Debi Cornwall's project "Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play/Beyond Gitmo" is the winner of the 2016 Archive of Documentary Arts Award for Women Documentarians. The ADA Collection Awards were established to diversify the ADA’s collection in order to better reflect the multitude of viewpoints and communities from which work is being made in the documentary arts today.
Cornwall included the following abstract about her work:
My work on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba employs a new documentary language to invite a fresh look at an inaccessible American subject, as the 15th anniversary of September 11 approaches. Military authorities limit media access to the U.S. Naval Station at “Gitmo,” and strictly regulate what may be photographed. This is a place where nobody has chosen to live, and where photographs of faces are prohibited. This project, in turning away from the expected imagery and instead exploring residential and leisure spaces of both detainees and those who guard them, offers a unique perspective daily life for both groups, as well as evolving notions of “American-ness.”
For this submission, I pair images from the series, Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play, made during three visits to the base in 2014-15, with environmental portraits of 10 men once held at Gitmo, after they have been cleared and freed, from the series, Beyond Gitmo. Over the last year, I photographed released men in 9 countries (from Albania to Qatar), some having returned home, and others displaced to third countries where they do not speak the language. With each man, I collaborated to create photographs reflecting his experience of indefinite detention, displacement and disorientation. Each image replicates, in the free world, the military’s “no faces” rule: their bodies may be free, but the trauma remains figuratively and literally embodied. Guantánamo Bay will always mark them.
My visual work is deeply informed by my 12 years working as a civil rights lawyer on behalf of innocent exonerees in the United States. As in my prior casework, this series seeks to unpack what is, essentially, invisible, in both the systemic – the peculiar institutions we have established in the wake of 9/11 – and the very personal impact those institutions have on individuals. My emphasis is dislocation. The released men I photographed have experienced years if not decades of trauma, and are having various levels of success as they struggle to rebuild their lives. From my past work as an advocate representing those cleared and freed from United States prisons, I know that the thrill of being photographed upon release too often leads to confusion and resentment when the attention fades. Thus, rather than seeking access to their most intimate moments as in classic documentary, I honor their boundaries. Now they have the agency to choose. Instead, my conceptual frame–replicating Gitmo’s “no faces” rule, and collaborating with each released man to select meaningful locations–speaks to the emotional experience differently. At the same time, my visual strategy emphasizes the larger truth that even in freedom these men remain stigmatized, fundamentally disconnected from their social environments. By employing this distinct visual language (carried through from Guantánamo into its diaspora), my goal is to engage viewers in a manner that disrupts the typical subject/object power dynamic of documentary between those who look and those who are seen. My goal is to engender a visceral experience of the profound disorientation of Guantánamo’s alumni, one that may enable viewers to identify with, rather than distancing themselves from or merely empathizing with, these men.