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‘It Don’t GTMO Better Than This’

‘It Don’t GTMO Better Than This’

CreditDebi Cornwall

Near the end of a recent visit to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, the photographer Debi Cornwall noticed some curious souvenirs in a gift shop. She bought them, took them home and photographed them. This project was considerably simpler than her previous one — which appeared on The Times’s Lens blog last year — documenting the base’s recreational spaces, which involved abiding by a 12-page list of things she couldn’t photograph and submitting her memory cards to the scrutiny of military escorts. She even developed her film negatives under their watch.

The Guantánamo souvenirs offer a surreal, beach-bum gloss on the past decade and a half of American geopolitical history. There is a bobblehead doll of Fidel Castro standing on a boom box, with text reading, “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard”; trinkets like candles and golf balls that look as if they could have come from a beachside kiosk in Boca Raton; a plush banana rat (a species that has overrun Guantánamo Bay because of a lack of natural predators); and a teddy-bear-size crop-top T-shirt that reads, “It don’t GTMO better than this.”

Before documenting Guantánamo as a photographer, Cornwall practiced for more than a decade as a civil rights attorney. Guantánamo, she explained in an email, is interesting to her because she is “concerned with the system in which [the military is] acting: a system that, despite its claim to ‘transparency,’ is one of secrecy, a system with a strong agenda of normalizing what happens on base.”

Cornwall’s Guantánamo images capture a side of the base that is as surprising as it is familiar to an American public accustomed to photographs of orange jumpsuits and barbed wire. The base’s amenities go to great lengths to replicate a shopping-mall version of American life, right down to the food court: There are Baskin-Robbins, McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises on site. And everyone but the detainees may exit through the gift shop. Romke Hoogwaerts