Nina Berman: Homeland Insecurities
Since that day in September of 2001, the United States has unilaterally invaded two small countries, illegally imprisoned and at times tortured foreign citizens, holding them for years in conditions that undermine principles of international law and human rights for which Americans have long claimed to stand, driven its economy deep into debt, and seen the value of its currency plunge. These crimes and nightmares have been perpetrated in the name of “homeland security,” also name of the government agency created to insure that 9/11 never happens again, whatever the cost. In the shadow of this grim history, Nina Berman’s work examines what the United States has become and how its citizen are responding to a period of conflict and threat—whether imagined or real—unlike any known for two generations. Her observations, offered in the successive and chilling bodies of photography she has created since 2001, will not reassure those at home or abroad who hope to see a kinder and gentler United States emerge from the post-Bush and Cheney epoch.
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Berman approaches her work as documentary photography and began her career as a journalist. She switched from words to photos in part to escape working on the phone, get out of the office, and more importantly, find a way to editorialize in ways that were a poor fit for written journalism as practiced in the States. The slippery nature of photographic meaning provided opportunities to say things without making them explicit in words, and to pose questions that viewers would have to answer for themselves. She continues to use text strategically if sparingly, both by quoting her subjects in print and occasionally putting her own words next to her images. She has also employed voiceover interviews to good effect in videos such as Purple Hearts, a moving look at young U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq.
Berman’s Homeland Insecurity brings together loosely related pictures from several series devoted to distinct post-9/11 topics that include “Nuclear Play,” “Megachurches,” “Orlando,” “Marine Wedding,” “Purple Hearts,” and the eponymous “Homeland Insecurity” itself. Taken between 2001 and 2008 in twelve states and in every region, her work depicts a nation where guns are plentiful, helicopters and surveillance planes lurk overhead, the Stars and Stripes appear everywhere, and the citizenry is engaged in all manner of military preparedness events, disaster role playing, and political theatricals. A surreal sense of make-believe permeates the world seen in Berman’s work, such as her record of a nuclear war role playing event staged in 2007 in the mid-western state of Indiana. Created in this case by the U.S. Northern Command to test military, police, disaster relief and health agency readiness for a nuclear bomb detonation in downtown Indianapolis by “Islamic terrorists,” such events, along with “shooter drills” in schools and on college campuses, have become ubiquitous. Berman’s depicts them in a visual register that varies from frame to frame, at times finding unintended humor, and at other times a simmering undertone of paranoia. Stylistically, she adjusts her approach to each scene and what she wants to do with it. In one image, Berman moves close up to highlight the fake blood and worried look of a bearded role player, who in fact had actually just returned from combat in Afghanistan. Then she stands back with a telephoto to witness a melodramatic young thespian in an oversize red shirt, apparently preparing to collapse in feigned agony as terrorists attack the Chicago Midway Airport. Flanking his performance, a motley collection of adults lays about on the ground, staggers together toward a fire truck, and otherwise plays their assigned disaster victim roles. A policeman walks unhurriedly in the background, not far from a spouting water cannon and a blazing chemical fire. According to Berman, the participants generally find these events enjoyable and at times amusing. Seeing them in photos is unnerving.
Costumes and uniforms appear repeatedly. A band of bike riding young New Jersey patriots are led by a boy scout in uniform gazing out from behind a creepy flag mask. More flags and red-white-and-blue emblems sported by his friends testify to an orgy of propaganda perpetrated by parents, teachers, clergy, and other adults on underage innocents. Photographed from below and up close, a young Latina girl in a Bronx park carefully adjusts her body armor in another picture, while an even younger-looking boy holds his assault rifle, wearing a soldier’s helmet and goggles. Next to a burning pickup, three overweight, middle-aged, role-play “Arabs” wave a handkerchief white flag at an off-camera enemy. In these and in virtually all of Berman’s images, the colors are saturated and well-scrubbed, making the clumsy, play-acted scenes all the more hyperreal and therefore disturbing. Is this really how America thinks it will defend itself from future attack and disaster?!
Some of the strangest and most sinister photographs in Homeland Insecurity came from the portfolio Orlando, which documented a SWAT training camp in Florida that brought together police SWAT teams from around the country. At one point, gung-ho participants had to pull themselves on their backs through a bark mulch swamp under a chain link fence. Berman’s pictures of this exercise suggest some peculiar form of torture or submersive incarceration, an effect not lost on her.
Even when scenes look less staged (and in fact, the photographer herself never intervenes to pose her subjects) Berman registers telling details or frames the scene in a way that asks for and in fact forces a political reading. Her once-in-a-lifetime shot catching a Stealth bomber flying low over an Atlantic City beach includes a nearby boardwalk billboard proclaiming “Paint Ball – Live Targets,” conjuring up practice sessions for future civilian mass murderers. Positioned behind and above a cluster of sun seekers, the billboard seems to be implying, “just shoot them.” Berman’s point is clear: this is a violent country both collectively and privately. Its government unapologetically employs military power to achieve political goals. Its people enjoy recreational warfare as a form of weekend entertainment. Makes perfect sense.
Organized religion plays a recurring role here, and Berman keeps a nervous eye on it. Kids and adults bow down in public prayer. A huge statue of Jesus—it’s badly carved in white stone and looks like cheap plaster of paris—emerges weirdly from the ground in front of a megachurch (in Monroe, Ohio) that looks like a giant Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Jesus raises his hands to the heavens, demonstrating the same instinct for amateur theatrics that animates so many of the people in Berman’s photographs.
Psychologically, the mood of this work is claustrophobic, aggressive, and distant.That’s no surprise, since the photographer clearly shares few of the sentiments on display. Berman is showing what she sees, but she isn’t liking it. Walking a line between transparent critique and nominal objectivity she has assembled an extended wake-up call for anyone who thinks the past seven years of American foreign policy have been an aberration. On the contrary, if in the years since 9/11 the United States government has behaved like an insecure and wounded giant, it has done so with the blessing and willing participation of broad segments of the American people. As Nina Berman shows, American citizens are being literally rehearsed and raised from childhood to believe that they can and must do whatever it takes to protect themselves from foreign attack and nuclear holocaust. Participating earnestly and eagerly in government sponsored programs that can’t help but reinforce xenophobia, nurture fear, and further indoctrinate a populace that already spends too little time trying to understand the rest of the world, they’re on board with the program, psyched up on guns and God, and ready to rumble.
Published in Photoworks Issue 11, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks