A photograph of Sgt. Joseph Mosner. Nina Berman, Jen Bekman Gallery.
Words Unspoken Are Rendered on War’s Faces
NY Times | Art Review | Nina Berman | By Holland Cotter
One of the more shocking photographs to emerge from the current Iraq war was taken last year in a rural farm town in the American Midwest. It’s a studio portrait by the New York photographer Nina Berman of a young Illinois couple on their wedding day.
The bride, Renee Kline, 21, is dressed in a traditional white gown and holds a bouquet of scarlet flowers. The groom, Ty Ziegel, 24, a former Marine sergeant, wears his dress uniform, decorated with combat medals, including a Purple Heart. Her expression is unsmiling, maybe grave. His, as he looks toward her, is hard to read: his dead-white face is all but featureless, with no nose and no chin, as blank as a pullover mask.
Two years earlier, while in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist, Mr. Ziegel had been trapped in a burning truck after a suicide bomber’s attack. The heat melted the flesh from his face. At Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas he underwent 19 rounds of surgery. His shattered skull was replaced by a plastic dome, and a face was constructed more or less from scratch with salvaged tissue, holes left where his ears and nose had been.
Ms. Berman took this picture, which is in the solo show at Jen Bekman Gallery, on assignment for People magazine. It was meant to accompany an article that documented Mr. Ziegel’s recovery, culminating in his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. But the published portrait was a convivial shot of the whole wedding party. Maybe the image of the couple alone was judged to be too stark, the emotional interchange too ambiguous. Maybe they looked, separately and together, too alone.
“Marine Wedding,” the portrait’s title, was not Ms. Berman’s first encounter with wounded Iraq war veterans. She photographed several others beginning in 2003, and 20 of her portraits were published as a book, “Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq” (Trolley Books, 2004), with an introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. These pictures, accompanied by printed interviews with the sitters, have been traveling the country, and 10 are now at Bekman.
None are as startling as “Marine Wedding,” even when the disability recorded is more extensive. Former Spc. Luis Calderon, 22, of Puerto Rico, had his spinal cord severed when a concrete wall he was ordered to pull down — it was painted with a mural of Saddam Hussein — fell on him. He is now a quadriplegic, though this is not immediately evident from his portrait. Nor can we see from the photograph of Spc. Sam Ross, 20, of Pennsylvania, that he lost a leg in a bomb blast, which also caused permanent brain damage.
Almost all the veterans in Ms. Berman’s pictures look isolated, even if someone else is present. And a sense of loneliness comes through in their brief interviews. Mr. Ross, separated from his family, lives by himself in a trailer. Mr. Calderon, who waited months for veterans’ benefits, says he feels abandoned by the military; because he was not wounded in combat, he has not been awarded a Purple Heart.
Spc. Robert Acosta, 20, a Californian who lost a hand in a grenade attack, says he is psychologically unable to resume his former social life: “I don’t like dealing with the questions. Like, ‘Was it hot?’ ‘Did you shoot anybody?’ They want me to glorify the war and say it was so cool.”
Mr. Acosta’s interview has the only overt anti-war sentiment in the Bekman show, and there are few words of bitterness or recrimination. Mr. Ross calls combat in Iraq the best time of his life. Randall Clunen of Ohio remembers the excitement of search missions in Iraqi homes as a peak experience. Sgt. Joseph Mosner, at 35 the oldest in this group, was 19 when he enlisted. “There was no good jobs,” he said, “so I figured this would have been a good thing.” He still thinks so, despite his severe facial scarring from a bomb explosion.
Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, left brain-damaged and blind by an artillery attack, once had plans for medical school. but says: “I don’t have any regrets. I had some fun over there. I don’t want to talk about the military anymore.” He claims, as do others, that he has no political opinions.
Ms. Berman adds no direct editorial comment to the presentation. She has said in interviews that she started photographing disabled veterans soon after the war began mainly because she didn’t see anyone else doing so. In what may be the most intensively photographed war in history, the visual documentation has been selective. The fate of the injured veterans was not a public issue until news reports about substandard treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
This background provides the context for Ms. Berman’s photographs, which are themselves tip-of-the-iceberg images. No matter what the viewer’s political position, the images add up to a complex and desolating anti-war statement. Mr. Acosta makes that statement outright: “Yeah, I got a Purple Heart. I don’t care. I don’t need anything to prove I was there. I know I was there. I got a constant reminder. I mean like all the reasons we went to war, it just seems like they’re not legit enough for people to lose their lives for and for me to lose my hand and use of my legs and for my buddies to lose their limbs.”
And “Marine Wedding” speaks, as powerfully as a picture can, for itself.