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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.

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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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Comments

When you love somebody, you really just want them to be alive and functioning, but it's not like the shock and horror aren't palpable. If my husband were to be injured to such an extent, I'd be freaked out, but I would still want him as my husband, best-friend and more. And I would get down on my hands and knees to insure his comfort and well being.

The bride's expression of ambivalence or anxiety or confusion says nothing about whether she loves her husband. It's just an expression, probably a fleeting one. It never occurred to me that she might not love her husband. I'm probably naive, but I just assumed the couple must love each other very much to get to the point where we see them in the picture. (For me, love is 3/4 loyalty, anyway. The most important way to love someone is to keep your promises to them, IMO. How you feel doesn't matter nearly as much as what you do.)

It's only natural to have a lot of conflicting emotions about going through with a marriage to someone who's literally unrecognizable. Maybe they just look different, in which case it's probably relatively easy to get used to their new face and pick up where you left off. On the other hand, what if they've become different?

When I look at the extent to which the guy's head has been rearranged, I find it hard to believe that he doesn't have some brain damage. The Times Online article says he doesn't--but a lot of Iraq vets, possibly up to a 3rd--have subtle or not-so-subtle cognitive and personality changes as as result of their injuries. Mild brain damage can cause significant personality changes that are devastating to people who knew the victim before, but unremarkable to doctors because the victim is still "normal" relative to the general population. Of course, there's also PTSD to consider. Finally, war changes a lot of people quite apart from any injury or psychic trauma.

I've spent a lot of time looking at this photograph since it won the World Press Prize. I notice that my reactions to the picture have changed over time. At first the vet's deformities were the most salient part of the picture. I thought the picture was mostly "about" him. But upon repeated viewings, over several days, the initial shock wore off. What still stands out for me is the bride's expression.

Why do you say the groom is looking at the bride tenderly? I can't tell where he's looking, or if his eyes are open at all? Do you have a higher rez version?

I like image 33 in the series, with the whole bridal party and bride and groom in profile.

I think she's wondering if she left the iron plugged in.

I don't think she looks "haunted" or "overwhelmed" in those other shots. You're pushing round pegs into a square hole.

Lindsay writes;
What still stands out for me is the bride's expression.

Doyle;
I think this is exactly right. Not so much how one might interpret the 'meaning' as to understand the reality of connection. Bravo well said!
Doyle

Every photograph that's worth spit is both a lie and the truth. They're lies because they are portrayals of reality, a sample of photons grabbed in a fraction of a second. Ansel Adams heavily manipulated nearly all of his famous images in order to make them beautiful.

Berman can't tell us how happy this couple is, what arguements they might have, or if the demons of PTSD are going to pay a visit. In that respect, her photo is a lie. On the other hand, this is a fearsome image of the following truth: War exacts a terrible price, and you never know who will be getting the bill.

I'm just saying that this is a great photograph because it reveals a little of the bride's inner struggle.

My first response agreed with your interpretation, but on reflection I think that's me, projecting, and reading into her expression(s, in multiple pictures) what I think I would be feeling. The more I look at the pictures, the less I think I can glean any insight into what the bride might be thinking or feeling.

Award or no, I don't think this actually is good photography. The gallery is a series of uninspired snapshots and the formal portrait is equally straightforward. The photos are remarkable only by virtue of their extraordinary subject matter. (But then, I guess that's a big part of press photography, and it wasn't a "fine art" award after all!)

Bill, which social documentary photographers do you like, aesthetically?

I really like Berman's aesthetics. This candid couple relaxing on the bed my favorite of the series.

She's really good at catching evocative expressions.

I think this picture would strike most people as disturbing, thought provoking because it strikes us right at the heart of our primal feelings of “otherness”

The face that was once familiar to some is gone. The face that would have been familiar as human, male, Hispanic, White,, Black, whatever is gone. In its place is a face that evokes morbid curiosity, fear, disgust, revulsion, pity, sympathy, and to some, a degree of empathy.

We project our feelings on the picture. We look on in wonder at the bravery, strength, fear, or whatever we might think we would do or hope to do in their shoes.

The picture is not about the marine and his bride at all. The picture is all about us.

As a photographer, I am also aware of how the "click" of a shutter removes subjects from the context of space and time. An image is the product of many things: subject, lighting, composition, editing … decisions that may be conscious or subconscious. Sometimes there are unintended nuances. Once an image is “finished,” the art and the artist part company, and the image assumes a life separate and distinct from the artist and the subject. We no longer need to know personal information about the subject(s) or the artist: The image speaks for itself.

When we look at Degas’ portrait of The Bellelli Family, we understand the relationship between husband and wife through the placement of figures and their lack of eye contact. In Berman’s portrait, the tension is also palpable.

The footnote about deadpan wit is interesting and noteworthy but that too is subject to interpretation. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, critics have termed the drunken porter scene “Comic Relief.” Other critics reject that concept, referring to the puns and malapropisms as a foreshadowing of impending tragedy. I favor the second interpretation.

I may have chosen different descriptors than Lindsey to express my reaction to the Berman photo; my choice of words are merely differences in style. Overall, I agree with Lindsey about the meaning of the image, not to the artist, nor to the subjects, but to us.

which social documentary photographers do you like, aesthetically?

Ah, um. Now I have to own up: off the top of my head, I can't name one. (Modern, that is. Dorothea Lange springs to mind.) I can name plenty of photographers whose work I like, but none of their work (that I can think of) is social documentary.

It's the "snapshot" look I don't care for -- I'm not a big Weegee fan either. If I remember/have time later, I'll look through my Simpy collection and find some stuff I like, to see if I can't give a more reasoned critique of Berman's work.

The people reading into this picture appear to be aeroman and Gershowitz who are seeking affirmation that a good woman loves you in a dutiful, uncomplicated way, much like a dog. Gersh, it's revealing that you think Lindsay is "judging" the bride when I feel that Lindsay very much admires the combination of love and resolve it must take to go forward with a marriage to a man much altered by his experience of war. If the sexes were reversed, I hardly think you'd find it horrible to suggest that a man might experience ambivalence or even moments of fear making such a leap of faith.

The photos are remarkable only by virtue of their extraordinary subject matter.

For some types of photography, that's a big part of the photographer's skill, and a lot of work goes into finding great subjects and picking the right moment to take the picture.

That's funny, because my one comment was about how I don't think the photograph reveals anything internal about the subjects one way or another.

Though, hey, you're the expert at reading one's personal baggage into absolutely fucking everything, so maybe you're right.

(directed at Amanda, in case it wasn't clear)

Ditto on aeroman, minus the offensive language. Did Amanda actually "read" what I wrote? Of course, when you can't make a sound argument in response to a valid observation, go for ad hominem attacks and demogoguery. Then you're a winnar of the internets! Telling reaction.

I've got no stake in psychoanalyzing this couple based on their wedding photograph. I'm perfectly happy to just talk about the photograph itself.

I want to understand what makes this such an evocative picture. The shot took first place for portraiture in the world's most prestigious press photo contest. I'm sure the judges got dozens of pictures of wounded vets, probably even a fair number of wedding pictures. (Don't forget, submitting a Sears studio portrait-style image to an international press photo competition is a bold creative move in itself. It's all about framing.)

My question is: What is it about this picture that sets it apart? Why is it haunting?

I think it's clear that the bride's expression is atypical for wedding pictures. Let's suppose the expression is a total fluke and doesn't reflect at all on the feelings of the actual bride regarding her upcoming marriage to someone who acquired a life-altering disability during their engagement.

The interesting question is: What does this picture look like? Why did the photographer choose this split-second to show the world out of the hundreds or thousands of pictures she took?

Ur, demagoguery. (Don't want to invite any more ad hominems!)

To further Lindsay's thought: suppose the photographer chose this shot because she had spent a lot of time with the couple and recognized some real apprehension in the bride. Nevertheless, the bride was not feeling scared at the moment the picture was taken. She is actually thinking about something completely different.

Can we still say that the photographer has communicated something to us about the way the bride feels? Can we even say that we "see" the way the bride feels about the wedding in the photo?

Ur, demagoguery.

Oh, fer chrissake. By that logic, Dorothea Lange was no more than a "social realist" pinko commie.

His disfigurement is truly tragic. Donald "Don't ask me, I just work here" Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney need to see these pictures, I think.

I think what makes this an evocative picture is that it contains so many juxtaposed archetypes. I think it creates tension that you just immediately feel viscerally. I know I did and I still do looking at it.

The bride and the soldier. Woman and man. Past and future. Hope and despair. I mean, it’s all there. I immediately projected myself into the photograph and wondered if I would be able to have the same courage that they are showing. I would think that would cross anyone's mind because of the doorways the photograph provides for both genders.

One thing that Lindsay said that I think strikes to the core is Loyalty and the possibility (implied perhaps by the brides expression) of abandonment. That juxtaposing and tension again. I both envy the Marine and am grateful I'm not him.

It hits home for me because I'm a veteran and my father was as well. Damage was always a possibility. We both came through unscathed. Would the people we loved have stood by us in the same way as the bride depicted here?

The photo breaks my heart and then heals it. Figure that?

Thanks for posting it.

Maybe the Marine is literally a different person than he was when his finacee agreed to marry him.

I think this is a striking turn of phrase. But I genuinely can't imagine what it means to be "literally a different person." Lindsay, in just what ways would someone have to change so that we'd say they were literally another person?

Wow. Will this be a Tom Tomorrow cartoon?

I got married this summer, and I have several pictures of myself with a very similar expression on my face. I got stage fright as I walked down the aisle and realized that everyone was LOOKING AT ME! Plus, of course, the normal dose of, "Holy shit, what am I doing?" that everyone goes through.

So I find the expression on this bride's face to be extremely true-to-life. If you've been a bride, you've seen that expression on your face, whether it was in the mirror or in a picture. It's the realization of a sensible person that you are committing yourself to a future. It was scary enough to do that with an able-bodied man. I can barely imagine how scary it would be with a disabled, war-wounded fiance. No matter how much you love him, it's still fucking scary.

Also, her dress is from David's Bridal. It's one I considered myself. ;-)

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