Exploring My Own Reactions to Hearts

I cannot get the Nina Berman project Purple Hearts out of my head. This is a strange event, as I knew about Nina’s project very early on when she had photographed my wounded friend Jordan Johnson, who I have written about here before. As my life has continued to move farther away from my own time in Iraq, and my visual ability has continue to grow by exploring my own work and the work of others, I cant help think that something is missing in Hearts (for me).

The Army Medical Museum has a large collection of images, drawings, and physical specimens (read bones, bone fragments, skulls, etc) related to the massive amounts of wounds suffered by soldiers during the American Civil War. A large collection of this material can be found in a now out of print book called the Photographic Atlas of Civil War Injuries.

The image below is of Private John Frederick displaying his deformed right leg caused by a projectile fired during combat and was clearly made for clinical purposes. Even so, this image is also a portrait and meant by the photographer to represent an individual as his face and genitals are not covered which was common in many of these types of photographs of the day. The image is about the wound first and foremost, and only after the shock of the gruesome sight has passed do we focus on the young mans face and wonder about his story, his pain, and what became of him.

Now this is purely a personal feeling about Berman’s images, but I cant help but look at them in a very similar light. To me, even though the images are accompanied by information about and by the soldier, and they are most often photographed in a personal environment which gives us more information about them as people, I cant help but think that the image is about the wound when I look at the images. This seems to make the soldier a specimen (not in all of the images), which is used to make a point. In this case, maybe as the New York Times review suggest, an anti war message which by all means is fine, and it should be noted the it is a very successful way to transmit that message. But I have to wonder, will the viewers in two months after seeing the images of shattered bodies be thinking about the personal price those young Americans will be paying for the rest of their lives because of the choices made by the people and leaders of a country, or will they still be cringing at the sight of the “Marine Wedding” and the shocked look on the face of the young bride. I guess what I am trying to say is I wonder if the average viewer will make it beyond the shock factor of the wounds to think deeper about the soldier pictured.

As with all photography what the viewer carries away is unique to each person. No matter what the photographer is trying to communicate, there is no way to ensure that the images will carry that exact message to the eyes of the onlooker unless the photographer uses words to augment the image. This is what I love about photography, and sometimes frustrated by in regards to my own work.

If you are in NYC I would hope that you would see the Purple Hearts show at Jen Bekman, but I would also encourage you to explore the use of photography to chronicle the effects of war throughout all of our “modern” conflicts and just not the war in Iraq. Often the images seem to make the person just a vehicle for the wound, but remember they are real people whose lives have been changed forever. This project in fact does expose just the tip of a much greater issue. Americans are feed the daily count of dead by the media, yet a greater number that face life long suffering slip back into the country to be hidden in small towns across the land.

Thank a vet (of any service and conflict) today becuase it will make you and them feel better. Then take some time out of your day to create something.


~ by Phil Nesmith on August 28, 2007.

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