July 2009

by Nina Berman

Editor's Note:
Nina Berman is a committed photojournalist. She does big themes. In December 2004, we presented her compelling essay, "Purple Hearts," about wounded soldiers back from Iraq. Some of those photographs went on to win major awards in 2005. Her exhibits are now touring galleries around the world. Her current project is to photograph nothing less than planetary destruction, and she is working with photographer Maggie Steber on a story about Miami, one of the epicenters of the national housing crisis.

I made these photographs between 2001 and 2008. They were taken all across the United States.

The title of the book comes from President George W. Bush, who introduced the word "homeland" shortly after September 11. Previously unfamiliar in American speech, the word sounded both sinister and soothing, filled with ideological import of mysterious origin. Was it British, or of Nazi Germany? Or was the word drawn from fiction, a made-up world existing in a fairy tale?

This name is now our place, which we occupy and define. We have assigned roles that are played out every day.

In my photographs, "Homeland" is where Air Force bombers entertain sunbathers on summer weekends; happy families step through the suburbs clutching anti-nuke pills; small-town police train to hunt terrorists; evangelical Christians dress in Afghan burqas; senior citizens become extras in a war on terror script, and military recruitment spectacles transform children into would-be killers.

All across the country there are frequent simulation drills costing millions of dollars and involving thousands of participants where various war scenarios are imagined: Islamic terrorists with nuclear bombs, Islamic terrorists hijacking planes, bioterrorists, chemical terrorists, school bus terrorists and shopping mall terrorists. There is even a camp for wayward youth to help them learn how to respond to terrorists.

Some of these events have the look and feel of state-sponsored performance art where realism is replaced by theater, giving participants a powerful sense of identity and value through a militarized experience. It is this identity and the ambiguity between real and made up, so emblematic of post-9/11 discourse, that interests me most.

I came to this project while photographing very graphic examples of the human cost of war. Several of the wounded soldiers I met said they grew up thinking that war would be "fun" and remembered watching the first Gulf War on TV which they described as "awesome." Rather than continuing to focus on the evidence of war, it seemed important for me to show the fantasies of war.

I made these images mindful of my own conflicted response to the call for homeland security. I would wake up some mornings in Manhattan wondering if I should take the subway and then berate myself for being fearful. I would laugh at the preparedness kits offered on the Internet and then shamefully buy them. I abhor the idea of racial profiling but once found myself looking suspiciously at an Arab man who sat silently for several hours on a park bench near my home.

It occurred to me that my feelings and fears could take me in any direction, if the conditions were right. Once you buy into something, everything else falls into place, creating a certainty that can be quite consuming.

© Nina Berman

Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, widely published and exhibited, with a primary interest in the American political and social landscape. She is internationally known for her "Marine Wedding" portrait of a severely disfigured Marine and his bride, now considered an iconic image of the Iraq War. This month, Nina joined the photo agency Noor.

You can purchase Homeland ($49.95) from trolleybooks.com

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