Nina Berman was born in New York City. She received a BA from the University of Chicago, an MA from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and has been photographing the political and cultural landscape in the United States for nearly 15 years. Berman’s photographs have been exhibited in museums and widely published in magazines including Time, Mother Jones, Harper’s, GEO, and National Geographic. She currently resides in New York City where she teaches at the International Center of Photography.
Her first book, Purple Hearts—Back from Iraq, was published by Trolley in 2004, followed by a second printing six weeks later; a Japanese version is due out in 2005. The book has received widespread press attention including coverage on ABC, CBS, NPR, MSNBC, dozens of internet sites, and features in Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts from the book have been published in magazines and newspapers in eleven European countries.
The image of a wounded American soldier is one piece of evidence that the American public can examine to begin separating propaganda—that war is quick and bloodless—from truth.
Since October 2003, I have been making pictures and conducting interviews with Americans wounded in the war with Iraq. I stay away from the homecoming parades, the VFW initiation events, the yellow ribbons, and appearances with politicians. I seek out the wounded at their homes after they have been discharged from the military hospitals. I want to visit each soldier alone as he or she considers the experience of war and life ahead. I ask questions about their lives at home, the recruitment process, their injuries, what they liked about the military, and their experiences in Iraq. I ask the soldiers for their definitions of freedom and democracy—a question that often leaves them puzzled.
Together, the words and photographs create a complex, sometimes contradictory portrait of American youth, depicting their values and their dreams, the lack of opportunity many face after high school, the culture of violence or drugs that many tried to escape by enlisting, and the myths of warfare that influenced their decisions to join.
The first soldier I photographed was completely blind. His world is black from morning to night. Titanium plates hold his brain together. He has seizures and mood swings and needs frequent naps. This young man—tall and strong, a university graduate, and first in his class of 228 Rangers—trembled at the sound of the camera’s shutter.
Another soldier, blind and an amputee, described Iraq as “the best experience” of his life. He lives alone in a camper in one of the poorest communities in Pennsylvania. His father is in jail for homicide, his mother walked out on him as a child. Another soldier, crippled after a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through his legs in Falluja, said, “I thought going to war was jumping out of planes. I thought it would be fun.” He recalls watching Desert Storm on TV as a child and being mesmerized by the tracers and the nighttime bombings.
Many of the soldiers I photographed either supported the war in Iraq or said they had no political opinions and were just doing their job. But one soldier, Robert Acosta, was openly angry and critical of what he called the “Bush Administration’s lies.” Acosta, 20 years old, had his right hand blown off and his left leg mangled in a grenade attack. He agreed to be photographed because, he said, people needed to know what’s happening. He was alarmed by the ignorance in his neighborhood in Santa Ana, California, and was concerned about his younger brother being drafted. A high school dropout, he had never been interested in politics or world issues before joining the army. Now he is a vocal antiwar activist, speaking at colleges, doing interviews for radio shows, and participating in television ads. He wants the public to know the human cost of war.
These photographs are only a partial accounting of the true cost.
—Nina Berman, March 2005