On Photography: Nina Berman
Nina Berman is in the front line ready to shoot significant political and social moments. A New York City native, documentary photographer, filmmaker, author, and Professor at Columbia University Berman began shooting professionally in 1988 as an independent photojournalist for major publications like Time, Life, Newsweek, and New York Times Magazine. Her instagram account @nina_berman provides a scattered historical timeline of her lengthy career. It is clear she has covered numerous global crises and headline stories, however the central focus of her work is based on American soil. Politicians, social activists, veterans, workers, immigrants, and innocent victims of injustice, Berman is present capturing their raw and intense emotional state. Her viewers receive the message: this is right now, this is what is happening to your fellow American and why.
Over the past several months she has been screening, “Triumph of the Shill” her latest short documentary a satirical homage to the 1935 Nazi classic by Leni Reifensthal. In black and white video, her footage consists of excited Trump supporters, Trump Towers and Nazi-esque statues and figures giving a slight comedic and ironic tone for those in opposition of him. In December 2017, Berman and Kimberly Stevens released the book, An Autobiography of Miss Wash based on their 25 year plus relationship. Berman steps beyond the documentary boundaries and becomes close with Stevens acting as her advocate through sex trafficking, recovery, and violence. The book is filled with years of their letters, texts, drawings, photos, and various psychiatric reports. Both Berman and Stevens have been on a promotional tour with most recent stops at the Bronx Documentary Center, Lower East Side Girls Club, and The New School.
Although Nina Berman has a well organized and easy-to-navigate website, www.ninaberman.com, her Instagram account adds a personal touch to her work and an inside to who she is, who she works with, admires, and is close to. Her choice of posted pictures gives her viewers/followers a sense of what pictures she feels has the most importance and is symbolic of the times.
Most recently in January (2018), Berman documented the protest for the New Sanctuary City Director Ravi Ragbir who was arriving for his scheduled check in at a federal building in Lower Manhattan. A color shot of NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams being arrested for blocking Department of Homeland Security officers from detaining Ragbir. Williams, a dedicated ally for immigration reform, with a furrowed brow looks directly at Berman while he and other demonstrators are being hauled off for arrest. Although he is being handled by the NYPD with much aggression, Williams maintains a sense of composure and calm with his hands up reminiscent to “Stop, Don’t Shoot”. Five different hands flailing and a bloodied man behind Williams in the frame gives a sense of the physical chaos on the scene. Berman captures the urgency and the determination of Williams fighting for the rights of a fellow citizen.
Despite the discomfort of some of her images on Instagram, Berman shares her work to remind us of the major underlying issues affecting the citizens of the United States, unimaginable to the privileged 1%. Her series, Purple Hearts documents and provides details of the severe physical injuries soldiers sustained during their tours in Iraq, and the extreme threats and dangers they are put into while on duty. Berman places emphasis on their injuries and they have taken a devastating toll on them physically, mentally, financially, and more importantly their families. JR Martinez the son of an El Salvadorian immigrant was wounded in Karbala, Iraq on April 5, 2003. Known as a “pretty-boy”, Martinez now with extensive burn deformities, understands the necessity of being one true self. Berman’s portrait of him taken in 2004 at the age of 20, makes it a point to take the shot of him without focusing on the abnormalities of his injury. Using natural outside light, she places Martinez under the shade of a tree breaking up the light complimenting the burn marks on his face. At first glance, one might not even notice due to the light being so soft. The direction of his Nautica hat and the collar of red checkered shirt shifts the eye to what’s in between.
Although throughout Nina Berman’s Instagram she posts matters of those leftbehind, less fortunate, and mistreated, she also allows her viewers/followers into her personal life. Posts of and with photography colleagues and friends, people she admires, her travels, and spontaneous shots of various shadows, light, silhouettes, colors, and shapes connect her oeuvre and give her a human form. If one follows her posts, she can easily be recognized on the street with or without her camera, and seems as though she is as reachable and forthcoming as she is with her subjects.
Top: Nina Berman (center) with friends in France. Bottom: personal shot.