In summer 2011, Biennial artist and photojournalist Nina Berman co-taught a series of hands-on photography workshops with Whitney educator Melanie Adsit for a group of veterans at the VANYHHS, a veterans’ hospital in Brooklyn, New York. The participants, twelve men and women who had served in armed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, had worked extensively with an art therapist at the hospital to explore the theme of identity over several months. This series of workshops represented an opportunity to experiment with a new medium and to use photography to reveal something about themselves. The group discussed images in the Whitney's collection, explored different photographic and lighting techniques, and worked with Nina to create black and white portraits of one another. While Berman's own work includes searing depictions of injured veterans and explores the costs of war, this project represents the first time the artist has worked collaboratively with a group of veterans to create images that told their own stories.
"There are American veterans who live amongst us. Yet, most of the time we don’t even know it. Unless they are family members, we tend not to notice them. We take it for granted that they will preserve our free society and we easily forget that without them such a society would not be possible. Often they do it at great personal expense. They take the kinds of risks and make the kinds of sacrifices that most people are unwilling or unable to do. The remarkable thing about these huge contributions is that the people who make them generally remain anonymous to the public at large. Of course, it would be impossible to imagine what it would be like if they were not there to protect our liberties.
The Veteran's Lens is a unique exhibition. It provided the veterans with a exceptional opportunity to present them as they see themselves. They enlisted fellow veterans as photographers and this helped to create an open and honest environment. When veterans get together with other veterans their own distinctive subculture becomes apparent and this usually relaxes them. The images are marvelously expressive, revealing and powerful. They are straightforward and candid; just like the veterans themselves."
Beryl Brenner, Art Therapist, VA NYHHCS
"The group surprised me at first with their level of visual sophistication. They were so articulate and honest in their opinions and perceptions, not just about their own images, but in their analysis of other photographs. Seeing them hold and aim a camera, which is a kind of scope, made me realize that photography can be an ideal medium for veterans seeking to embrace life and express themselves after the experience of war."
Read the veterans’ thoughts about their work.