Nina Berman on making something ‘beautiful and meaningful’

A portrait of Kim Stevens, from An Autobiography of Miss Wish © Nina Berman

Nina Berman, who Mother Jones once described as “one of the smartest documentary photographers of our time,” has spent her career examining the fringes of American politics, militarism, environmental contamination and post violence trauma.

Her work is an exploration of resilience — from the poignant portraits and interviews with wounded American soldiers to her 25-year collaboration with a survivor of childhood sexual violence.

One of her colleagues once said of Berman: “What I love about Nina’s work is while she focuses on political and social injustice — and those humans that are often the victims of it — she ascribes agency in how she represents them.”

While that description was in a story about Berman’s work documenting the victims of environmental pollution, it could also be easily applied to her work on An Autobiography of Miss Wish, a book that follows the life of Kimberly Stevens through trauma, addiction and recovery. The book was critically acclaimed upon its release in 2017 and was shortlisted for both the Aperture and Arles book prizes. The work stands out in the way Berman is inextricably part of the story.

What: Nina Berman talks about her groundbreaking book, An Autobiography of Miss Wish
When: Noon (ET), Friday, June 5, 2020
Where: Online

Berman was originally scheduled to give a keynote talk about her book at the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival in Washington, D.C. With the cancellation of the in-person festival, she will, instead, deliver the talk via Zoom.

Along with An Autobiography of Miss Wish,  she is also the author of Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq, (2004) portraits and interviews with wounded American veterans, and  Homeland, (2008) a look at the militarization in post September 11 America.  She is a member of the photography and film collective NOOR images and is a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she directs the photography program. She lives in her hometown of New York City.

From Homeland, which examines the militarization of American life post September 11 © Nina Berman

Mike Lee: The first question is the beginning. As far as I know it and my familiarity with your work, I hold your writing and your photography equally. I’ve read a number of your pieces over the years and the corresponding descriptions of some of the series that you’ve done, and also your political coverage over the years, particularly in CJR and other publications.

Nina Berman: Thank you for that. I appreciate that. I didn’t grow up wanting to become a photographer. I grew up wanting to be a writer. … Maybe it’s taken all my life to figure out how to combine those two in a place where the world could accept it, because there had been–at least in the media industry– a demarcation line between those who take pictures and those who write with little space for someone who wanted to do both.

But I tried to work in both mediums since the beginning of my career as a photojournalist which was in Chicago where I went to college and both wrote and photographed for independent newspapers and a radical arts and politics journal I started with friends.

What I came to learn as I started to work for more mainstream media publications was a feeling that I couldn’t be as free in my writing. I couldn’t say things that I wanted to say and get away with them. I had to maintain this journalistic neutrality, and I felt a little frustrated by it at times. Also with photography, it insists that you are out there in the world, and I needed that whereas writers can do a lot of work by the phone or from home.

I eventually left Chicago and moved back to NYC, went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I got a job as a reporter for the Bergen Record and also a picture researcher for NBC weekend nightly news. After a few years I I quit to become a full time freelance photographer for Reuters and Sipa Press which was one of the big French agencies at the time. I was shooting transparency, color film and working the magazine circuit. So I guess that began in 1988, ’89.

Lee: So when did the shift come with you as a photographer, where you were working before you began working on series?

Berman: I think it started really in the early ’90s where along with doing jobs and hustling to make money, I would work on things long-term without any input from photo editors or anyone where I would just go out and try and see what I could make of a place or of an issue of a story. I used to photograph a lot around the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City. I spent several years on a project about female body image and the American capitalist ideal of what a perfect woman/body is the business of creating that so called perfection.

Most of this work has never been published. But that’s the work that I return to that helped me grow as a photographer and as a person.

Around the same time I was photographing far right movements in American politics. I grew up in a very liberal secular environment, and seeing all that come crashing down with the election of Ronald Reagan and everything since, my reaction was to try to photograph it to understand it and have my pictures serve as a warning.

So I guess there was always a sense, especially among a cohort of New York photographers was you do your job, you do the stuff that you need to do, and then you have to be working on your own thing. And it’s your own thing that’s really going to be who you are as a creator. And I think that’s still true. Then I also had a long time interest in photograph in Times Square, so I was doing that for quite some years and still do photograph there.

Lee: I saw some of that work on color work. I moved here in ’89 and so I got to see the whole transition from the tail end of that period to the Disneyfication. But I never photographed it. So thanks for that. I appreciate it. You photographed it, and along with others. I just have trace memories. And again, I’m a firm believer in the centrality of class, so I just wanted as an aside, I really appreciate your work. What is some of your other earlier work?

Berman: Yeah, right. Well, one of the first stories I ever photographed and wrote was about employee stock ownership plans. And in Chicago I was covering the steel workers movement. There was a very large, 100,000 member strong union in Chicago and I was colleagues with people in the union and knew the labor reporters. And so it’s always been part of how I see the world, I suppose. Although in New York City, I never quite connected with the labor movement as much as I did when I was in Chicago.

Lee: So what were your influences in photography by that time? Who did you look at?

Berman: So the first photo book I ever saw was the Diane Arbus monograph as a teenager. I think that gave me a sense of the potential of photography. I loved how the so-called freaks and non-conformists seem so nice, affectionate and inviting while the straight characters, the conformists, appeared terrifying. At least that’s how the adolescent in me viewed the work at the time.
Another early influence was Susan Meiselas’s Nicaragua book. I had a roommate in college who was an anthropologist and he was studying Latin American history and he showed it to me. What else? I really liked Bill Brandt. There’s some painters that I just really appreciated early on, like Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko. I still feel sometimes that I take pictures that respond to their use of color and darkness.

Once I began photographing professionally I would look at the magazine/agency photographers who were getting published. So there were the Turnley brothers, Alan Tannenbaum at Sygma, there was a few others at SIPA. Jeff Jacobson was definitely an influence, with his use of flash. I came to know Richard Sandler who is one of the greatest street photographers of all time, along with being an excellent filmmaker.

Lee: I’m glad you mentioned Sandler. The last few years he’s finally being recognized. Ironically, I’m familiar with Tannenbaum from his street work. I only discovered his news work recently.

Berman: And then Donna Ferrato’s, Living With The Enemy. There used to be some great bookstores in New York, photo book stores and you could sit in there for an hour or two and just be on the floor and look through all the Aperture publications. It was a beautiful time. I feel very grateful to have lived through that analog era.

Lee: What was it like, what was the reception? What was in your way, if you had anything in your way, during those years?

Berman: Oh, that’s such an interesting question. Yeah, I think that there was a lot in my way. I’m sure all photographers suffer from some insecurity, but I think women photographers, particularly at that time they… or at least I suffered from insecurity, feeling that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. That maybe my ideas and pictures weren’t worthy of being taken seriously. Then I think I waited too long to come to the realization that the hustle for the day rates, was getting in my way. I needed to stop and slow down, because it had become… I used to call it feeding the beast, and I could see it chipping away at my soul and my morality in a way.

I remember I used to fly at least once a week on some job or another. It almost didn’t matter the job because anything interesting to me then. I actually loved getting business assignments because I would be put in these spaces I never could have entered before. I would learn so much, I don’t know if my pictures meant anything, but I would personally learn so much from hearing what bond traders actually say, and how they imagine the world, and how they talk to people on the phone. It was just astonishing.

But then I’d feel burnt out and wonder what does it all amount to. I realized I needed to focus on something that was going to be more essential for me. And so after September 11th, I had very strong views, political views, and that moment became a good opportunity for me to step away a bit from the rules of corporate media and to try and do something more on my own and find a way to survive that way.

From a series on mega churches - Solid Rock Church, Monroe, Ohio, 2005 © Nina Berman

Lee: I remember the series. I worked downtown at the time. Matter of fact, the place where I worked at the time was on the north side of Chambers Street. We came back the following Tuesday. So I was there for the whole cleanup, and looking at your photos from that time, that particular series, the first thing is it was the most accurate description of the weather, of the sun, of the light, and how you shot it. The tonality was exactly how I remember it.

Berman: You’re talking about black and white stuff?

Lee: Yes.

Berman: Thank you. I used this black and white transparency infrared film by Konica which you could only get it three weeks out of the year. You know I wasn’t in New York City on September 11, I came back three days later, and I think that distance from the day gave me maybe an understanding of a future I was already seeing in the present. A future of a much more militarized society that perhaps wasn’t so clear to others.

But thank you for appreciating that light. I had to a déjà vu feeling downtown about a week or 10 days ago, seeing all the places closed down from the pandemic. Instead of flyers with pictures of missing dead people on shop windows, which were all over NYC after 9/11, you just see flyers with phone numbers for delivery people or messages saying we’re still open for take out.. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed this.

It’s similar. Empty buildings, paper in the windows, things like that. The only differences are you don’t have the smoke, the smell and the military everywhere.

Lee: I’ve seen this work, and also you’re writing on it about the American far right. It’s a major portion of your work. Could you discuss some of that, some of the things that you’ve done regarding now?

Berman: I started covering it in ’89, I went to some Klan events, and I was really covering it from perspective of a very ignorant northerner in a way. I was like, “Holy shit, man. They still stand out on the side of the road with their hoods, collecting money.” Just the normalcy of it was shocking to me and then I met some radical leftists who told me about the [1979] Greensboro killings.

New Jersey, 1990 © Nina Berman

Lee: It was the Communist Workers Party, and the Klan and a couple of Nazis.

Berman: Exactly. So I started learning a bit about that history. And then when the militia movement started in the early ’90s, I started covering that, and David Duke and Pat Buchanan, and then the Christian fundamentalists, and then the megachurches. While covering these stories I would try and find some point of engagement where I could find some meeting of the minds or some place so that I wasn’t just doing a hit job on them. And I was actually trying to understand from their point of view how they see the world.

I’m increasingly finding that hard to do now. I’ve photographed a few of the gun rallies and so-called alt-right events and Trump events but I honestly don’t think I’m so well equipped to do it anymore. I feel enraged in a way that I didn’t feel before and can hardly contain myself. So I’m really not photographing it too much right now. Instead I developed an app with computer scientists at Columbia University to help journalists cover it better. And I’m fine with other people doing it because honestly, I don’t think I would do very good job.

Lee: I can understand that. Matter of fact, I was going to ask about that app for journalists.

Berman: There was always fascists, racists and Nazis in America, but the way they communicate their ideology, their branding, their logos, their symbolism, what they look like as opposed to the stereotype of what a white supremacist looks like, it’s really changed a lot in the past couple of years. So when I started to see it, I was not prepared. I didn’t understand the symbols. I didn’t know what they were communicating. I didn’t know if they were joking with me or trolling me or how to read them. I felt illiterate. And then I had my epiphany of ignorance moment at a far right rally in DC when I took a picture of a young woman who looked benign and she was talking to a TV person about her first amendment rights and so on. She had a tattoo on her arm but I didn’t pay it much attention until I was editing my pictures and saw that the tattoo were the numbers 1488.. And at the time I didn’t know what that meant and when I looked it up I realized she’s a full on neo-Nazi, ‘Kill the Jews, kill the blacks’ kind of person.” at least according to the meaning of her tattoo which people can look up if they want. And then I thought, “Wow, I need help.” If I’m going to cover this movement. I need to have a little tip sheet in the moment. And if I feel like I need that, maybe other people could use it.

Lee: Could you give me some more detail about the app?

Berman: The app is called VizPol available for Iphone or Android. It was developed by a team across disciplines at Columbia University and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. It’s basically a symbol recognition tool. So if you see a symbol out in the real world or on your computer screen or whatever, and you want to know what it is, you can take a picture of it, and if it’s in our database, we will return for you a definition within a second or two. And if it’s not in our database and you want us to research it, you can upload it and we will research it. The definitions of the symbols come from a variety of sources, from websites of organizations, FBI reports, Southern Poverty law center, ADL media reports.

Donald Trump's speech , Republican National Convention, Cleveland,Ohio, July, 2016 © Nina Berman

Lee: What bothered me most about Charlottesville was looking at their symbolism and going, “These guys are reading some pretty out there stuff,” that nobody outside of their world even was even aware of.

Berman: I felt that… I remember photographing Louis Beam and the people up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Ruby Ridge and the militia movement back then, and these people today while their beliefs may be similar they look quite different and occupy a different political space. But I guess I don’t have the patience to go down those rabbit holes.

Lee: I understand. But you shifted over to create a video on Trump.

Berman: Yeah, that I needed to do for my own personal wellbeing. I had a really good time making that short film Triumph of the Shill based on the Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.. I had a clear vision for it early on, and so I was motivated. I’m still amazed that film festivals accepted it and wanted to show it.

Lee: There’s one series that really hit me for various reasons–Miss Wish.

Berman: That’s what I was going to talk about at the Focus on the Story event.. I met Kim Stevens, the central character, by chance in London 30 years ago. It’s a complicated story. Our story together is a complicated story. Basically she was used and abused and tried to continually speak out for herself and find a way to move forward despite a host of injustices and violence.. She’s brilliant woman, kind and generous, and an artist in her own right. And she just became a central person in my life and I’m a central person in her life. The details are too intense and complicated to talk about here but you can co on my website and there is also a film we made.

But maybe what’s interesting for our audience now is this started as a photographic story and then became just our lives and in between I stopped photographing her for a long time. Instead I was her friend and archivist. And for lots of different reasons, many many years later, we decided to do a book together. I was inspired by the creativity that was happening in the photo book industry, and I thought, maybe Kim and I can make something beautiful and meaningful out of what is essentially a very dark story.

I hired a designer Teun van der Heijden that had been recommended to me by my colleague, Stanley Greene. Teun and Kim met a couple times. He was completely committed to helping us work through all the varied elements of texts, documents, pictures, interviews, and the different voices. It was about a two year editing process. And then we made a film with the help of artist Elyse Blennerhassett which you can see on my website. It’s a multichannel video in several parts.

Lee: That’s wonderful.

Berman: Yeah. She’s having a hard time right now in this New York lockdown. As just everybody with any kind of addiction or mental illness. It’s very hard.

Lee: I’m glad you’re staying in contact with her.

Berman: Oh yeah. She’s like family. And we did some events with the book together, which was really special. Maybe she’d want to come on for the Focus on the Story. I don’t know.

Kabul, 1998. © Nina Berman

Lee: Of all of your work, what was the hardest assignment for you? What was the one that…

Berman: Gosh, I don’t know. I guess the hardest just logistically and in terms of just having a feeling of terror was when I went to Afghanistan in 1998 with a colleague of mine, Carla Power, who’s a brilliant author based in the UK now, but she used to work for Newsweek our of New York City. There were very few Western journalists working in Kabul at that time. Our story was about the harsh restrictions imposed following the Taliban take over. You weren’t supposed to photograph people, you couldn’t really walk around outside with the camera. Being seen with a foreigner could be dangerous for the women we were meeting. It was just very hard. And to be honest, I felt a bit out of my depth in terms of what I knew and I don’t like that feeling.

Specialist Adam Zaremba, photographed at the U.S. Cavalry Museum on Fort Riley in Kansas, lost his leg in combat in Iraq. © Nina Berman

Lee: That’s the worst part. Let’s talk about you as an educator.

Berman: I taught at ICP on and off, for many years, the seminar class for their full time students, until 2009. I had some great students. I hope I motivated them to get out there and discover the world and find out who they are at the same time. And then in 2012, I was asked to apply for a full time tenured job at Columbia and I decided to go for it.

Since then I’ve been trying to build the photography program there, which is a really nice circle for me because when I was a student there, I was taught by John Shearer, a former Life magazine photographer and an adjunct Daniel Cohen, who was a delightful person who tragically died in the AIDS crisis back then. I’m grateful to go back to that institution after all these years and do my best to make photography an essential component to the curriculum.

Lee: What do you emphasize when working with your students?

Berman: Photography is an art form, which necessarily means that it is also about who you are and your feelings and how you use your own experiences to see the world. But it’s also journalism and so the picture is also contingent upon research, reporting and investigation. So that’s what I stress and beyond that, I encourage them always to look at how stereotypes have been created over time and what their role in as new photographers in dismantling those stereotypes.

You can see more of Nina Berman’s work on her website.

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.