These photos capture Guantanamo's double life as a tropical prison and an all-American oasis in Cuba

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Marco Werman: When I think of Cuba and I push politics aside, I think of bright colors and lush greenery. Unless I’m thinking about the US military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Then it’s fluorescent lights, drab, dreary colors that come to mind. Photographer Debi Cornwall captured this visual contradiction about life in Guantanamo recently. Her work was part of the Leiden International Photography Festival. Debi joins me now from New York. What prompted you to take on this project? Why Guantanamo specifically?


Debi Cornwall: Well, this is my first project returning to documentary photography after a career as a civil rights lawyer, representing the wrongly convicted in the United States. So, stepping away from litigation, I was interested in looking at some of the same issues that concerned me as a lawyer, but from a new perspective.


Werman: Take us down to Guantanamo, if you would. Let’s start with the people. You actually refused to take pictures of the detainees -- tell us why.


Cornwall: It’s an uncomfortable thing to be given a view through a one-way glass of men who are held in captivity and more than half of those 149 men still held there for almost 13 years now were cleared for release years ago. They’re innocent, but they’re still being held. I didn’t go to look at them through that window.


Werman: And those were the regulations, those were the outlines from the officials -- you have to look and photograph them through this one-way mirror or…?


Cornwall: That was the only opportunity to see the detainees there. All of the photographs are very strictly regulated there. Photographers may not make any images of anyone’s face, whether a detainee, or a guard, or a civilian. So, it’s that much more difficult to convey the human experience when you can’t photograph someone’s face.


Werman: So, how hard was it to get access? You’ve got some pictures that are really telling, of stuff like a kid’s floaty toy in a little swimming pool. But did you need access for that?


Cornwall: I did. Like any member of the media who is granted access to Guantanamo Bay, I was accompanied at all times by a member of the military’s public affairs office, given the access that they were willing to provide. There was a negotiation. But one of the first things I was told when I arrived for my first trip was “Gitmo is the best posting a soldier can have. There’s lots of fun to be had here.” So knowing that I would not have an opportunity to meet with or photograph the detainees, I thought “Fine. Show me the fun and I will photograph evidence of that experience in both residential and leisure spaces for both detainees and guards on the base.”


Werman: Yeah, these photographs don’t actually connote fun. Describe one of the pictures for us.


Cornwall: One of my favorites is an image of a rocky beach looking out over the ocean, 5 lounge chairs are laid out. The more you look at the picture, the more you will realize there’s a person on one of those chairs and he’s in full military fatigues. It’s not the kind of image we think of when we think of going to the beach, having a day off, or the kind of image we think about when we think about the prisons of Guantanamo Bay. It was that kind of shock, that kind of juxtaposition that I was looking for in my pictures.


Werman: That idea that “Guantanamo is the best posting you’ll ever get,” did you talk to the soldiers there? Did they agree with that? Do they think it’s cushy?


Cornwall: I think yes and no. On my second trip back, I had more of an opportunity to spend time with the soldiers who were showing me around. They had had many more months on base in their tours since I had first met them, and one of the things that became apparent was that while the two populations, prisoners and guards, are not at all equivalent, there’s one human experience that both groups have in common, and that is that no one has chosen to live in this place. Life for both groups is defined by routine, by order and by boredom.


Werman: If someone’s listening to this interview and they say “Well, Guantanamo is a prison. Prisons are not supposed be cushy places.” How do you respond to that?


Cornwall: What I saw on this visit spoke to a human experience of discomfort, and I think Guantanamo Bay speaks to our fears in responding to September 11th, and it speaks to perhaps ways that we could do better in responding to the terrorist attacks that prompted those fears.


Werman: Photographer Debi Cornwall -- you can see her pictures from Guantanamo at PRI.ORG. Debi, great to speak with you. Thank you.


Cornwall: Thank you, Marco.