Jonathan Blaustein interviews Nina Berman for us:
JB: I was in New York in June, and I had a meeting at the Whitney with a curator and I had about 15 minutes to kill, so they let me go upstairs to the exhibitions. There was one section of the Biennial that was still up, so I headed right for it.
I looked at your pictures, and it’s hard to put words to the experience. But it was a gut punch for me. I was so amazed and touched and blown away that I ended up walking out of that room sure that I had a long way to go. I was very humbled. So I went from being, not cocky, but very happy with myself to realizing how much work I needed to do in a span of 10 minutes. As an artist, and a human being, I was very inspired by what you created, and I thought that it was incredibly brave and fearless work. So the seed was planted in my mind, at that point, of what you were able to communicate.
NB: So, let me ask you a question, if you don’t mind. Clearly, people think the subjects are brave. But why did you see the photography as brave? I think this might be a very interesting path to go down in this conversation, for a moment, if you’ll go there with me.
JB: OK. Well, that’s easy for me to answer, actually, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. I put myself in the position that, what if I saw Ty, and at the time I didn’t know his name, walking down the street. And the answer is, if I saw him walking down the street, I would look away. Because, as people, we’re conditioned out of respect or shame or what-have-you, to look away when we see someone who’s been hurt like that, or altered like that. I mean, it’s hard to even come up with a verb. I would look away, and I think almost anyone would. To stare at someone like that is rude and disrespectful. So as an artist, I felt like you were pulling a complete 180, by putting me in a situation in which I was forced to look. The appropriate response when one is looking at pictures on a wall, certainly in a museum, is you’re supposed to look.
The ideas in the images are being offered up to the viewer to focus on. I felt like, immediately, you had spun a social convention in a very powerful way, and created a scenario in which I was meant to look at something and meant to see something that almost everyone prefers not to see. I thought that that was a brave idea, in and of itself. At the same time, the process of engaging with these soldiers, in a position of power with the camera, I think it’s brave to put yourself in a position where you’re going to be uncomfortable in a very edgy place. I didn’t just look at the subjects as brave, I thought the process was as well, and I felt like I a got a lot of information about your process through your pictures, because I hadn’t seen much of your work before.
JB: You don’t hear that often?
NB: I see it differently, of course. By the time I met Ty, I had been immersed for years already in photographing severely wounded veterans. I had seen very bad injuries, and had decided not to turn away from these injuries, and to try to photograph them in a way that wouldn’t so much highlight the goriness, or the gruesomeness of the physical injury, but to try to get past that and to look into the psychological and emotional makeup of the subject. So when I met Ty, even though there was a brief sort of sense of recoiling, because I hadn’t seen someone quite that bad, it blew by me really quickly, and I think that’s because I’d already been so immersed in it.
For me, if I can call the series brave at all, it’s because I took a somewhat dispassionate approach. Clearly there’s empathy there, because I’m sticking with it, and I’m looking at all of these moments, but I didn’t try to romanticize the situation, or to urge on a more beautiful look. Right? Which could easily have been done. If there’s anything that’s brave about the work, in my point of view, it would be that. It would be not falling into a trap of trying to either romanticize it or to make it more profound. The thing about the pictures that I find interesting, and I hope other people do, is that in some ways they’re quite mundane. You see these very every day moments, that are shocking maybe because…
JB: I hear you. They’re not glamorized, by any means. I understand that when we make work, when we immerse ourselves in a subject, at some point it begins to feel real and natural. I was introduced to your work through “Marine Wedding”, but now that I’ve done some research and prepared myself, I’ve seen the “Purple Hearts” work and I know that you’ve had a long history of working in dangerous places, and you’ve seen a lot. Of course that comes through in this body of work. So it makes perfect sense to me that as an artist, you would feel somewhat matter-of-fact about the situation you were in. But these pictures were decontextualized and put in the Whitney Biennial. I now know, from my research, that you were commissioned to make these photographs by People Magazine. Is that correct?
NB: The first batch, yes, which I’m sure gave a lot of high-end art people a big laugh.
JB: I would imagine. I’m wondering if the leap has ever been made before, from People to the Biennial? I’ve got to figure that you’re blazing trails on that one, wouldn’t you say?
NB: Well, I think that in some ways it shows a lack of understanding of how someone like me, who comes from an editorial tradition, works. And also how a photographers “take” and what’s published can often be very different things. Very few of my favorite photographs from the series were published editorially. I had to wait for an art exhibition to show the series in the way I wanted. To this day, editorial publications want to push the work in a direction I can’t condone. For example, I had an amazing experience recently where the “Marine Wedding” portrait was shown at the Milano Triennale with some “Purple Hearts” work and an Italian editorial publication similar in style to People wanted to do a feature with the images. I asked first to see the text that would go with it, and what they wrote was so over the top, so dripping in melodramatic fantasies, almost high camp. I couldn’t let the publication proceed and pulled the pictures. So for me going to the Whitney was great because I finally got to show the series the way I wanted, without any text, but I also went in with this uneasy feeling that some might dismiss the work because it originated at a mass market publication.
In some ways, I have a hard time talking about that aspect of it. No one quite raised it directly. In some people’s minds it sort of limits the power of the work because initially it was commissioned by such a mass-market magazine. Whereas I’ve spent my entire career taking assignments and doing with them what I wanted, and I think that I’m hired for that. I remember, when I was starting out early as a photographer, my agents would say, “Maybe you should make a portfolio that shows all of these varieties of styles, kinds of works that you can do,” and I thought, that’s the opposite way that I should go, because I can’t pretend I’m this great studio photographer, or I can’t pretend I’m this great, celebrity portrait photographer, or business photographer, so why should I even throw it out there as though I’m capable at it when I’m not terrific at it. I should just show what I think I can do that no one else can do, or no one else can do like me.
JB: It’s a great back-story and is a great lead-in to one of the things that I want to talk about. The 21st Century is a mash-up culture at this point. So many boundaries that have existed in photography and beyond are coming down or already have. And one of the things that I find interesting is that the distinctions between the terms photojournalist, editorial photographer, and artist seem somewhat arbitrary right now. I noticed that you refer to yourself as a documentary photographer. I come from an art background, so I never heard the term “personal project” until a couple of years ago (NB laughs…). Right, I laughed. I was like, “What could that possibly mean?” It sounded like a riff on something absurd, like your pet rock is your personal project.
NB: Well, you know it’s kind of funny, because I first used to describe myself as a photojournalist, but then I realized that the public’s conception of a photojournalist was a guy with 8 cameras around his neck, running, with a bandana around his neck… I was clearly not that, in any way, shape or form, and there was a hard-news vibe that went to it. This wasn’t really who I was, so I started searching for different words to label myself. Often, I just say I’m a photographer. So this idea of documentary photographer is kind of me. I don’t create scenes to photograph them. I don’t think you could call someone who does that a documentary photographer. So I just use it, but I could also use any other term. A woman with a camera, or a few cameras, or an artist, or a journalist, or whatever.
JB: So do you think that the distinctions really matter anymore?
NB: I don’t think they really matter to anyone except maybe a few collectors or gallerists, who don’t like photojournalism, or don’t like this or that. But in terms of the actual practice? It doesn’t matter to me. If you call yourself an artist, and you’re coming from a photojournalism tradition, and you start calling yourself an artist, maybe it can liberate you from some of the constraints of the tradition. But it also then makes you suspect in some of the more important values of that tradition.
JB: Like what?
NB: For instance, the famous picture from the Ty Ziegel series (Marine Wedding) is this wedding portrait. When that picture first appeared, many people thought that I had gotten a backdrop, brought them in, positioned them, taught them how to look, and took the frame. And I didn’t do any of those things. A printer of mine thought I did, and I told him, “No, I didn’t,” and he said you shouldn’t tell people you didn’t, because it’s better for them to think that you did. Does that change the meaning for some people? Working from a journalism tradition, OK, I wouldn’t do that. However, maybe once you see the potential of art, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to do that.
JB: Well, I read a piece by Paul Graham at some point in the last couple of years about the fact that in the art world, perhaps there’s a bias against taking versus making. Finding images versus constructing. I think most of these biases are outdated. And some times it takes time for people to catch up with reality. It has to do with context. That’s why I think it’s brilliant that your photos were in People and the Biennial, because the audience is so different. The way people react to images is so different. You take something and you put it on a white wall in a frame and people are going to ask questions of themselves. They’re going to try to deconstruct your methodology in a way that of course isn’t going to happen in a magazine, but that just expands the reach of the work, I think. I think it’s a credit to the work.
NB: That’s my view. For me, I’m happy to show pictures in a high school library that were hanging in the Whitney, or any other sort of high-art world. I don’t see why I should have to constrain myself to one kind of venue or another. And there are people who disagree with that, right?
JB: Sure. It’s a good point, because one of the things that I find interesting, something I talked to Phil Toledano about in the last interview is the idea of fearlessness. All people have fear and the idea of fearless, to me, is people who can understand their fear, understand preconceived limitations, and choose to shake things up. Choose to step beyond and not let fear limit their abilities or decision-making.
So I find it interesting that in looking at your biography, I saw two points in which it appears that you made big decisions that then led to major changes in your career and presumably your life. The first, when you were a print journalist and then decided to embrace photography, and the second, which I find really fascinating is that, as an established, successful professional, you applied to Jen Bekman’s Hey Hotshot competition. I know they’re decisions that were separated by decades, but I thought you might speak to what it was that made you shake things up and take chances, and how that led to the rest of your career?
NB: Those are really good questions. I grew up wanting to be a writer. It was kind of my dream. I was an early, avid almost obsessive reader and most readers want to be writers. But I also watched lots of film. Eventually, I had kind of a parallel life. Writer. Photographer. Career-wise, I went to graduate school in journalism at Columbia, which had a very limited program in photography, but they did have one and I spent most of my time on that. I got a job as a reporter out of school and I hated it, and that’s when I made the change.
I hated having people pick through my words. I did a very long, well-respected project on Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam in 1987, when the Soviets were still in power. And there were very few Americans that had gone back. I wrote it and shot it, and I liked the pictures very much. I just couldn’t stand having editors pick through my text, and it was around that time that I decided to leave the newspaper world. I figured, well, all they can do with a picture is maybe not use it, or crop it, but they can’t chop it up and spit it out. So I started freelancing as a photographer, and had this successful career shooting many different stories in different parts of the world editorially.
I applied to Hey Hotshot because once I started doing this veterans work from the Iraq War, I became completely and utterly obsessed with getting these pictures out. Nonstop. And I think a lot of that was because I had such a negative reaction from magazines early on with the work. They did not want to publish it. They didn’t see it as an interesting story. It so infuriated me on so many levels that I became a one person obsessive machine in trying to get it out. So I saw the Hey Hotshot competition, probably at 3 in the morning one night, and thought, this is easy to submit. You can only submit a couple of pictures, let me give it a go and see where it takes me.
Also, from the “Purple Hearts” work, I started having people reach out to me from different walks of life that I had never really communicated with. I developed a pretty open attitude to this. And decided, that rather than have a default reaction to scrutinize every approach that people made towards me, or take a look at every opportunity, to be very open about things and see where that goes, and not make a judgement until it’s followed through. And so on the Hotshot, I just said it’s another competition, let me put in a few pictures.
JB: It’s good to hear that, because I’ve found something similar myself, in that I try to stay open to possibilities. I read a quote recently by someone that codified it, “Always say yes,” whenever possible. Trying not to see the outcome of opportunities, but being open to possibilities can be a great strategy for transitioning and having new things come into one’s life. I talked about it explicitly in the last interview, just because the Industry itself has been shaken to it’s core in so many ways. I don’t really know that from the inside, just from reading, and from my own experiences here in Taos. But it’s nice to hear from you. So it was less about that particular opportunity (Hey Hotshot) so much as a real desire to have as many people see the work as possible and try to find what those avenues were going to be by going after all of them? Is that a fair synopsis?
NB: Exactly. I didn’t even know much about Jen, or about Hey Hotshot. Now that I’m sort of stepping back, remembering how it happened,I know this woman Swanee, Mary Virgnia Swanson who I’ve known for years through a mutual friend. And occasionally I’d go on her blog and she would let people know, there’s this competition or there’s this thing happening, so I think I found it there. But I didn’t really know much about it.
JB: It’s been a great relationship for you, working with Jen Bekman, I’d imagine?
NB: Well, Hey Hotshot led to the “Purple Hearts” show at Jen’s gallery. And that was all very spontaneous. Jen was like, “I have this space in August, and no one is slotted, and I would have wanted to show more of your work than what was up in Hotshot, so let’s do it.” So I said “OK, let’s just do it.” It was so spur-of-the-moment, last-minute, and I had these prints that were already a bit banged up, and we just put it up. And that work, for whatever reason, just blows people away, or at least it certainly did back then. It was kind of surprising and shocking. It would be nice for me to think that it speaks entirely to the strength of the pictures, but I think it speaks to the hunger people had to see some kind of authentic depiction of this war, and I don’t think people felt they were getting that from the traditional outlets. Magazines, TV, blah, blah, blah. So when they saw this work, paired with narratives from the subjects themselves, rather than it being a completely mediated experience, I think that people were kind of, “Wow. I want this. I need to see this, because I feel a little bit duped about what’s going on in the war.” That’s why I started the project, because I felt I’d been lied to.
JB: I read somewhere that you said you realized that you weren’t seeing images (of the war) and you wondered why. That was something that I wanted to ask you. Is that where your ideas often come from? From a standpoint of questioning accepted sources of information, or questioning reality, or questioning perceptions? Is that how you typically begin?
NB: Yeah, I think that my best work comes from that. And if you want to go back to the art versus journalism divide, or synergy, or whatever word you want to use, rather than saying, “I’m interested in this place, I’m just going to drop myself here and check it out.” I start from a stand point of, “I don’t understand this, or I disagree with this, or very often, I feel lied to or manipulated, so I want to investigate that.” And I think that can be an investigative photographic process, I’m not sure. But I think that’s where my best, most original work comes from.
JB: It makes sense. I culled through a lot of your projects and the parallel that I came up with, it made me think a lot about David Simon. He was a print journalist, first, as well, at the Baltimore Sun. There was one line, I think it was either in the fourth or fifth season of “The Wire,” where a character says the words, “You’re here to speak truth to power.” And I know that the term has caught on, but it’s something that I felt was a theme in your work. Given the variety of issues that you’re poking at, between Wall Street and the financial industry, and religion, and violence and war and sexism. You used the term investigative. Is that something that you agree with? That you’re trying to speak truth to power?
NB: Yeah. I think I’m definitely a political animal. I actually worked as a political organizer for a few years in my 20’s, when I lived in Chicago. I definitely see the role of a member of society as ultimately a very political one. You lead a political life, whether you think you are or not. Either by your action or inaction. I definitely hope that my themes and images come from some conversation with political power, and with the power of ideologies. I think a lot of my work has to do with ideology and belief systems. How these are mapped onto people. In the case of the soldiers, physically mapped onto people, through war. The “Homeland” work is very much a look at ideology and spectacle and manipulation and American mythologies, and ideas of security and all the rest. So that is a component in my work, and actually, right now, I’m in this kind of limbo, because the Obama victory threw me for a bit of a loop. Not that I feel as though America has changed radically under Obama, but I had such great material to pull from in the Bush years. I had very clear personal reactions to things.
JB: That was very clear to me. The folks at photo-eye in Santa Fe actually lent me a copy of “Homeland,” so I got to look at the book itself. And far be it for me to be critical, but that was the only work that felt different to me. It felt, especially when I looked at the piece that you wrote, and dated it as 2001-8…I almost felt like it was a personal response from you to George W. Like a reactive agenda. And I liked the work a lot, because I thought it was funny, ironic and surreal. So much of the other work that I saw is very, very serious, as well it should be, but I liked the humor and the irony, and yet it felt like a very different tone. I felt like, rather than your typical, dispassionate style, you experimented with something new that came from a place of anger or challenge. But then it opened up humor and absurdity, which I found very interesting.
NB: Yeah, I think that the “Homeland” stuff is closest to who I am. And I was doing that and the soldier work simultaneously, and they’re like two sides of the coin. I’d started the “Homeland” work first, and then when the war came about, I stopped it for a while, because I didn’t want the humor. I wanted something totally serious, and very personal.
JB: Well, you accomplished it. The serious work is very touching, but the absurdity…it felt different. I enjoyed seeing the perspective. The lack of nuance felt very different. I could feel the judgement, but at the same time, the pictures are straight. And it’s not like you were creating these scenarios. Why on Earth did the lady at the Church in C-Springs put on a burqa? I have to ask. That was Ted Haggard’s church, right? New Life?
NB: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.
JB: I drove through the Springs on Sunday, and that place is strange. I’ll go on record, that place is really strange. But you were there…
NB: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was there twice, and I kept saying to myself…I mean, I kind of liked it. And I said to myself that if I lived in Colorado Springs, I’d probably be a member of the Church. I mean, it’s absolutely true. All of these trips through these Mega-Churches, I kept thinking to myself, “When am I going to walk down that aisle and give myself up to Jesus Christ?”
JB: That’s awesome. I’m sorry, that’s awesome.
NB: No, it’s totally true.
JB: I believe you. I do.
NB: No, the pictures may have this detached, sharply analytical feel…
JB: They do.
NB: However, the compulsion…I mean, I keep going in there. Absolutely, just completely mesmerized by people who have faith. I’m actually trying to continue this work in April in a new place I’ve discovered. I want to know how people can believe so strongly in something. I just don’t get it myself, so I’m always looking to see, and that runs through my work. But the burkah, so what happened was, and it was totally by luck, it wasn’t planned out, it happened to be missionary day at the Church. So you had all through the lobby of the Church, people dressed up in the outfits from countries they hoped to evangelize. So there was a teenager in a burqa serving peanuts, and you had people dressed as Saudis…
JB: You can’t make that up.
NB: No, you can’t make that up. They even had a camel. And I never made a great picture of the camel. They had a camel with the mountains, and a guy with a cowboy hat on, and it was just so whacked. And sometimes, I’m so overcome by how amazing the thing is that I’m looking at that I screw up the picture. To be honest. I’m like, “Whoa, man,” and forget to make a really stunning picture.
JB: Well, that’s just a part of living life, right?
NB: Yes, a part of living life, but the New Life Church is incredible.
JB: With respect to the book, there are so many photographers out there obsessed with books that I have to bring it up. I got to look at the book, and the printing was really, really saturated. The colors were really saturated to the point that the they were flattening out, and it felt like it was pushing towards a hyper-real aesthetic. And I read in the back of the book that you used the term, “state-sponsored performance art,” so my first thought with a production like that is that I’m going to assume it was intentional. That the color palette, that sense of hyper-real and surreal, was matching up with that concept that you had of “state-sponsored performance art.” Is that correct? Is it safe to assume that it wasn’t a function of the printing?
NB: Oh, no. It wasn’t a function of the printing. The project started with shooting 50 and 100 ASA Fujichrome, slightly under-exposed, with external flash. So they were boom-boom, saturated pictures from the get-go. And it was the colors that I saw. The aesthetic began with a picture I shot on Fifth Avenue, with the Columbus Day Parade in October 2001. The bombing of Afghanistan had just begun, and there was the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York. So I went to check it out, feeling like it was in bad taste, but also curious to see if it had more of a militarized feel to it. They had laid this red carpet out, for people to march past at the reviewing stand. So because of the sun that day, and the weather, for me it seemed so surreal, and I made series of pictures of these shadows, and it felt very much like a mechanized, almost Soviet look. It was that image that led me to this kind of aesthetic on how to shoot this project. And wherever I’d go, you’d see these colors. I’d go to Florida and you’d see a blue sky and a bright sun, and I’d just latch on to these colors.
And then I started lighting these things, because the way it transpired, is that I would go to these security events, and search for a moment of truth within these events. Like, where is this narrative going in these events I was watching, and often, I couldn’t really look at them seriously, because some of them, in my view, were so absurd. So I saw them as almost advertising, and started to light some of the scenes. Not with lots of assistants and lots of lights, but one or two external strobes on a stand. And I had this idea to shoot it more like a commercial look, with very saturated colors.
JB: I imagined, looking at the pictures, that there had to be added light, and it works. It’s a great look. And again, holding the book was nice, because I could see the through line. On the NOOR site (her agency), they break the project down into different bits, but seeing it cohesively, I took note of the themes, how you move from the terrorist prep to the megachurches to the war games, the kids with guns, the SWAT camp, the border photos, I could just feel you moving through these themes of the Bush era. It seems like a nice, book-ended view of a certain aspect of American culture in a very edgy time.
NB: In a very particular time. And I think if I were to go back and try to revisit these places, and revisit some of these scenes now, I would probably shoot it differently. It would probably appear to me quite differently. There would be a few more cracks in the seams. Maybe less ironic and more pathetic.
JB: A lot of the work that you do, and I don’t want this word to have a negative connotation, but there are a lot of bleak photographs, and a lot of the misery of the human condition and the social condition. So the “Homeland” set of images was so poppy and surreal, and funny and absurd, it definitely seemed like you were expressing a different part of your psyche.
NB: Actually, the book, to be quite honest, it started out as another incarnation that started in the 90’s and ended in 2002-3. I had a dummy for this book and for many years, I’ve sort of explored these frenzied subcultures of consumer society and mixed that with the political. So I had this dummy, and it was all kind of shot in this style, and I liked it, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. And then when 9/11 happened, and I started seeing it taken to a whole new level. So I threw out all the stuff, pre-9/11, and began anew. I actually had an exhibition, in Perpignan, in 1997, of the early foundations of this work, and Photo District News also did a fairly sizable feature about my work, and about the exhibition at the time. I haven’t put the stuff up on my website, mainly because I still haven’t scanned much of my analog images. But perhaps one day I will.
JB: It’s a nice point to make, because, on the subject of taking risks, I try to be as ruthless as I can when I’m editing, because I think the difference between a good image, a very good image, and THE image is pretty sizable. The difference between good and very good is not that wide, but the difference between very good and great is vast, so the fact that you tore it down and built it up again to get it right is something that people will have interest in hearing about.
There are a couple of other points that I want to touch on, because in one, I’m personally curious, and in the other, the timing of global events is such that I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you about it. I know from your history that you’ve taken photographs in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and you’ve traveled in some pretty dangerous places. The idea of fearlessness was as much metaphorical as anything, but given the opportunity to talk about it literally, I want to ask…Do you feel like the phenomenon we’ve been seeing of journalists and photojournalists being attacked and killed in the line of duty, doing the job, certainly it’s been getting a lot of attention in the last few years. Is that something that you feel was always a really dire risk? Or do you think that we’re living in a time in which the rules have changed?
NB: Oh, I think the rules have changed a lot. I think journalists are at far greater risk because information moves so quickly. Because things are so much more interconnected. I think journalists are frequently targets now, as opposed to maybe just innocent bystanders in a dangerous place.
JB: So when you say the speed of information, you mean that the act of the information getting published or put out into the world means that the people being written about have the time to react in “real-time?” Their identity as a journalist and the source of the story becomes obvious, and then they can be put in harms way? So that’s the impact of the Internet?
NB: Well, a picture can very quickly have a huge life, whereas in the past, it was contained and confined to particular countries. For instance, if you’d photographed the secret police in Tehran killing people, if you’re able to make this picture, and put it on the Internet, it becomes an international issue. It can affect sanctions, it can affect all of these things. It doesn’t go away when the magazine is thrown in the garbage. So for governments and powerful institutions that have a lot at stake, it’s the messenger who’s the dangerous person.
JB: So journalists become a far bigger threat to power.
NB: Journalists are a big threat. And I think that what you saw in Egypt, with all of the equipment being confiscated, it was flash cards. “Give me your flash cards.” That’s what was happening. I’m with NOOR images, where there’s some very brave, heavy-duty, conflict photographers in this agency, and one of our photographers who was there, his whole day’s work was gone because it was confiscated. And then you’ve had situations of people being attacked this is going to happen more and more. What you’re going to find is journalists figuring out strategies. Different kind of strategies to either conceal their gear, or work more with I-phones, or things like this.
JB: Well, we all know that the power of information has grown exponentially because the Internet is really the perfect information dissemination vehicle. So you’re saying with the growth in the power of information, there’s a commensurate growth in the power of the journalist, of the person reporting that information. And therefore, the risk undertaken in doing that job is exponentially higher.
NB: Yeah, I think so. I don’t see myself in the same category. When I did work in Bosnia and Afghanistan, even though it was during times of war, I was never what’s known as a “bang-bang” shooter. Where I’m looking at the moment of super high drama and conflict, I’m always more on the edges and the aftermath, looking at how the civilian population is affected. So the stories come from a different place. I never thought I would be very good at that kind of hard-core combat photography.
JB: You’ve been so generous with your time. There’s one last question I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind. There are certain symbolic benchmarks in a career that I think have an almost mythic sense of power. Within the art and photo world, the show you were just in, the Whitney Biennial, is one of those events that can set off a chain reaction, where the world is your oyster. Since it just happened to you, has it been all that and more, or is it just another step in a life?
NB: I’m not sure if all creative people struggle with this, I suspect not, but sometimes I have a difficult time taking myself seriously. As seriously as maybe I should.
JB: But the work is so serious. That’s the last thing I would have expected you to say.
NB: The work is so serious, but that’s different. So let me finish what I’m talking about. It comes, from a place of insecurity and also a bit of impatience and nervous agitation. For instance, there are people who do a body of work and then step back and very intelligently, calculatingly assess its trajectory. Where they want it. Who they want to see it. How they want to get it out. And move through that list. That’s not me. And I think that that kind of organization and singularity of purpose speaks to a person who takes themselves and the work seriously, and has a tremendous amount of ambition.
I really like taking pictures. I like being in the moment, doing it. I like exploring it, I like looking at the pictures. I don’t like all the other stuff. I’m not this person who’s like, “Man, I’m going to this gallery, and then move on up the rung to that one. And I’m going to this museum, and then I’m going to move to that one.” That’s not me. I kind of wish I had a bit more of that career shaping shark in me, but it’s not who I am, and I suspect it will never be who I am. So the Whitney moment, as I think it’s called, was not something I sought. I was enormously pleased at the respect they paid the work: the curators, and the institution. And the fact that people were really, really moved by it. The room was very busy, and people wanted to see it, and went back to see it.
Has it made the world my oyster, in the sense that I have no financial difficulties, or I can do any project I want, or I have all of these amazing offers just dropping in my lap every day? No. It has not done that for me. Has it opened some doors? I think. I think, also, that the effect of the Biennial will be something maybe felt for quite a while, for me. It has given me a bit more confidence in the choices I’ve made and what I do. And so for all of those reasons, it was a beautiful experience.
My work is still very difficult to look at. It’s very political work. If you look at what’s in museums these days, in the art world these days, it is not of such a direct political nature. At least, I haven’t found it.
JB: One of the things I find very interesting about your response is that you talked very specifically about who you are, and your way in the world, and the way you relate to the world. To me, a large part of the process as an artist is learning more about oneself and developing a sense of self-criticality. But also understanding one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses. It sounds like you’re keepin’ it real, and as such, it led to these outcomes because you’re doing what you need to do, from a sense of passion and mission. The idea of mission came to me a few times as I was looking at your work. That’s there is a sense of mission and purpose. And I would agree with you that that is lacking in much of contemporary art, perhaps to the detriment of art viewers. But I think people probably responded to your work to the degree they did because there is a hunger for experiences that push people out of their comfort zone, and that share powerful information that is not easily accessible.
NB: I think that’s true. I say I’m a political person, and that my work is political, although I’m not saying what that politics is. I’m just saying that it lives in a political world. Or it can live in a political world, if people want to take it that way. However, I think one of the strengths of both the “Marine Wedding” pictures and the “Purple Hearts” pictures is you don’t know where I’m coming from in the political spectrum. I present the work at many different kinds of venues, some of them military venues, some of them not. People, early on, wanted to know what my personal politics were regarding the war. And I wouldn’t tell them, and I’m still very reluctant to share that because I feel as though it will destroy the pictures. Because then, whatever people are feeling about the pictures, as they consider the pictures, they can say, “Oh, well, I’m just being manipulated one way or another, because this is really her intention.”
So I learned a very good lesson, and I learned this lesson not because somebody told me to do this, or because I learned it from people before me. I learned it the best way, which is through my own experience. And so when I started this work, I had certain ideas of course, and then when I met the soldiers, all my ideas just exploded. I didn’t know where I was, or what kind of ground I was standing on, and where this project was going. I was open to everything. I think that not forcing a partisan point of view, in the pictures, makes them much more volatile to look at, and much more interesting to look at.
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer based in New York, NY. She’ll be lecturing about her work at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, NC on March 18, 2011.