Portraits of the Face of War

BY Maureen Hoch  February 2, 2010 at 2:57 PM EDT

Ty with Gun

“Ty with Gun” (2008); Copyright Nina Berman.

In her unflinching, but surprisingly tender portraits of former soldiers and marines, photographer Nina Berman documents the lives of veterans who have made an extraordinary sacrifice for their country, and who now are battling with serious injury.

“I found the subjects, for the most part, shortly after they returned home from Walter Reed or Brooke Army,” said Berman, referring to the two major military hospitals that serve soldiers returning from combat.

Many of her portraits picture veterans with missing limbs or who bear significant physical scarring. Some show no sign of physical harm, but suffer from brain trauma or the psychological and emotional toll of the battlefield.

Berman was able to capture them in one of the most challenging periods in their lives. “A time of life,” she explained, “that is most difficult because they are making that transition from able-bodied soldier or marine to disabled veteran, and getting used to what that meant to be handicapped or disabled. And [they’re] separate now from the military, which for many was the basis of their life for at least the last couple years.”

I recently talked to Berman about her photographs:

Berman has published a book-length series of these portraits called ‘Purple Hearts.’ She also turned her lens to emergency training drills and military recruitment events for the book, ‘Homeland.’

Berman will be one of four photographers showcased later this month at the Whitney Biennial, where she will display a series of 18 images from a series called “Marine Wedding.” It follows former Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel as he returns home, severely wounded by a car bomb in Iraq, to marry his fiancee, Renee Kline.

“You come away with a real emotional connection to the individual she is depicting,” said Gary Carrion-Murayari, associate curator of the Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Anybody could take a picture of someone who is disfigured and make a shocking image. These go beyond that and get to the emotional experience of soldiers.”