Nina Berman’s World View
Nina Berman blurs the line between fine art and editorial photography.
For more than 30 years Nina Berman has been going to places—both literally and metaphorically—where other photographers dare not tread. She’s driven by a need to tell stories that would otherwise go untold. Her images have captured everything from post 9/11 New York, to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, to mega churches in America.
Nina Berman: I’ve always felt like I don’t have a lot of time to waste.
Among Berman’s best known series: The Marine Wedding of Purple Hearts, which together introduced the public to the plight of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Berman: I never wanna repeat what someone else has done. I don’t see the point in doing that, so don’t have that ego that’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna do this and it’s gonna be amazing.” I really want to be useful, like I want my work to be useful in the sense that it shouldn’t repetitive, I shouldn’t just be doing it because it’s the story of the day and so maybe that comes from insecurity, I don’t know, but I pretty much charted my own path for a long time and I won’t do a story if someone’s done it amazingly well. Why? Why would I?
AJC: When we met, I said to you, “Oh, well, you’re not really that scary at all.”
AJC: Can you see how somebody might think that you’re tough from looking at your work? Are you tough? I mean, I shouldn’t be presumptuous, do you think you’re a tough person?
Berman: I think I’m direct, and that sometimes people misinterpret that or see that as a little scary or off-putting. But I think I’m direct about what I feel and think and—
AJC: No, but despite the intention of what you’re doing, you don’t seem angry about the world.
Berman: I think some of my best work comes from that feeling where I’m infuriated, disgusting, absolutely like at my wits end and I have to do something to channel that anger or that alienation. I have to find a way through my photography to sort of get at it. Anger is a great motivator, but when I meet people out in the world I don’t wanna be angry at them.
And it’s the desire to understand her subjects that makes Berman’s images so powerful.
Berman: I’m a good listener, and I’m a authentic listener. Like, I’m not just listening to someone because it’s like, “Okay gotta do this to get it out of the way so I can make the picture.” I truly wanna know. And, you know, for awhile in the ’90s, I was photographing militia, who have been people, like, before the Tim McVeigh stuff, because I was like, “Who are these people? What makes them tick? Like, what am I gonna see?” And I would go to their homes, I would hang out with them. I truly wanted to understand, you know, what they were fearing.
Nina Berman has the mind of a journalist and the eye of an artist, but she calls herself neither.
Berman: I call myself photographer or documentary photographer. I used to call myself a photojournalist, but then all the photojournalists were guys with scarves and lots of cameras, and I didn’t look anything like them. And so I found some other name that seemed to make more sense for me. I’m a good photographer, I don’t think I’m a great photographer, but I keep trying in my life, and so maybe that shows through.
AJC: You say you’re a good photographer, but you’re not a great photographer. But I imagine you’re standing in the setting with a camera and you look at the scene, you know what you want, you get it.
Berman: That’s the bad picture. The good picture is when you stand there and you see a scene and you know what you want and you take the picture and you get something different that you didn’t think of that just kind of crept in some magical way, whatever it was, and then it’s like, “Wow.” Then it’s amazing. And you see that, with digital, that’s less and less able to happen, in a sense, because you can always see and you can always edit yourself, like, right away, “No, I don’t like that, delete, try it again.” But, with film, it was always about the unknowing, the magic, “Did I get it, what did I get? Is there something?” But I think any photographer will tell you, not maybe not a commercial photographer, but any other photographer working in the photojournalism, documentary space, will tell you that the mistakes are the pictures, the things you didn’t anticipate are the pictures that you hold onto most.
Berman revived this magical uncertainty by shooting her latest project on film. Acknowledgement of Danger examines the way in which weapons testing and production has contaminated the American landscape over the years.
Berman: People are comfortable, like “We’re gonna go over there and kill them and poison their country, but we can do that because they really wanna get us, right?” So we’re justified to do all that. But people don’t really know that we poison our own country as well in the process. So I dig up these old stories and look at these places that look sometimes like nothing at all, but have these deep histories.
One example, the Passaic River near Trenton, New Jersey, remains contaminated after being poisoned with unused Agent Orange made for the Vietnam War.
Berman: You can’t eat fish in that river because it’s contaminated with dioxin from the H&R introduction, but there’s no sign telling you that history. Believe me, there’s no sign. And we just become almost, you know, it’s like it’s almost normal, of course you can’t swim in the river.
Berman’s primary tool for the Acknowledgement of Danger project is a Graflex speed graph camera. It was dominant in professional photography from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s, but it’s relative rarity today means that film and developing are hugely expensive. So what’s so special about it?
Berman: So, a lot of people like these filters, you know, their Instagram feeds or whatever, where they can soften up the background. So, you can do that with this camera with something called a tilt, so that you have very small selective focus in one area, and then other parts are out of focus. It gives you super sharp detailed, big fat negative, so if you wanna really see the detail of something, you can have it. You’re looking at grain, film grain, as opposed to pixels which is a different quality. But I think, even more so, it makes you really assess what it is you’re looking at because you can’t shoot 1,000 pictures. And then it’s a kind of novelty when people see it, so they tend to open up and are nicer and see you then as serious, as more serious.
AJC: That’s interesting.
Berman: Oh, the camera is—
AJC: The camera almost evokes a nostalgia in people who have probably never encounter one of these things.
Berman: Yeah, I was just in Indiana, and I was looking at former military bases that are now wildlife refuges. And they, I went during bow hunting weekend, and I wanted to hang out with a couple of the hunters. And the hunters I found were the guys not using the crossbows, which is considered by the purest no-go, too easy, because you’re always pulls and then just go like this. But the old bow hunter guys, so I was like, “Man, we’re going to get along so well”, ’cause I had this old camera, old style film, right? No batteries, nothing, and you guys got the bows. And yeah, so it made a whole different thing, whole different relationship because we both respected the process in a way.
AJC: And that’s there even in the finished images?
Berman: I think just the fact that I got to photograph them, they didn’t turn me down, is there. What people don’t understand about pictures is that it’s the 90% that you do before you actually take the picture, right. That’s where most of the work is.
But long after her work is done, Nina Berman’s images continue to impact the way people think about the world.