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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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Parse, I'd say that organic brain damage is the best example of what I'm talking about. When I was about 17 I volunteered in a lab that specialized in assessing people with head injuries. We heard a lot of stories about broken marriages, lost jobs, and derailed careers. These were from people who seemed "normal" to strangers, even to strangers like us who did pretty intensive cognitive testing. These folks weren't impaired or disabled, they were just utterly different from how they used to be. People who used to be really easy going suddenly found themselves with a fuse short enough to get them in trouble with the law, etc. Incredibly career-focused people found they'd lost their drive, even after they'd recovered from their externally obvious injuries.

Have you read Damasio's "Descartes' Error"? It's an evocative description of how brain damage can preserve cognitive abilities but change personality in fundamental ways.

Just speaking from my own experience, I remember what it was like when I came home after covering Hurricane Katrina. It was only for two weeks, and there were only one or two instances where I feared for my immediate safety. It was nothing like what real soldiers or real war correspondents experience for months or years on end. Even so, when I came back, people close to me said I'd changed. The transformation was only temporary, in most respects. I was intensely irritable for a week or two. I felt distant and alienated in a way I hadn't anticipated. It was a little like regressing to adolescence. I had flashes that "nobody understands me" feeling. A couple of times, I woke DJA up in the middle of the night because I'd startle at some random city sound and half wake up and flail a little without realizing where I was or what was going on.

I thought I was just being a jerk until I read Chris Hedges' "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning"--which explained and normalized a lot of the bizarre feelings I was having.

I completely recovered within a week or two, except for a much deeper disillusionment with authority and society (that's permanent, and I'm grateful).

I got only the barest inkling of what real PTSD is like. I wasn't traumatized. But being amp-ed up on your body's own adrenaline for days affects you in much the same way as other kinds of drug benders. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in Iraq for a year or two, believing you could die at any moment, and possibly even killing other people. I can see how someone who went through that might literally never be the same again, regardless of whether the looked the same when they came home. If you add the adjustments of disfigurement and/or disability to the equation it's not hard to imagine how the groom might be a different person now that he was then.

I get the impression that this is a very formal photograph, and she is really not used to being in such formal moods/modes. You don't see this in the other photographs. She's a more casual person than this, and there is also the "on the spot" wedding day stuff to deal with too. He is more accustomed to formal poses insofar as he is wearing his dress uniform.

Damn they look so young!

Yep, Gersh. You got annoyed at what you perceived as Lindsay "judging" the woman for uncertainty. Knowing that Lindsay would never "judge" a woman for such a human emotion, I assumed correctly that the discomfort with ambiguious love lay with the person who chose the word "judge".

On the artistic side, regardless of the groom's disfigurement, the fear on the bride's face probably is typical panic. That said, it stretches all credulity to assume that she has dog-like loyalty and never a second thought.

As in, on the artistic side, I'd like that look on the face of any bride because it speaks volumes about what a leap of faith marriage is for anyone.

Weirdly, I have a hard time getting past the background. It sounds hideously cliched, but the impression of dark clouds hovering over this couple is hard for me to shake.

This discussion really helps me see these two as people. Looking through all the photos the first time was just too shocking to me, all I could experience was my own feelings. After reading through and then going back to look again I could really see the humanity in their lives. Especially the shots with family and other people around. They seem able to look at the man in many ways, the way we all look at each other in different contexts. When you see the candid photos, it's clear that the other people aren't reacting to him the way we do (or maybe just me). Seeing that helped me to see him as kind of normal too, regardless of whatever trauma he is still going through.

As for the bride's expression, I'm amazed no one has commented on this, but maybe her ambivalence/shock is a reflection of her feelings about the photographer's motives and trepidation about how others will see these photos. I think in a few of the candids she seems a bit protective. No matter how she's adjusted to her husband, she must feel torn about putting him on display like this. She has that face only in the photos where she clearly knows she's being photographed with him.

Amanda, I didn't understand the tacky background until I went for the candids. They got married at their local high school so they could accomodate the crowd of well-wishers.

I'm not sure if the photographer of this picture is the photographer that posed them. The angle suggests that a wedding photographer was standing face on to the bride and the photographer of this pic was standing to the left of the tripod. Wedding photographers can tell you to pose in lots of ways, including "serious faces". A lot of it comes out glurchy and stupid, but some of it is fabulously successful beyond all reason.

>I got stage fright as I walked down the aisle and realized that everyone was LOOKING AT ME!

Actually now that I think about it, for that matter, I was the best man at my good friend's wedding, and I didn't freeze up, but I was awfully tense and tight up there. I joked with my friend, the groom, that I was more nervous than he was.

Lindsay, you said:

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?

I think you sort of answered your own question right there--or at least that's my impression. After reading several articles about Ty and Renee, I definitely think this photo isn't really telling their story at all. Actually, I think the photograper chose it because even though it doesn't tell the very real love story there, it evokes such a reaction (as seen here) because of the story it portrays. (I do have a problem with the ethics of doing that in theory, but if they gave consent knowing her intent, it's perfectly ethical.)

I pretty much agree with aeroman and Gershowitz--that it's there because of the viewers' reactions (NOT because of some "dutiful dog" fantasy). Ty and Renee clearly love each other, and yeah, Ty's body is beat up. He's still the same man--he just looks different. Anyone who's developed a disability in adulthood (i.e., becoming wheelchair-bound, whatever) will tell you--often with great frustration at the need to remind others!--that they're the same person as they were when they were healthy, just with a new lifestyle, so to speak. I know you mentioned brain damage, but from reading the articles, I know he isn't. He doesn't even sound as if he has PTSD, for that matter (although that's a bit of speculation on my part).

Personally, I think a more powerful picture would be one showing the love there, but I guess it wouldn't make for prize-winning photojournalism. It should. What makes me uncomfortable about this shot is that it evokes pity in people, which I guess is understandable, but I suspect--no, I KNOW--they don't want to be pitied.
It could have been an opportunity to show that the disabled are just like the rest of us, just packaged in a different physical existence, if you will.

I think those two are gonna be OK.

I’m thinking of Lenny Bruce’s remarks about the widespread desire to pretend that Jacqueline Kennedy wasn’t trying to scramble out the back of the limousine in Dallas after her husband was shot. He was sure she was, & had a heart to sympathize, but respectable people prefered not to see her terror & desperation to live, as if they were some kind of betrayal. They didn’t know that love & loyalty are complicated, & can coexist with immobilism, fatality, grief, dread & horror, as they surely do in this young woman.

I was fumbling to articulate my reaction, but Michael Barton (at 7:42 above) captured it perfectly.

Have I seen WWI-era German wedding photographs of faceless veterans? I think so; in any event, many men were facially disfigured during that war, &, in Germany at least, a lot of them sat for portraits - not medical photographs, but formal portraits. They invite different interpretations from this current one, for all sorts of reasons. You occasionally see them appropriated in Dadaist montages.

I’m thinking of Lenny Bruce’s remarks about the widespread desire to pretend that Jacqueline Kennedy wasn’t trying to scramble out the back of the limousine in Dallas after her husband was shot. He was sure she was, & had a heart to sympathize, but respectable people prefered not to see her terror & desperation to live, as if they were some kind of betrayal.

I think anyone who thought accusingly of her in that situation would have had to be kidding. Unless she had rehearsed that situation in her mind, I would think she'd be completely uncertain of what to do, except for getting out of the way of whatever danger had claimed her husband. They even tell you this in CPR class: the first thing you do if you come across a fallen person is not to rush to help the victim first thing, but to look. Take in the surrounding area, so that if someone had attacked the person, or if something swinging had hit them, whatever it is, look for it first so that it doesn't clock you too, or you won't be any good to them. You could just double the number of people needing help.

She and her husband were being shot at. I can understand diving for cover. I'd like to think I'd do something both heroic and sensible--if it were possible to do both--in that situation, but I wouldn't be sure enough that I would until I went through it, certainly not enough so that I could judge someone else.

It’s not that anyone accused Jacqueline Kennedy of anything, but that people willfully ignored (what Bruce thought were) the facts of the matter, precisely because of their need, at a time of crisis, for a figure beyond criticism. Just as we idly fantasize that we’d do something heroic in similar circumstances, we sometimes prefer mystificatory accounts of people’s response to trauma. Sometimes we expect too much.

OK - looking at the photo a day later, I'm still mostly drawn to the groom and his injuries. Call me a ghoul if you wish. As for the bride, I don't think she has a panicky look so much as a nonplussed look, or a "come on, get on with it" look.

The power of the photo is in the juxtaposition, and the traditional costuming. I would be very reluctant to read much into the reality of what these two people are thinking or feeling, but the photo conveys a message regardless of the reality of the people it depicts.

It could have been an opportunity to show that the disabled are just like the rest of us, just packaged in a different physical existence, if you will.

I guess that's where we differ, Beth -- I think that is what the photograph shows. As I said, her expression is one that every bride has seen on her own face on her wedding day, so I identify with her moment of "Wow, this is for life" that I'm reading there.

Excuse me KH, I see what you're saying. I wasn't aware that people had blanked out on her terror. What a strange thing. I always took it as a given that it was terror on her part, but maybe I had a different view of it from the media than people at the time did.

Pardon me a bit of extremism, but what I mostly feel upon seeing that photograph is rage.

And not at the subjects.

god, my heart hurts. i went through all 42 photos and was in tears before i finished.

It's bugging me that I don't have a better answer for why I don't like Berman's work much.

By way of a partial answer, here's a self-described social documentary photographer whose work I do like: Milton Rogovin. It seems I like more formal work, with cleaner, less cluttered composition -- snapshots, as I characterize Berman's photos, tend to have a lot of extraneous material. Rogovin's photos, in contrast, only show what they need to show. Every element of his photos is doing useful work.

Bill, thanks. I didn't mean to bug you or put you on the spot. I'm often hard pressed to say why I don't like certain pieces of art.

I'm glad you recommended Rogovin's work. I don't think I've seen his stuff before, but it's amazing. I'm drawn to his spare aesthetic. As you say, his images are remarkably "concise" or whatever the analog term is for visual images.

Nina Berman's "Wounded Marine..." is not photojournalism because it lies. And journalism should always seek the truth!

My first reaction when I saw it was to think that the girl didn't want to marry him- that's basically what the photo says because she looks so sad.

Yet Berman claims in an interview that they were a happy loving couple and that this was not what she was trying to portray at all.

If this is the truth, then why did she capture and use this distressing image? Why not photograph them when she is smiling?

Basically because the lie is more harrowing than the truth. And people like harrowing stories.

It makes me feel a bit ill. Photojournalism is supposed to represent the truth-- not twist it to what makes a good story.

And what does poor Ty think about all this? Surely he's been through enough.

Shame on Nina Berman. She is not a credit to her profession here.

God Bless them! That's I can say, God Bless them.

they got seperated then divorced after 3 months of marriage

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