British Journal of Photography first met the US photographer, Debi Cornwall, back in 2017, when we featured her photobook, Welcome to Camp America. Cornwall explained that while visiting Guantanamo Bay, the setting of the narrative, she was escorted by military personnel at all times, guiding and monitoring her every move. This resulted in hours spent with her guides, whose experiences she inevitably came to know over casual conversation, as they toured her around the prison’s facilities.
“I became interested in the human experience of preparing for war and its aftermath,” she explains. “More structurally, in Guantanamo Bay, the truth is stage-managed for public consumption, and I decided I wanted to look at the performance of American power directly.”
Using this insight as a springboard, Cornwall’s research led her to look into the sites of military training grounds – 10 in total, visited over the course of three years. More specifically, these were entire mock villages where, “immersive military war games are staged, populated by this cast of characters, ripped from the headlines, if you will,” the photographer recalls.
Cornwall explains that in some locations the characters – who act out the roles of local civilians, targets, guards and more – are cast from local towns, but her focus here was specifically upon the Iraqi and Afghan actors, “who are costumed to enact a past version of themselves”. The result is her new book, Necessary Fictions, published by Radius Books, in which Cornwall collates her research to illustrate the theatre of warcraft through the happenings of an imagined city, Atropia.
“One young Afghan player who I had the opportunity to get to know over multiple meetings, would always answer, ‘We are patriotic Americans and this is our way of serving and giving back’.”
Though fictional, the chosen reality of this cast of characters might seem puzzling. That individuals, who have experienced the terrors of real war in their countries of origin, choose to place themselves back into an environment to relive the violent trauma for the purposes of training the American military.
“I’m always fascinated by the personal, internal psychology of those enacting the games or playing out storylines as well as the structures that draft the stories and oversee them playing out,” says Cornwall. “So I asked those questions, when I had an opportunity, and my sense is there’s a range of reasons. One young Afghan player who I had the opportunity to get to know over multiple meetings, would always answer, ‘We are patriotic Americans and this is our way of serving and giving back’.” That, and the pay is good.
The photographer also observed the overwhelming sense of community between the actors, be they Afghan or Iraqi, speaking Arabic, Pashto or Dari. “They end up together over these very intense, very long days,” Cornwall explains. “They cook together, they eat, they tell stories – there are no cell phones, there are no distractions. As the exercises take place, there is a lot of downtime, so the actors end up spending a lot of time together.”
The book is loosely organised as a State Department Report – a document of key information and attributes about a country significant to the US government. We begin with location shots – concrete, sun-bleached ghost towns, with a slight air of unnerving superficiality. Then, the population – portraits of actors ‘in costume’, the “cultural role players”, as they are described, placed in position awaiting their stage queues. There are also ‘resources’ (props), casualties – military men with grotesque moulage – engagements of conflicts and after action reports, and essays and poetry writing around the subject of war.
Finally, the wealth of factual references – contracts, lawsuits and statistics – reflect Cornwall’s thorough, investigative method, and is telling of her 12 years’ experience as a wrongful-conviction lawyer before turning to photography. A page-turn video of the book can be viewed here.
“I’m not pretending to be a fly on the wall… I’m performing and perhaps I’m being performed for in the games themselves.”
While the images guide us through the narrative, the accompanying text builds on the already compelling attention to detail of these scenarios. Unlike her first book, Cornwall includes her personal observations and accounts of conversations too. “It felt important to not only acknowledge but to foreground myself as an actor within these sites,” she says. “I’m not pretending to be a fly on the wall… I’m performing and perhaps I’m being performed for in the games themselves.”
The term ‘fantasy industrial complex’ was coined by the American author, Ben Fountain. This idea, “of commodified web of themes, stories, products and distractions that paper over unsettling realities,” encapsulates what the book is about, says Cornwall. That, and the footprint, both military and other, that America leaves around the world and its context.
“I hope to invite people to look because, even though it’s not the thing that is overwhelming us right now, it invites critical engagement about the bigger questions,” the photographer says. “How state realities operate, what are the stories we are told, and what are the fictions we embrace. How is that impacting our functioning as a society, and is it serving us?”
Necessary Fictions is available to purchase from Radius Books for $55. It is now available from the UK and Europe, and in the US from 04 September.
Debi Cornwall will be hosting a live Zoom talk on 04 September to coincide with the US launch. To sign up to the event, follow this link.