Wedding gaze

Nina Berman tells a wounded vetís story in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

By Ruth E. Kott, AMí07
Photography by Nina Berman

Wedding portraits: they’re meant to reflect a couple’s happiest moment, the embodiment of a fairy-tale ending. Photojournalist Nina Berman, AB’82, sees something different. “The whole construct of wedding portraiture is so strangely exaggerated in terms of happiness and idealism,” she says.

Her 2006 photo “Marine Wedding,” probably one of her most recognizable works, shows a far more haunting picture. The bride, in a red-trimmed wedding gown with beading on the bodice and skirt, holds a crimson bouquet, and the groom wears his navy-colored military dress uniform. But neither smiles—they look past the camera in opposite directions. And the groom, an Iraq War veteran, has no ears, nose, or chin. His face looks like it’s covered with a plastic mask. Severely burned in 2004 after a suicide bomber attacked his truck, his skin melted when he was trapped inside.

One of Berman’s 18 photos on exhibit through May 30 in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2010 Biennial, “Marine Wedding” won a 2006 World Press Award and has been printed so often that she now tries to limit its publication. Because it’s easy to find on the Web, “people screw with the picture,” she says. “They play around on Photoshop.” The worst offender, she recalls, was at a museum in Prague, where an unidentified artist blew up the photo “really big,” cut out the bride’s face, and wrote something along the lines of “Be a hero; marry a hero.”

There’s this idea, says Berman, “that all culture can be sampled. Anything can be downloaded for free; anything is ripe for someone’s interpretation.” It can be seen in music, in visual art, in literature. “But when real people are involved,” she says, sampling becomes more sensitive.

The real people in this case are Ty Ziegel, the vet, and Renee Kline, small-town Illinois high-school sweethearts whom Berman, a New Yorker, found while researching her Purple Hearts project on wounded soldiers, which she began in 2003. In 2006 People magazine hooked her up with Ziegel, a former Marine sergeant recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where doctors had operated some 50 times to reconstruct his face. People wanted a “happy-ending story,” culminating in the couple’s October wedding. The magazine wanted to show a survivor, a greatly disfigured man whose longtime girlfriend stayed by his side for 18 months in the hospital, who married and lived happily ever after.

But Berman, who wanted to document war’s permanent effects, wasn’t looking for that narrative. “I was mainly interested to see how he relates to his mother, his girlfriend, and his hometown,” she says, looking for points of connection or separation. “Marine Wedding” wasn’t published in People; the opening spread in the November 13, 2006, issue was a happy wedding-party portrait that she also shot. But to her the other photo highlights the disconnect she’s talking about. It’s not the happy moment that wedding portraits are meant to capture.

By January 2007 Ziegel and Kline were separated. They couldn’t live up to the pressure that those around them—including Oprah Winfrey, who had them on her show a month after they married—had placed on them to be “normal,” says Berman. She insists that she had no idea the couple wouldn’t last. “When I took that picture,” she says, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Ah, this is the moment where I see that this marriage is going to fail.’ … I thought, ‘Here is a couple that looks shell-shocked.’” They are trying to do what regular couples do, “and everyone around them is wanting them so much to be normal. But that’s not really how things work.”

Berman photographed Ziegel, who goes shooting, as he tried to live his ordinary life.

Returning to Ziegel and his small town of Metamora (near East Peoria) in 2008, she captured him in “very nondramatic scenes,” moments of him with his dog or in the kitchen with his mother. In most of the later pictures, he’s alone. He’s “someone who’s had this very extreme experience that’s visible on his body and in his personality,” but he’s trying to be ordinary. That’s what war does, she says—it completely changes everyday experiences. Her photos show Ziegel learning to fit his new body into his old life.

Berman, a member of the Amsterdam-based Noor photo collective, is one of two documentary photographers in the 75th Whitney Biennial, which typically features young or lesser-known contemporary artists. Titled simply “2010,” this year’s show includes 55 artists, each exhibiting a completed body of work, such as Berman’s pictures from Ziegel’s life. She and the other documentary photographer, Stephanie Sinclair, says Berman, are the only two whose work “directly relates to America’s wars.” (Sinclair captured women in Afghanistan who attempted self-immolation but ended up alive and severely burned.) Berman, who earned a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1985, finds that photojournalism attracts a wider audience than abstract paintings or other forms of modern visual art: “I think documentary photography democratizes the viewing experience,” though the photos can have subtleties that require a closer look.

Biennial reviews have been mixed, but Berman’s show has gotten a strong response. Time named her one of three Biennial “artists to watch.” And in the Huffington Post, Patrick Sauer wrote that her “gut wrenching” collection “made the entire Biennial seem small and unimportant by comparison.”

Before the Whitney show, says Berman, the Ziegel photos had never been shown together, telling a full story. “It’s him during his recovery, his reintegration back into civilian life, his love and family relationships, and how those evolved during these periods in 2006 and 2008.”

The photos reflect the raw human costs of war, but it’s hard for people to believe they’re real, says Berman. When she took them to the framer before the exhibit, the store employees thought they were movie stills. Americans not directly involved with the war, she says, feel like it’s far away, like it’s not really happening. But Berman’s photos of Ziegel and of other wounded veterans offer direct evidence “that this war is happening and that there are lasting consequences.”


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Web site: Nina Berman