Community Collaborative: The Veteran's Lens

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."

Nina Berman


The Workshops

During the workshop series, rooms at the VA Hospital were transformed with professional lighting equipment and backdrops that enabled the veterans to create dramatic visual effects. They experimented and learned to operate digital SLR cameras to capture their portraits.

  • A recreation room at the VA Hospital is transformed into a photography studio, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Workshop participants try out digital camera equipment, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Alex provides assistance with lighting equipment, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Workshop participants practice focusing and framing their subjects, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Nina becomes the subject of a portrait, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Participants had opportunities to pose, direct, and photograph during the shoot, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Some participants experimented with props and creative lighting, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • One individual assumed a military stance during his portrait session, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Participants practice focusing with digital SLR cameras, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

The Reception

The photographs produced in these workshops were shown in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney Museum of American Art on July 7, 2011. The veterans celebrated and shared their work with friends, family, and colleagues.

  • The veterans' work on display in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • The veterans' work on display in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • The veterans' work on display in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • The veterans' work on display in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney, 2011. Photograph by Nina Berman.

  • The veterans' work on display in the Brendan Gill Trustee Room at the Whitney, 2011. Photograph by Nina Berman.

  • Participants shared their work with friends and family during a reception at the Museum, 2011. Photograph by Nina Berman.

  • Participants posed together for photographs, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Nina Berman enjoyed catching up with her students, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • A program participant enjoys the reception, 2011. Photograph by Nina Berman.

  • The artists greet friends and family, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Staff and clients from the VA Hospital celebrated at the reception, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.

  • Whitney staff discuss the photographs with the artists, 2011. Photograph by Danielle Linzer.