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February 28, 2007

'Wounded Marine..." by Nina Berman

BAGnewsNotes asks readers to describe their first reaction to this photograph by Nina Berman, entitled A Wounded Marine Returns Home To Wed. The photograph won the 2007 World Press Photo prize for portraiture. Run by a non-profit group in the Netherlands, the WPP prize is the most prestigious press photo competition in the world.


I'm surprised the negative reactions the photograph elicited from some commenters at BAGNews. I think the photograph is brilliant. BagNews suggests that the full gallery, which features shots of the couple before and after the Marine's injuries, puts the portrait in an entirely different perspective. All the photographs in the series are wonderful, but I can't say that seeing the full array changes my initial interpretation of the prize-winning portrait.

Granted, the formal portrait doesn't provide much context about the relationship between Marine Ty Zeigel and his bride Renee. The full series makes it clear that the Marine and his fiancee are a loving couple whose relationship didn't die or fossilize just because the Ty was injured. Maybe, in isolation, this wedding photograph leaves open the possibility that an entire relationship has been reduced to empty formalities since the injury, but the full series belies that interpretation.

(C) Nina Berman.   

Why anyone would assume such a thing in the first place is beyond me, but there's no accounting for how viewers respond to art.

In any case, whatever we're seeing on the bride's face isn't just pre-wedding photo jitters, as some commenters have suggested. She looks haunted and overwhelmed in the candids, too.

In the portrait, the bride looks as if she's been caught in a split-second of barely suppressed panic. The most interesting thing about the photo is the divergent gazes of the bride and groom. The groom is looking at the bride tenderly. The thing is, you can't tell how well he can actually see her face. He appears transfixed by her, but it's as if he's unaware of the face she's presenting to the wedding photographer.

It seems as if the bride and the photographer might be exchanging looks that the groom isn't picking up on, maybe because he's looking down, or because he doesn't have much peripheral vision.

Or maybe he knows exactly what's going on, but we just don't know how to interpret his new face. The groom's ambiguous expression is a metaphor for the all the ways that war changes people. You wonder whether the guy's facial deformities are just a relatively superficial sign of much more profound changes. Does he have brain damage or PTSD? Maybe the Marine is literally a different person than he was when his finacee agreed to marry him. He certainly has a very different future ahead of him. Yet, she's standing by him, facing the unknown.

[You can see more of Nina Berman's work on her website, including her series on megachurches, Purple Hearts, and the rest of Marine Wedding. Her book of portraits of US soldiers wounded in Iraq, Purple Hearts, is available here.]


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The hand in the photo is prosthetic. If you look at the rest of the photos you'll see that he lost one hand and the first two fingers of the other. I cannot imagine being as brave as she is being.

I had seen that photo a while back.

BTW, My first thought was, "Heat. Lots and lots of heat."

I've known a few guys like that. Guys that were in the wrong place at the wrong time in a factory or a tank.

Lindsay, thanks for posting -- or I might never have seen this. Needless to say, it was not in my local newspaper. Such a beautiful and haunting picture. In a single iconic image, it communicates in an instant so much of what Bob Woodruff's documentary on ABC last night said in narrative form. The odds are against this young couple who gave so much. We can only hope and pray that their love will pull them through.

Good news that breaks your heart. The good news of Bob Woodruff's miraculous recovery just underscores the tragedy of all the others who weren't so lucky or privileged. If the Iraq war had been an honest response to a real threat, these terrible injuries and ruined lives -- both American and Iraqi -- would be the tragic price of fighting for freedom. But this war was based on lies, and there never was a real threat to our national security. This war was not a cause, it was a crime.

I'm in awe of her bravery. This series is incredibly uncomfortable to look at because Berman sees through the brave facade to reveal the bride's inner turmoil.

Some people complain that the picture is exploitative or intrusive because it shows the the Marine's facial deformities, but I think if anyone is being exposed, it's this woman. By "exposed" I just mean that the photographs are revealing something she's doing her best to hide. There's nothing shameful about the fact that she's scared or ambivalent. It's only human, and besides, only a very loving and loyal person would even try to make this work.

However, the picture makes me sad in part because it's revealing something that she very much doesn't want us to know.


That was my initial reaction. That poor dude has been through pure hell, and it ain't over. For the rest of his life he will have to deal with people's shocked initial reactions to his appearance, as well as little kids pointing and asking their moms or dads out loud why that man looks so weird. Hopefully he will get used to it and learn to take it in stride. I don't know how well I could, quite honestly.

The bride's face is an interesting study. As others have already stated, I've got to give her credit for her bravery. Still, you can obviously detect the apprehension in her gaze. Given the circumstances, I'd say that's perfectly understandable.

Their whole situation almost makes me cry. I hope to God it works out for them.

Oh, and for the people who say that the photo is exploitative:

Fuck them.

I have a strong suspicion that most people who feel that way are also the same kind of people who disapprove of how our media is "only reporting the bad news in Iraq." Images like these fuck up their neat and tidy world view. So it bears repeating:

Fuck them.

>"only reporting the bad news in Iraq."

Well on that subject, what's up with that, anyway? Here in California, it goes even further: there's a hillside that someone decorated with crosses, to commemorate each person killed. In England, an artist called Steve McQueen made a simple work of art, with an outsized, commemorative "postage stamp" for each of the 110 Britons killed in Iraq. But the government doesn't want to know! He's a nationally recognized artist, but his work (originally commissioned, I think, by the Imperial War Museum--see today's Financial Times) was swept under the rug. And we're all well aware of the news media not being allowed to take a single picture of a coffin coming home, and that the President went until after the last election, when he needed the Indian with a Tear shot for sympathy, before he ever attended a single funeral.

Normally, people want to lionize their fallen heroes, whether it's a righteous war or not. Now, Britain and the US leap to silence any who bring up the dead, considering it a slander against the idea of having the war. I guess it shows you: when your head is so far up your own butt, you lose your equilibrium.

Edit: meant to go on to mention the instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction against California's hillside cross memorial, with the authorities trying whatever they can do, and court challenges going around, to try to remove or confine the memorial.

These people died (and this man in this photo was wounded) sacrificing for their country. Honor them, don't be ashamed of them. The only reason I can think of for sweeping them under the rug, is that the people who started the war know it was done for a bad reason.

Brilliant photo.

Let's address the "exploitation" angle here. The most I can say in favor of that angle is that, generally speaking, it is in bad taste to use a person's injuries and deformities as a way to sell a photo.

But that's really not the issue here at all. Our political leaders are quite happy to exploit the images of soldiers in uniform, when they are handsome and strong, to sell an imminent war. The politics here has to play a role. It seems a bit too convenient to say "any photographic evidence of the damage war does is exploitation", but that's what the Bush administration and war supporters want to say. The war is a political issue and people need to know what the war does to people. Failure to acknowledge the impact of war is moral callousness of the highest order.

Lindsay, you mention the bravery of the bride here. I applaud her for her fortitude and appreciate that she's being faced with an incredible challenge here, and "challenge" isn't really the most appropriate word. I'm sure, though, that gender plays a role with who we sympathize with, because I'm more concerned about the Marine. He's lost seven fingers, two ears, and has serious scarring and deformity that he's going to have to deal with for the rest of his life. It could be said that the bride has options - she is young and attractive and, while she would be villified for abandoning a wounded veteran, it is a possibility that she could consider. The groom doesn't have these options.

And he is well off in comparison to at least 3000 other Americans, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Although heartbreaking and painful to look at, I thank you for posting this image here. I am of the Vietnam generation and have vivid memories of the planeloads of caskets returning from Nam. This administration, so expert at spin, has called the publication of casket photos an infringement of privacy (as if they really give a goddamn about privacy when in fact they are trying to influence public opinion by controlling the flow of images). That is why it is so important for us to have a visual record of the Iraq war. We need these images to restore our national consciousness and conscience.

This article is SO important. Balancing the photo with indepth link to the whole photo profile to get a deeper understanding. It shocks you and I feel for both of them. It takes so much courage and strength of spirit. thanks!

A postscript: I wish there were some way to thank the couple for sharing this moment. The poignancy of the moment is letting us see their vulnerability. Any other photo would have conveyed a different message.

I don't agree that this bride is suppressing panic. Looking at the full gallery, and picture number 6 in particular, I see a woman who is marrying a man she loves, a man who is her friend and soulmate. It does not appear that the fact his visage is a shambles alters her underlying love for him as a person.

Taking the picture out of context, she has a deer-in-the-headlights look, but there are pictures from any wedding where one or more of the subjects doesn't have the sappy romantic grin everyone in our bourgeoise culture expects. That is why the photographers take multiple shots, etc.

Sure, she's brave. But only insofar as she is subjecting herself to the criticism and commentary of people like us. We don't know her. We don't know her man. We shouldn't judge.

The photo's well done, but pretty ridiculously didactic. I don't think physical-scars-standing-for-psychological-scars is going to be taking home too many statuettes at the Metaphories this year.

I find it odd that people are so certain that the bride's facial expression is actually revealing anything about her, as opposed to just seeming to reveal something that we, the audience, are receptive to reading in. For all we know, she was just unsure where to stand. Perfectly evocative facial expressions are a sign of a skilled photographer, and not necessarily anything else.

RickD, I wouldn't say that I have more sympathy for the bride than the groom. As you say, he's the one who got catastrophically wounded.

I'm just saying that this is a great photograph because it reveals a little of the bride's inner struggle. I guess I love this picture because it's about a moral choice, or love, or resolve, or duty, or a combination of the above.

I agree with aeroman. This is like Stanley Fish's reader response theory. There is an indeterminate text. The meaning is in various readers' reactions to it.

The picture is part of a much longer social documentary sequence by Berman in which she explores the relationship between the two subjects. She spent a lot of time with this couple and obviously earned their trust.

It's pretty clear that Berman is trying to tell us something about what's going on in the bride's head, as well as the groom's.

It's silly to say that you can't tell anything about the subject from a photograph, or a series of photographs. Obviously, any image can be explained in many ways. We can't necessarily separate them out, because we weren't there and we didn't see what was going on. However, the photographer was there when it happened, and she chose to submit that photograph (probably one frame of hundreds for the formal portrait shoot alone) for a prestigious news photo competition.

Unless you want to argue that the photograher is being unethical by choosing a fortuitous shot to mislead the public, I think it's fair to trust that Berman believes this shot captures something significant.

I'm utterly devastated. If I feel that way looking at that picture, I can only imagine how the both of them feel being in that picture.

I'm utterly devastated. If I feel that way looking at that picture, I can only imagine how the both of them feel being in that picture.

If you just want to read this image as a work of art, that's fine. But "bride doesn't know where to stand/out take" isnt' a very interesting interpretation of the work as art. If you want to approach it as pure art, you've got to take appearances seriously. It sure looks like that woman is uncomfortable.

However, this image is also a work of social documentary photography. A social documentary photographer's role is largely journalistic. You're supposed to tell someone's story in pictures. If you just take pretty pictures that don't tell the subjects' stories, you fail at SD, though you may succeed at art.

Maybe that's what BagNews was getting at when he said that the whole sequence might change your initial impressions of the photograph.

When you first see the picture, it's natural to assume that the photographer is primarily a studio portrait photographer. Formal portraits aren't a big part of social documentary photography, for obvious reasons. This picture looks like a formal portrait, but it turns out that sitting for a wedding portrait is just one of the couple's activities that the photographer records in her project.

One element that I see is the guy is face disabled, and the conversation here tends to see a bit of horror in that, which to me is not how I feel. Face disabilities versus loss of a hand or fingers as a disability also is an interesting avenue to pursue to understand what has more issues to deal with. Maybe she is feeling some alienation from the marine, but I agree, don't assume the emotion she shows is about the way one might guess. Emotions are not language like in that way that we can clarify clearly the meaning of a facial expression.

I personally don't feel especially strongly about his face. I've known several burned guys with roughly the same disfigurement, including one who gained a Phd from Berkeley after the injury. The key issue for everyone is eye contact and language exchange and that's what is disrupted. It's not particularly difficult unless the marine is also blind. Which might be as well.

Disabilities challenge a range of assumptions of social connection and that's where a lot of the turmoil happens. Social connection is not a straightforward process of looking at a normalized 'face' and having conversation. A baby can't talk, but we accept the lack of language connection in a loving way. Grandparents with a stroke still look the same but can't connect and that is socially difficult connection process, and the real 'pain'.

It takes something like 15 to 20 minutes for most people to absorb a distinctly new face type if the person with the strange face attempts to socially connect. So facially disfigured people usually get past the initial barriers in 20 minutes. As long as their social ability matches that space to connect. And if not then the question might be is this cognition or lack of social practice.

The guy is not ugly in the sense of baleful meanness. His face is just unique in the scheme of things. The main issue is social connection. And the painful (in the terms of psychic emotions pain) efforts to connect are not so much looks as social connection alternatives readily available.
Doyle Saylor

I wouldn't say she's being "unethical" in choosing to submit that shot, whatever that means. I think it is a mistake, however, to surmise what Berman's motive was in selecting this photograph. (I'm not down with authorial intent.) I don't know what it suggests to her, in her heart of hearts, or what she thinks it would suggest to others. Perhaps that's solipsistic. For all I know, Berman wanted to suggest that grave war wounds are ironic, like rain on your wedding day. What I do know, as aeroman says, this photograph is interesting in that it reveals more about the people reacting to it and their prejudices than we will ever know about the bride and her man.

Read their own story before speculating about people you don't understand.

I did read the Times Online article before I wrote about the photograph.

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