Debi Cornwall explores American power and identity in the post-9/11 era
Having worked as a civil-rights lawyer for over a decade, the documentary photographer brings “extensive research and sensitive negotiation” to every new creative project.
- Matt Alagiah
- 8 October 2020
A few years ago, Debi Cornwall was showing some new work at a photo festival in China, with local college students working as her interpreters. After a week, these students “finally came out and told me they all thought I was insane to have walked away from my Harvard Law School degree,” she says. “They may be right. But it makes sense for me.”
Debi had always wanted to be a professional photographer after graduating from college but says “life didn’t work out that way”. Instead she ended up landing a job as an investigator and trial assistant for the federal public defender’s office. That led to Harvard Law School, which in turn led to 12 years practicing as a civil-rights lawyer. In this role, she represented wrongfully convicted DNA exonerees and families of men fatally shot by police. However, her desire to work as a photographer never went away.
“I was ready for a change,” Debi says, recalling how she felt at the end of those 12 years. “It seemed that I was working to solve the same problems every day, in every case. I wanted to live differently, to use the other side of my brain again, to be curious, and to tackle different kinds of problems.” She has since done a 180-degree turn and established herself as a conceptual documentary artist, working on photography and film projects.
Her training and years of working in the legal system are still present in her work, however. “My creative practice now is very much a product of my legal training,” she says. “Each visual project involves extensive research and sensitive negotiation, and looks at power from both a systemic and a more personal perspective.” Nowhere is this more visible than in her new book, Necessary Fictions (Radius Books, 2020), which explores the performance of American power and identity in the post-9/11 era through an intimate study of wargames – mock battles on military bases that are supposed to help prepare soldiers for the real thing.
The seed for Necessary Fictions was sown during Debi’s work on her first book, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay (Radius Books, 2017). Many of her military escorts on that project had previously deployed abroad and were dealing with the emotional fallout. “It made me wonder how one prepares psychologically for the prospect of killing or being killed,” she says. It was also a place where “reality was stage-managed for public consumption. I wanted to look directly at the staging and performance of American power.”
When Debi then discovered the existence of mock villages on American military bases, constructed to look like Afghanistan or Iraq, “I knew I had my new project,” she says. Over the course of three years, she visited ten of these sites around the US, some of them multiple times. “Over time, I got to know some of those responsible for creating and running the games, as well as some of the ‘cultural role-players’, costumed Afghan and Iraqi civilians who are hired to enact the wars many of them fled.”
Alongside the images in the book is a huge amount of research, ranging from news articles to advertisements to psychological treatises to testimony and Debi also writes more personally about her own experiences with the players. In one passage, she writes about how, after multiple visits, she still flinches at the explosions: “The marines watch me and laugh, not unkindly. I try to laugh with them. Is it OK, after so many visits, still to startle at the force of each blast echoing deep inside my chest? Shouldn’t I try harder not to let it get to me? After all, it’s not real.” Such musings are a brilliant complement to the images, which show this world to be very real and very fake all at once.
A particularly gruesome set of images shows real soldiers who have been dressed in moulage – fake injuries – by Hollywood make-up artists. “I’m quite interested to see how people respond to these images,” Debi says. “For years the American press was banned from printing photographs of flag-draped coffins of soldiers who died in wars abroad. We are largely insulated from the reality of our wars. Does the fact that the moulaged wounds are obviously not real make it more likely or less likely that viewers will contemplate the reality the moulage signifies? Do they encourage you to look, or to look away?”
This response is typical of Debi’s open and questioning approach to her art, which is part conceptual and part documentary, and a far cry from her legal background. She doesn’t want to answer any questions herself and even in the book leaves a lot of room for interpretation. “There is no single message,” she says. “My goal is to invite people to engage, maybe to reassess their assumptions, and to join me in grappling with these questions. The resulting conversation might be about war, politics, psychology, consumer culture, or so many other things.”
Necessary Fictions is currently on view in the US at Leica Gallery Boston and at Brooklyn’s Photoville. Debi is currently taking one of the true stories from the work (Pineland, which takes the form of an inserted booklet) and transforming it into a trilogy of short films in collaboration with the survivor of a police shooting. A rough cut of the first film, Pineland/Hollywood, is on view in the UK as part of the False Memory exhibition at the Rugby Art Gallery and Museum.
Debi Cornwall: Old Town Before the Battle from Necessary Fictions (Copyright © Debi Cornwall, 2020)