I’m not sure where or how I came across Debi Cornwall‘s Necessary Fictions. I suspected Jörg Colberg, but nope. I thought maybe Charcoal. Nope. It could’ve been an email from Radius Books, or maybe someone mentioned it on a podcast or something. Allahu Alim. However it got into my hot little hands, I’m glad enough that it did.
Necessary Fictions has a sort of John Gossage-meets-Peter van Agtmael feel. The framing and cropping has something of the banal, democratic aspect of Gossage, and the tongue-in-cheek depiction of America-at-War is something van Agtmael does to a T. But where Gossage photographs whatever he comes across, and where van Agtmael goes a) where he’s sent and b) where he takes himself to get the pictures of America at war that he wants, Cornwall found a new wrinkle and went to some Armed Services training facilities in various parts of the country and photographed purely fictional theater.
Sure, the photographs are of real “places” and feature real people, but the buildings are obviously completely hollow, mostly constructed of shipping containers and precast concrete, painted in pretty desert shades. There are soldiers in fatigues, “villagers” in dishdasha and kiffeyeh or abaya and hijab, and they’re all real enough, sorta. The soldiers are, anyway, mostly young people training up before a first (or second, or 7th) deployment. The soldiers run around with machine guns, emptying the fake buildings; the “villagers” collude with, obstruct, run from, shoot at the soldiers. Medical officers treat the “wounded.”
But it’s all fiction. Sure, the soldiers are real soldiers, and the sand is real New Mexico or Arizona or Nevada or California sand, but the wound are moulage (makeup applied by professionals that look like particular injuries) and the “villagers” are hired to play roles. They go home at night. Many are Iraqi or Afghan refugees, or children of the same. And they help train young soldiers to go shoot at or get shot by their former neighbors.
The whole thing is sordid.
A series of pictures in the last half has soldiers, all playing dress up in their ripped and bloodstained uniforms with their moulage all hanging out, sitting for what amount to class portraits. Most look a bit awkward, but there’s a young woman with huge blue eyes and a young man that look like the suave popular kids, and an older looking guy that looks like a gym coach, and I laugh at their expressions almost every time I look at the book.
A fair amount of text appears throughout, some, a few bits on the thick pages that carry the photographs, most on thinner, smaller pages that are scattered in groups of two or three throughout. A booklet of these pages is loose, held in place by sorta straddling a slit in one page, and recounts an incident in “Pineland” (a fictitious country made up of 15 North Carolina counties where the Armed Forces do jungle training, I guess), where a legitimate police officer pulled over a truck and ended up shooting two soldiers on a training drive.
And four texts appear at the end: a set of poems from Nomi Stone; original fiction from Roy Scranton, “War Stories;” and essays “This Picture Might Save Your Life” by Sarah Sentilles, and “A Surreal Seemingness” by Makeda Best. These add something to the book, I suppose, but I can’t quite say what. Mostly, Cornwall’s writing—personal reflections and stories—and the quotes she pulls from television, advertisements, and the like, really stands on its own.
A folder glued to the inside rear cover contains a surprise: 3 sheets of sorta school portraits, all of different soldiers in their dress-up finery, mostly outtakes from the sessions that yielded the pictures for the body of the book. This adds the most fun aspect to the whole thing, and really reinforces the absurdity of the whole thing.
Necessary Fictions is well designed, beautifully put together, and a real master work of war photography. Overall, I rate it a very solid 4.5 stars.
You can find Necessary Fictions direct from Radius Books, and do check out Corwall’s website, where you can check out her earlier Welcome to Camp America exhibition and book, focusing on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She’s got a keen sense of the absurd, and is happy to point herself a the US Military and our horribly failed policies over the last 20 years. It’s all worth a look.