After 12 years working as a lawyer, Debi Cornwall began to explore life in, and the legacy of, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
As well as being a controversial military enclave on the soil of a sovereign state, the base’s prison (often shortened to GTMO, or Gitmo, by American soldiers stationed there) continues to hold more than a hundred men detained for many years as part of the US government’s War on Terror.
The latest segment of Cornwall’s project, after the previous series Gitmo at Home, Gitmo at Play, looks not at the heavily regulated prison, but instead at the commodification of the experience of war. Gitmo on Sale documents souvenir items sold in the base’s shops and explicitly marketed to the American soldiers stationed there.
Cornwall explains: ‘I became interested in exploring the role of commerce in the exercise of American power there after photographing some of the signage inside the NEX [the base’s military-subsidised supermarket].
“The souvenirs I photographed were selected for one of two reasons: either they celebrated the military experience explicitly, or they treated Gitmo like just another tropical island paradise.”
In some respects, these objects fit into a long tradition of soldiers returning from combat with war trophies. But Cornwall sees something more in them, a reflection of the peculiar split personality of the base itself.
“There is something different, owing to the peculiar, in-between nature of ‘deployment’ to Guantánamo and what goes on there. It’s not a combat mission; service members complain of endless tedium.”
Yet this tedious tropical paradise is ringed by minefields and sits side by side with another more nightmarish world. “On the other side, the Joint Task Force side, where the prison camps and guard housing are located, it’s a completely different experience: high security, tightly regulated and secretive. The tension between these two realities is smoothed over in the production of these souvenirs,” she says.
The Gitmo on Sale souvenirs also reflect competing and contradictory priorities at the base; the conflict between the need to maintain secrecy and the need to foster a sense of military pride and identity, as well as the inevitable desire of those stationed at the base to advertise their military service to friends and family back in the US.
“Gitmo is designed to be a blank spot on the map,” Cornwall says. “Yet a simple Google search reveals loads of geo-tagged images uploaded by soldiers there.”
These objects speak to the fact that American military power is an enormous industry, outsourced to contractors and private companies. This industry extends even to the ideal of military service itself, something which is sold back to soldiers as they exit through the gift shop. For Cornwall, these items represent: “The packaging and selling of the war experience, boiled down into travel-size souvenirs, which normalises and celebrates the American military enterprise while filtering out doubts and questions about the mission.
“As Americans, if we can package it and buy it, we’re okay with it.”
See more of Debi’s work here.