Debi Cornwall is a conceptual documentary artist who returned to visual expression in 2014 after a 12-year career as a civil-rights lawyer. Employing absurdity and dark humor, she excavates invisible systems by layering still and moving images with testimony and archival material.
What are the stories we are told, the games we play, to manage unsettling realities? Necessary Fictions (Radius Books, 2020), Debi Cornwall’s book exploring the staging and performance of American power in immersive, realistic military wargames, was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize and shortlisted for the Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles Photo-Text Book Award. She has, Collector Daily’s review notes, “an extremely systematic and methodical artistic mindset… with persistence and refined logic. Debi Cornwall’s photobook walks a delicate line, documenting a set of realities (which are themselves fictions) but also forcing us to see the absurdities embedded in them… pull[ing] us down a rabbit hole of nested complications, complexities, and contradictions that feel much more intertwined than we ever realized.”
Debi Cornwall’s first book, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay (Radius Book, 2017), was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture First PhotoBook Prize and the Arles Photo-Text Book Award. It was named among 2017’s 10 best photobooks in the New York Times Magazine. Hyperallergic’s review noted her “eye for the deadpan ordinary detail that lacerates with banality… destabilize[ing] Gitmo’s façade of normalcy through incisive juxtapositions and interpolations.” WCA has been exhibited in 15 countries, including Switzerland, South Korea, Belgium, and Germany.
She is a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow (Photography) and inaugural Leica Women Foto Project awardee. Debi Cornwall’s work is held in institutional collection in the US, Belgium, France, and Brazil. Her work has been profiled in publications including European Photography Magazine, the British Journal of Photography, Art in America, Polka, Fisheye, and the Guardian.
Crisis Actors: Performing Citizenship
After a career in civil-rights law, Debi Cornwall came back to photography looking for the truth. Yet what she has found – from the “War on Terror” prisons of United States Naval Station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to military training sites and beyond – is much more complicated: invisible systems that stage-manage reality for public consumption. Her work seeks to understand and illuminate these powerful political, corporate, and social forces. As a conceptual documentarian, the truth still matters to her, of course, but her frame has shifted. As Jean Dykstra wrote in reviewing Necessary Fictions, her most recent book, for The Brooklyn Rail, her work is infused with a “critical consideration of photography and its unrealibility as a factual document.” Photographs can be evidence, yes, but evidence of what?
Debi Cornwall’s proposed project to Prix Elysée, Crisis Actors: Performing Citizenship, will examine the staging and performance of reality. She started this inquiry in Necessary Fictions by photographing military wargames. She is now casting a wider net, making photographs more elliptically related to her topic. In museums, exhibitions, trade fairs, non-military training sites, and everyday life, she will make photographs designed to invite inquiry: how are fictions deployed, commodified, and embraced, as noice that distracts us from the unforgiving onslaught of war, climate apocalypse, and ever-increasing inequality across the globe? What is this compulsion to package, restage, reframe, reenact, and perform our histories and current realities? What are we doing ourselves? Have we lost the signal admist the noise?
Debi Cornwall has begun making photographs in museum across the United States, and recently at the Dubai Expo 2020 (delayed to 2022 due to the pandemic). After extensive negociation, she is also securing access to the US Customs and Border Patrol’s training sites at the US/Mexican border, where Hispanic Amercians are cast as undocumented immigrants in realistic scenarios enacted for future border guards. As in all her work, Crisis Actors: Performing Citizenship will pair her structural critique with empathy and dark humor.
The photo book is the ideal vehicle for her work, which inevitably includes multiple layers. In this format, her photographs can be sequenced with archival material and texts to present multiple narratives which, woven together, form a complete thought. As one author commented in a Zeke Magazine review, “There are at least one thousand ways to read Debi Cornwall’s Necessary Fictions, and I recommend to try them all… With every read, though the words and images stay the same, the book changes… In between her believability and the breadcrumbs of doubt flows the liquid river of truth… But when the smoke has cleared and the wounds rinsed off, the question will remain.” Crisis Actors: Performing Citizenship, too, will offer more questions than answers.