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Coming Home The Satya Interview with Nina Berman
Nina Berman is internationally known for her
portraits of American soldiers injured in the Iraq war. Her photographs
are not your typical images of heroic military men, glowing in
the valor of war. They are mostly solitary young men, back at
home, struggling with newly injured bodies and souls. They are
moving images of our casualties of war, a notable contrast to
the flashy recruiting commercials young people are increasingly
Berman’s photos of veterans have been widely reproduced in the press
and she was awarded a prestigious World Press Photo award and a grant from
the Open Society Institute. The photos are also featured in a traveling exhibition
and in book form, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, accompanied with each soldier’s
story. In an effort to educate young people about the realities of war and
help them talk about it more openly, Nina also shows them in high schools.
Nina Berman has traveled widely, photographing different places and cultures
for a variety of print media. She is also on the faculty of the International
Center of Photography. When she is not working on her Purple Hearts project,
what intrigues her most is photographing America: evangelical Christianity
in her series Megachurches and the surreality of homeland security operations
in Homeland Insecurity.
After returning from discussing her images of veterans in two Massachusetts
high schools, Nina Berman took some time to talk with Catherine
photography, the soldiers’ stories and what motivates her work.
What inspired you to embark on Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, your project
of photographing injured veterans?
Basically, when the war first began, I felt that I wasn’t getting a realistic
picture from watching the news reports. I kept hearing stories of five or six
soldiers wounded, but was never seeing any images. So I thought I would try
and track some of these soldiers down and in a very simple way show that war
does create casualties.
What do the soldiers think about this project?
The ones I’ve heard from are really happy to be included. They feel that
their story has been immortalized in some small way. Almost everyone I contacted
was eager to participate. I was very open about the project. I said that this
is a chance for you tell your story and have your portrait taken. They all
want to be remembered.
What are your observations about some of the different soldiers you’ve
come in contact with and photographed?
I can’t say that they all have similar feelings about the war. For me,
I was most struck by the fact that so many of them joined the military because
they wanted to do something good and purposeful in their lives but did not
know what, and desperately wanted to get out of the towns they were living
in. The most tragic part is that they had all these dreams but are now back
in these kind of dead-end places, and now severely wounded both physically
Wow, that’s quite a journey. How are they doing?
Not so well. Some of the ones I kept in contact with had this fantasy that
they would go in the army and come back, and they’d be well trained,
set for college, and their future kind of all laid out. Of the soldiers I have
kept in contact with, none have been able to go to college.
Why is that?
Because they’re simply not prepared to do that. I did meet one soldier
who came back pretty much with a balanced head on his shoulders and no physical
injuries, and he went to apply to school and discovered it’s a reimbursement
program—you have to come up with the money, and then they’ll pay
you back later.
Many who joined had never left their homes before. A lot of what young men
and women think before they become soldiers is based on a fantasy in a hard-sell.
Many of them had a hard time in high school to begin with, and then they come
back and are trying to integrate not only into the civilian world, but to try
and make peace with the fact that they are maybe half the physical person they
were. They don’t even necessarily know how to go about applying to college,
much less figuring out how to get reimbursed for it. A couple tried it and
weren’t able to hack it.
That seems like a kind of betrayal because a lot of kids think that
going into the military is a stepping stone to college, and the military seems
itself as that. Why isn’t the military more aggressive about helping
them get into college?
I don’t think they see it as their role at all. Once the person is discharged,
they are no longer the responsibility of the military. And the Veterans’ Administration
is not involved in giving them job training or the kind of counseling they
need to make them self-sufficient adults.
What kinds of responses to these photos have you been getting from the general
American public and from young people?
I would say that across the board, people are very moved by the images, and
three years into this war, still seem kind of shocked by them. I think it’s
because people have this general image of a wounded soldier as someone on the
frontlines collapsing or on a stretcher being held by his fellow soldiers.
My pictures are very different. Very few of them are in uniform. They are photographed
at their homes. There are no patriotic colors involved. They all look intensely
lonely and alienated. I think people are kind of struck by what obviously will
be a lifelong condition in one way or another. It brings it home for them,
that the war doesn’t end just when the soldier is discharged.
I take the pictures into high schools—I was in two high schools yesterday,
in fact, and some of the kids started to cry.
Why is it important for young people to see these images?
When I show pictures like this to young people, I want them to know that there
are all sides to war, and what the military commercials are showing them is
not necessarily the realities they or their friends will experience. I want
to give them another view of war.
It’s not easy to get into high schools. I went into a high school where
we almost didn’t make it in because a department chair, who was a Gulf
War vet, got really upset that a photographer was going to come in and show
pictures like this. Meanwhile, you have mandatory ROTC assemblies, where the
entire school has to show up. You have schools where all four branches of the
military have tons of literature and posters out there in front of the lunch
tables. Every time I hear stories about it, I’m amazed at how intense
the militarization is in high school.
In talking with kids, does the aggressive recruiting effort come up?
Yeah. One kid said that a recruiter went to meet him at his job. A girl at
another school got very shy during the question/answer period. It was clear
that a recruiter was very heavily on her and she said that he goes to her athletic
meets. It’s much more intense than we imagine. They talk about friends
who signed up. Most of them don’t necessarily want to go, but ask what
is my alternative? And that is the saddest part. There is very little alternative
you can offer a poor kid that has no money for school, living in a family that
isn’t very supportive.
What do you say to comments like that?
It’s the hardest part of what I’m trying to do. I’ve talked
to lots of veterans, lots of activists and people about this. There is no simple
answer. There are scholarship programs. There is City Year out of AmeriCorps.
But the bottom line is this country has become very militarized and the only
place that money is being spent is in military programs. It’s really
hard to say to a kid, think about this decision, maybe there is another way.
And then they say, what is the other way? And you’re like, I don’t
I imagine people who are moved by your photos must ask you how they can get
involved and help. In your experience, what do you feel veterans need most
from American civilians?
I have to say, it’s a very complex issue and one I’m still trying
to sort out. Some people write me who just want to send money to particular
soldiers and I help them do that. I’ve talked to some veterans’ organizations
and say people want to help, they want to be involved, they don’t want
to be part of this military civilian divide. They say to me that they can’t
figure out ways for all these civilians to get involved. Just have them send
a check. Maybe there is some sense to that; maybe there isn’t. But it
is definitely part of the problem. What you have now is a civilian population
that can pretty much ignore the war. You have the military population that
is very isolated from the civilian population.
I kind of give a challenge. I say, find out where your VA hospital is; go to
a vet center and volunteer. I think in this Internet age, people have gotten
accustomed to thinking that if they just send an email or click to send some
money, it means they are participating. It can be a nice form of participation,
but it doesn’t lead anywhere in the sense of creating community. Most
people don’t want to take up that challenge. I think the best organization
I’ve come upon which lets non-military people join is Veterans for Peace.
They do a lot of good things.
Do people accuse you or these images of having an anti-war message?
People can say—and have said—that a picture of a wounded soldier
maybe in itself is inherently an anti-war image, because it goes against the
message of war and the glory involved with showing war. If that is the way
they feel, then so be it. I wouldn’t challenge that necessarily.
You have been quoted as commenting: “The dead tell no stories. It is
the wounded that survive and present us with our own complicity.” What
sort of complicity are you talking about and how do these photos address that? The
complicity is that we are supposedly living in a democratic society where our
leaders are answerable to the
you live in a nation that goes
to war unprovoked, you have to realize you are somehow to blame. Even if
you didn’t support that war, you are somehow complicit
because you live here.
In terms of the photographs, the way they are shot, the subject directly
confronts the viewer. The other thing about the pictures is there are very
few that have
any other people in them. It is just the soldier. What that suggests is that
there is no outside support system. If you think about imagery in the past
of wounded soldiers, there is usually someone helping that soldier, there
is some suggestion that the soldier will end up okay. In my pictures it is
the opposite. In that sense I feel there are challenges to people who look
at them. Are you going to let this person whither away alone?
The first real eye opener was like just driving through the desert
and seeing vehicles blown up and uniforms everywhere, and I guess
the aftermath of war. People throwing rocks, the hatred of people,
the love of people, it was just all this stuff. A lot of things
that people aren’t supposed to see, like destruction, houses
where people lived, just destroyed, little kids in the middle of
nowhere. You know they don’t have no families. It’s
weird. It looked like it had the potential to be a really pretty
city but it was like mangled, just destroyed.
It was July 13. It was broad daylight, and the grenade flew in the window, landed
on the radio between me and my buddy. He was driving and didn’t see it,
so I grabbed it and tried to throw it out. I must have hit my elbow, or something,
whatever happened, I dropped it on the ground of the humvee between my feet and
when I reached down again, it went off in my hand, took my hand off, shattered
my left leg, broke my right ankle, blew the whole body of the humvee out, part
of the engine. My buddy Anthony, he was fine, nothing happened to him.
At Walter Reed, it tripped me out because there were a lot of guys there messed
up. I guess you hear about guys getting hit, but you don’t realize until
you actually see them. Because when somebody gets hurt, they’re out of
there within hours, but you don’t really see the reality of it until you
get there and see them in the hospital. It’s a trip when you’re one
of those guys, too. I’m 20 years old and these guys are like between 18
and 23. It’s weird.
But like here in California, nobody really knows what the soldiers are going
through, what’s happening to them. They see one soldier wounded and they’ll
forget about it as soon as they change the channel… But that soldier is
scarred for life both physically and mentally.
Before I would go to a lot of parties. I was always out and about. I haven’t
been to a club. I haven’t been to a party. I don’t care what people
think, I just don’t like dealing with the questions. Especially people
my age. They ask stupid questions. Like, Was it hot? Did you shoot anybody? They
want me to glorify war and say it was so cool. They’re just ignorant. I
mean, you watch action movies and they glorify all this stuff. But the reality
of it is, seeing all that crap, fucks you up in the head, man. I can’t
sleep at night. It sucks. It really sucks. They don’t understand.
I loved the military. It was my life. I miss being in the military because I
had a routine. I was good at what I did. I had friends. I was successful. I was
happy. And it was kind of like all taken away from me.
Yeah I got a purple heart. I don’t care. No soldier wants a purple heart.
I’ll tell you that much. No soldier wants it. Awards don’t mean nothing
to me. I don’t need anything to prove I was there. I know I was there.
I got a constant reminder.
I mean, all the reasons we went to war, it just seems like they’re not
legit enough for people to lose their lives for and for me to lose my hand and
use of my leg and for my buddies to lose their limbs. I just had a big conversation
with my buddy the other day and we want to know. I feel like we deserve to know.
We went to the concentration camp there, the prison. I did most
of my time there.
It was crazy. The Iraqis, they wake up about five in the morning and they walking
like zombies, just walking, walking, like walking dead type junk. I’m serious.
Most of my friends they were losing it out there. They would do anything to get
out of there, do anything. One of my guys, he used to tell me—my wife just
had my son, I can’t wait to get home and see him. And, you know, he died
out there. He sure did and I have to think about that every day.
Shrapnel down the back, shrapnel that came in and hit my head, punctured my lungs.
I broke both of my arms. I lost a kidney. My intestines was messed up. They took
an artery out of my left leg and put it into this right arm. They pretty much
took my life.
I was supposed to be going to physical and occupational therapy, then they canceled
it because I missed three days in a row. I was throwing up, I couldn’t
hold anything in my stomach. Now I have to do OT myself. I’m trying to
teach my son how to count on his hand. And you can see my fingers is messed up.
Sometimes my hands will be so red, so fire red, I’m not able to drive.
I’ve got to put on my gloves. I’m not able to touch anything.
I got a bonus in the National Guards for joining the Army. Now I’ve got
to pay the bonus back and it’s $2,999. If I would have continued and finished
my contract I wouldn’t have to pay it back. The Guard wants it back. It’s
on my credit that I owe them that. I’m burning on the inside. I’m
My high school buddies, well two of them just got found in a ditch around there,
dead, dead. And the rest of them in jail, cracked out. For real. That’s
why after high school, I left. I was gone because I knew where my life was headed.
Joined the Army. And here I am back here. I would love to go away. I would love
to go away. I think that would be better. Because I’m driving in my car,
I’m doing nothing. I don’t know where it’s going to end up.