America's Homeland Insecurity

A Q & A with photojournalist Nina Berman

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Each Memorial Day, New York City celebrates Fleet Week. Navy vessels dock on the Hudson River, fighter jets roar overhead, and sailors disembark for shore leave. "Usually I just shoot them wandering through Times Square," says photojournalist Nina Berman. In 2007, however, Berman went to Orchard Beach, a park in the Bronx, for what was billed as Marine Day.

"Helicopters flew over and landed, and the soldiers came out with a tarp filled with weapons," recalls Berman. "Families gathered, and the Marines painted the kids' faces in camouflage. Little girls and boys were posing with rifles. There was a kind of gangster vibe -- kids saying, 'Hey, this is what they used in Scarface!'"

The pictures Berman made that day -- advanced military weaponry in the happy hands of children painted as warriors -- capture a sense of absurdity and danger that often passes unnoticed in the social fabric of post-9/11 America. They are part of a project she has been working on for the past seven years that has taken her from the streets of New York to the suburbs of Chicago and small towns across the country. What she has documented in her images is a homeland that is anything but secure. Her photos depict the color-coded terror alerts that have become a visual backdrop to everyday life, disaster simulations in which volunteers are made up to look like bombing victims, and air shows in which stealth fighters appear overhead like fancy kites.

You can find the work in a new book, Homeland (Trolley, $49.95). For the past several weeks large prints of the photographs hav been exhibited at the Jen Bekman Gallery in Manhattan, and they will be part of a group show at the Houston Center of Photography in February, as well as a solo show at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Until now, Berman's best-known work was a series of portraits of soldiers wounded in the Iraq War. She began that project shortly after the American military pushed its way to Baghdad in 2003, and before the violent reality of the occupation had become clear to many journalists.

Those portraits -- shot in medium-format, formally composed -- were meant to be seen as evidence of the price of war. Her new work, by contrast, is as visually confounding as the reality they depict. The saturated color and off-kilter framing are disruptive and impressionistic. In the book they are presented without captions, offering viewers visual messages rather than journalistic information.

Here, Berman talks about how why she chose to shoot her latest work as she did, and why she finds the scenes she captured both humorous and haunting.

DS: How exactly did you get started on this project?
NB: I guess it started right after 9/11. It was something that I noticed happening in New York. I looked around at the streets, and the military was everywhere, and I thought, "Okay, now we're living in an armed camp."

DS: I think many people in the city felt comforted by the presence of soldiers right at that time.
NB: I wonder if my take on it was different because I wasn't actually in the city when the attacks happened. I was in Oregon on assignment, and then the flights were all cancelled, so I got back to New York three days later. So I didn't have the same emotional, raw feeling as people who had lived through the attacks.

DS: And that's when you started to take pictures of this new, post 9/11 world . . . .
NB: Yes. First I shot a bunch of black-and-white infrared of the National Guard in lower Manhattan. For me, the emotional context of the event came from seeing all the photos of the dead and missing that were being posted throughout the city. But when I looked at the soldiers, I thought, "Why are they here? Who are they going to shoot at? And I began to explore that idea."

DS: There is a great photo in your book made during that period . . . a shot of soldiers parading down Fifth Avenue in the 2001 Columbus Day parade. Tell us about that.
NB: That was really the first of the images I made for this project, in the sense that I shot it in color, with this idea of exploring where the country was going. It was three weeks after 9/11, and the war in Afghanistan had started a couple of days before. I came on this scene. What struck me was that the military had become the royalty of the parade. I shot them as they marched down a red carpet.

DS: Let's talk a bit about your style, because it's really apparent in this picture. The colors are big and bright, the composition is a little twisted. It's a view of a kind of glamour, but it the picture feels uncomfortable. You don't see faces. The carpet is just a bright red patch.
NB: There is usually something in each of my images that is not quite right -- something that makes you ask a question.

DS: Is this style something that you developed for the project?
NB: I actually started shooting like this early in my career. I've always had very saturated color and aggressive compositions -- there's very little white space, so you feel claustrophobic in my pictures, and there's no single place for the eye to go. I think that over the years the work has become more abstract, less grounded in the information of the scene. They images are more symbolic than informational. They're almost non-journalistic.

DS: In that sense, they're very different from the soldier portraits that you began shooting in 2003.
NB: Yes, I'd been working on these very impressionistic images for a couple of years, and I'd even put together a book dummy with some of them at that time. But publishers weren't very eager then for a book that seemed to question the direction of the country, and that was a little hard to understand on top of it. So when the Iraq War started, I thought, "Okay, this stuff I'm shooting is too abstract. I need to shoot pictures that are incontrovertible -- that cannot be misunderstood. I need to show something as basic as a war wound. So I stopped this project and started shooting the soldiers.

DS: Those portraits were shot in medium format. What about the Homeland images?
NB: Everything except one photo in the book was shot wth 35mm cameras. At first I was shooting on Fujichrome slide film with either a Nikon F4 or my Leica M7, and then in 2006 I switched to a digital SLR. But you can't tell the difference.

DS: The most disorienting images are the ones that show simulated terrorist attacks. You see people with terrible wounds, in agony, and you really have to work to realize that none of it is real. It's all just playacting.
NB: I took many of those at a training drill at O'Hare airport in Chicago. The drill was part of a government program called TOPOFF that takes places in different places a couple of times a year. What struck me was the sense of community and fun at these simulations. People volunteer to join in and play the victims. I think what you see is that they want to be part of the historic narrative of the post 9/11 era. I think it's natural that people would want to participate in their country's defense, but this almost seemed more of a social outlet than a military experience.

DS: Some of the most intriguing images in the Homeland series were made outside of New York, I think.
NB: One of my favorites is a shot of a suburban street outside of Chicago, which I made in 2008. Nothing is going on. There are no people. There is snow on the ground. It's absolutely peaceful and safe. And there in the foreground is this warning sign about Homeland Security threat levels. I look at that, and I think, "Who is this sign talking to?" It's like the sign is saying, "We're important here -- important enough to be targets."

DS: There is a sense of absurdity in that image, and in many others.
NB: I go to these places with an open mind, but at some point you look around and you go, something weird is going on here. That's what I do -- I scrutinize what's in front of me, and hopefully I'll see something that wouldn't otherwise be apparent. I took a picture at an air show on the beach in California. I looked around and I saw people eating, and overhead is a billion-dollar bomber. And a pier is crumbling, and the people are set off against a sign for a live-target paintball game. So for me it's a funny picture and a troubling picture. And that's how I'm experiencing the country now.

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