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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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Every time I see this photo it makes me despise George Bush all the more.

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