Necessary Fictions

Debi Cornwall

Despite the constant military conflicts since September 11, war has receded in the American consciousness. War has become white noise, the almost-invisible backdrop of our roiling sociopolitical moment, even as our civic life has become increasingly militarized at home. Meanwhile, entire industries have emerged to support the forever wars, both real and imagined.

"Necessary Fictions" explores how fiction and reality blur within the post-9/11 “fantasy-industrial complex.” In this time of political division and perpetual war, what stories do we tell, what games do we play, to manage unsettling realities?

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"In "Necessary Fictions", I photograph the mysterious country of “Atropia.” Though fictional, Atropia actually exists: mock Afghan and Iraqi villages have been constructed on military bases across the United States to host immersive, realistic military training exercises for troops preparing to deploy. On ten such sites around the country, I document mock villages, battle scenarios, and “cultural role-players,” civilian Afghans and Iraqis, many who have fled war only to recreate it, in costume, in the service of the U.S. military.

In a mobile studio I set up on site, I also make portraits with soldiers. They pose in front of a camouflage backdrop, appearing mortally wounded: Hollywood makeup artists have been brought in to paint fake wounds on real soldiers training for mass-casualty events. War becomes a production in which the actors, civilian and military alike, enact imagined versions of their past or future selves: shopkeeper, insurgent, suicide bomber; hero, victor, casualty of war.

My goal is to examine how fictions are deployed and embraced, and to invite critical inquiry among military and civilian viewers alike about a society in which war has become the rule rather than the exception. Ultimately, Necessary Fictions will be both a photo book and a multimedia museum installation."

About Debi Cornwall

Debi Cornwall (Brown 1995, Harvard Law School 2000) is a conceptual documentary artist who returned to visual expression in 2014 after a 12-year career as a civil-rights lawyer. Her visual work examines American power and identity in the post-9/11 era. Exhaustive research and negotiation were critical to her advocacy and remain integral to her work as an artist.

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Publications including Art in America MagazineEuropean Photography Magazine, the British Journal of PhotographyHyperallergic, and the New York Times Magazine have profiled Debi’s work. She is a 2019 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow, a Harpo Foundation Visual Artist grantee, a Center for Emerging Visual Artists fellows, and a Duke University Archive of Documentary Arts Collection Award winner.

Her last project, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay, has been internationally honored as both a book (Radius, 2017) and exhibition. Radius will publish her Leica Women Foto Award-supported work, Necessary Fictions, in 2020.

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View some of Debi's work from "Necessary Fictions"

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