability seems to signify that they were intended to serve an atmospheric as well as informational purpose. A more legible document describes “conditioning techniques” like Nudity, Sleep Deprivation, and Dietary Manipulation, and “Corrective Techniques” like insult slaps and facial holds. Another reveals the discovery of prisoners left chained in a fetal position in their own excrement and forced to listen to blaring rap music for hours on end. As well, several inserts are folded into the main narrative featuring the stories of men, most of them never formally convicted of any crime, who were released from the prison with shattered lives and no support with which to rebuild them. A resonance can be found in even in how easily these inserts could be misplaced, as these men themselves have slipped through our system’s cracks.
Many of Cornwall’s shots feature vast expanses of open sky, a detail that becomes heartbreaking when one of the essays that appears at the book’s end by former prisoner Moazzam Begg describes the sky as almost too painful to look at during his twice weekly recesses from solitary confinement. One such heavenly landscape is the backdrop to a starred and striped trash can found in the foreground. The next image features the similarly striped sleeves of fast food mascot Ronald McDonald. The suggested connection between them is a powerful invocation and indictment of American ideals of inclusiveness and righteousness, ideals that we have seemingly betrayed. The end of the book juxtaposes a quote from George Bush denying that America participated in torture with one from Obama admitting to the crime, and concludes with a Donald Trump quote expressing his enthusiastic approval of the Guantanamo Bay proceedings. It may well be that the worst is yet to come.