The face of war
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Editor, The Konformist
The face of war
Photojournalist Nina Berman discusses her award-winning portrait of
disfigured Iraq vet Ty Ziegel and his fiancée, Renee, on their
wedding day -- and what was really going on behind the lens.
By Lindsay Beyerstein
Mar. 10, 2007 | One of the most iconic images of the Iraq war was
taken by Nina Berman in a commercial portrait studio in small-town
Illinois. You've probably seen the photograph. A young couple stands
side by side facing the camera. There are all the usual
accouterments: the frosted, school-photo backdrop, the red bouquet
precisely matched to the red trim on the bride's white gown. The
groom wears a decorated dress uniform. It could be any couple in any
town -- except that the groom's features have literally been melted
off. He has no nose, no chin, no ears and no hair. His head appears
to attach directly to his shoulders, and his face is so badly burned
that it's a struggle to decipher his expression.
The bride's expression is equally opaque. Some people think she
looks stunned. Others describe her expression as anxious, or even
fearful. Her mouth turns down slightly at the edges, but her wide
brown eyes gaze straight ahead and something about the set of her
jaw suggests resolve. Some viewers strenuously deny that there's
anything unusual about the young woman's countenance at all.
The portrait is just one of a much larger series Berman shot on
assignment for People magazine showing Marine Sgt. Ty Ziegel's
recovery, homecoming and wedding day. Berman was sent to Brooke Army
Medical Center in Texas to meet Ty, and his fiancée, Renee Kline. At
the time, Ty was 24 and Renee wasn't quite 21. The two had been high
school sweethearts and were engaged before Ty's second tour in Iraq.
But in 2004, Ty's tour was cut short when a suicide bomber blew up
near his truck during a routine patrol. The searing heat melted most
of the skin off Ty's body and left him blind in one eye. His skull
was so badly shattered that doctors had to replace it with plastic.
Ty was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he underwent 19
surgeries. Berman completed the series over the course of three
separate visits, first chronicling Ty's convalescence, and then,
following his release, the couple's marriage in late 2006.
Four weeks ago, Berman's wedding portrait, "Wounded U.S. Marine
Returns Home From Iraq to Marry," won the World Press Photo
competition for portraiture in 2006. The World Press Photo
competition is the most prestigious international award for
photojournalism. Since then, the image has been viewed online
hundreds of thousands of times, sparked countless blog posts and
endless comment threads. Everyone sees something different.
Salon reached Nina Berman by phone to talk about the story behind
her haunting image.
Can you describe the circumstances under which the prizewinning
photo was taken?
It was their wedding day. Before they went to the high school where
they were married, they went to a commercial portrait studio. I
normally don't find those commercial studio pictures very
interesting. They seem fake. People just put on a happy face. But
then I thought, this is a different wedding picture, isn't it? So I
kind of stepped back. I thought, it's the same as having someone
with their body blasted off in a high school yearbook.
Rituals like this, young people getting married, if this doesn't say
that this war is having an impact, I don't know what does. It just
cries out to people -- hey, this war is real. There's a very
palpable reality to this war in certain communities. It's right
there, not in the cities or on the coasts. Most people in the media
and the cultural elite don't know anyone in the military. My whole
goal is to say, hey, this war is not some kind of abstract thing.
How would you describe the photo?
It's a very static picture. It's a moment stopped in time. That
picture said to me that this was a moment of reflection and quiet. A
break from the wedding day craziness.
In the portrait, Renee has a kind of haunted or overwhelmed look.
And she seems to have that same haunted expression in several of the
photos in the series, like the shot of the two of them on the porch.
Did you see that same expression on her face at different times when
you were shooting the series?
I did. I was looking for a way into her soul. To see into her eyes,
if she was thinking about something else than what was happening
right in front of her. But I never asked her about it. I felt like
she could have offered it up. Sometimes I feel free to ask probing
questions, but not this time.
How would you describe the expression on Renee's face?
I don't know. That's what's so interesting about it. It suggests
something different for everyone. For me, it seemed like this one
brief moment to take stock.
Some people have asked whether the expression was just some kind of
fluke, whether it might have been unrelated to the wedding or Ty's
Yes, you can say, "She was exhausted," or "They were hung over" --
they were -- or "They just wanted to get this over with and get out
of there so they could have fun." That's part of it too. But that's
not what makes pictures interesting. What makes pictures interesting
is that they provide the space for the viewers to contemplate.
What's the public response been to the picture?
I've published photos that generated a lot of response before. But
this time, there was this crazy cyber-response. A hundred thousand
people saw it through Fark in one day.
Has the reaction been generally positive?
What other people bring to the picture is extraordinary. I got
linked to by everyone from pro-war sites to antiwar sites to sites
dedicated to love and Valentine's Day. Then there were other people
who were interested in the picture as photographers.
No one's said that it was a cheap shot. Most people are heartbroken.
That's what sort of shocked me. They'll say, "I cried for days,"
or "I've never seen anything like this." Personally, I didn't feel
any of those things.
How many frames did you shoot of the couple in that pose?
Just one frame of that pose. I also shot some from the side. I
thought those were a little more artful, a little softer. Then I
came around to the front. I liked the flatness to it. I like that it
had almost a snapshot feel. It didn't require a lot of technique to
take that picture. It's a standard wedding photograph, but
something's different. The war is affecting our rituals, our daily
rituals. Look around.
When did you first meet Ty?
I met Ty at Brooke Army in Texas. He was near the end of what was a
19-month recovery there. Renee, his fiancée, was down there and his
mom, Becky, was there with him as well.
Was Renee living with Ty at the hospital?
They were all camped out at this place called Fisher House, which is
a nonprofit group that provides housing for military families whose
loved ones are receiving medical care. One of the issues in this war
is that many of the wounded are really, really badly wounded -- they
don't need one surgery, they need 30 surgeries that can go on for
over a year. So in order for a family to be with a wounded loved one
that whole time, they might have to quit their jobs and move -- and
the government doesn't pay for that. Maybe it'll pay for a week, and
that's it. Fisher House helps them stay longer.
What did you think when you first met the couple?
The first time I [met them] I was shocked. I was scared about the
assignment. I had photographed really burned vets before, but [this]
was a People magazine story, and I was concerned that they picked
someone who was so shocking-looking that it was going to be a super-
sensationalist piece. I was afraid viewers weren't going to be able
to look at Ty, so when I first saw him I was put off, for maybe five
minutes. But then his disfigurement just sort of faded away. I would
watch and see how the rest of the public looked at him. In some
pictures you can see that.
Like the shot of the little girl in the candy store?
Yes. I asked Ty, what do little kids say? Do little kids get scared?
In my book, I'd photographed a really severely burned soldier. And
when I was with him I'd see kids shy away and he would smile at
Ty would just laugh -- he's got a great sense of humor. Kids would
say, "What happened to your ears?" and he'd say, "The bad guys
took 'em." They'd say, "What happened to your nose?" and he'd
say, "The bad guys took it." I guess he tried to make some little
game out of it to deal with it.
Did you get a real sense of what Ty was like as a person?
It was difficult for me to know what was Ty before the injury and
what was Ty after the injury. Because he's got an almost aloof
manner. He's not that communicative, and he's got an acid sense of
humor. He was closed up at Brooke Army. I never really saw him smile
much. When he went home to Illinois I started to see more
expressions -- which as a photographer I was always looking for. But
because of his burns and the way his face is, it's hard to see
So the injuries and his burns made his face somewhat inscrutable?
Yeah. I was always looking for signs of life in his face. And then
one day, once he was back in Illinois, I went to this thing with
him. He and his friends really like this Ultimate Fighting
Championship show on TV. This one day, he was with all his old
friends from high school and he was like one of the guys. You could
see the personality coming back and you saw the smile as he'd stand
up pumping his fist for his favorite guy. You started to see the
person come back in his face.
Does his family see him as the same guy?
They see him as kind of the same guy. I know when he was at Brooke
Army he was super-depressed. During my visit there he was really
itching to leave, but things were being held up. He'd sit in there
and watch a lot of TV, and he was kind of aloof to his family. I was
really surprised by that, but his mom and Renee would laugh it off
and go, "Oh, that's Ty." But I think when he got home, his
personality came back, which is kind of remarkable.
He had a reputation at Brooke Army of being this super-positive
character. He would go in to the other soldiers and Marines who
would come in really sick and cheer them up. All his therapists said
he was a completely remarkable person for surviving and having a
very positive attitude. He seems to be the kind of guy who always
looks forward, doesn't look back. He's not super-reflective about
his experience. Never talks politics. I asked him if he ever watched
the news or read the papers and he said, "No, I figure that if I
need to know something, someone will tell me."
Can he get work?
No, there's no work -- though he can drive fine and I think mentally
he's all there. He can concentrate. He can certainly hold a
conversation and all that. They pulled a toe and gave him a thumb
from his toe, but he's lost several fingers on his good hand, and he
wears a prosthesis on the other side.
I was in Illinois the day his medical discharge came in and Ty was
really sad. He would very much have liked to have stayed in the
Marine Corps. For a lot of these guys it's a very hard moment when
they realize that their life in the military, which they put so much
stake in, is finished.
What's Ty's plan for the future?
He wants to raise a family, he wants to have kids. He wants to be a
dad. That's his big dream for the future.
What's Renee like?
Renee is a 21-year-old who has been through so much in the past
couple of years. Her dad was killed in a quad-bike accident shortly
before Ty's injury. I'd say she's fairly outgoing and honest. Renee
comes from an even smaller town than Ty. They live about two hours
from Chicago, but if you asked them how to get to Chicago, they
couldn't really tell you. They couldn't tell me. They live in a
community where people don't leave. They're not worldly characters.
I don't think she ever doubted that she was going to stay with him.
They were high school sweethearts. I think it's common in that town
to get married young. And I don't think she could have conceived of
a future living in that town having decided not to be with him. But
I also think she really loves him. They remind me of a married
couple that has been married for 30 years. They weren't very
romantic with each other at all, but there was a real bond there.
Do Ty and Renee do the usual stuff that 20-something couples do
Yeah, they go out drinking. She's more active than he is. They go
out. Everyone there drinks a lot.
How did you get interested in photographing wounded veterans?
Looking back I guess it's been something that's always been of
interest to me. I've been a photographer for over 15 years. I've
worked for a lot of different magazines, here and in Europe. But I
was a print journalist before I was a photographer. In 1987 I
followed a group of Vietnam vets on one of their first trips back to
Vietnam. I got very in-depth with one or two of those soldiers and
saw the psychological battle and also the physical battle. Some of
them had Agent Orange poisoning and various other issues. It was
clear to me that war goes on long after the armies leave.
Since the war in Iraq began, I've spent a lot of my time
photographing the war wounded -- physically wounded and mentally
wounded. That work turned into a book called "Purple Hearts Back
From Iraq." The series with Ty and Renee was an outgrowth of that
Are you ever shocked by what your pictures reveal?
I am shocked sometimes. That's why photography can be such an
intimate art. People are always trying to put masks on and defenses
on. In this picture, we're seeing the moment that those two are
experiencing, and they are experiencing it alone -- that's what I
got from their body language. No one's around. The other members of
the bridal party have moved away from them. It's before the wedding
photographer steps up. They're standing together, they're clearly
united. They're going to be joined for life. But the way their eyes
are, you can tell they're not looking at each other. No matter how
in love you are, you're always alone.
When I did my other work on wounded soldiers, I thought really
carefully about how I wanted to present them. I almost always
photographed them alone, even if they had loving parents or
girlfriends or wives. That was a choice because I wanted to show how
lonely and isolating it can be for them. I realized when I took this
picture that sometimes you can show being alone much better when
there's another person in the frame.
A lot of powerful pictures, and a lot of gory pictures, have come
out of the Iraq war -- but this one seems to have a unique effect on
people. Why do you think that is?
It's funny the things that will make people stop and look around.
Sometimes it's just the surface things. I think the picture
challenges a myth that's out there, which is that that we take care
of our own. Anyone who has worked with soldiers and vets knows
that's bullshit. But people buy it. The idea is he's at Walter Reed
and he's going to be OK. They put their magnets on their cars. A lot
of committed journalists have been punching holes in that myth for a
long time. But you still see the stories about everything's great
because there's a guy at Walter Reed with a computerized leg.
It took mold on a wall to blow the whole Walter Reed thing open. But
mold, that's just on the surface. I was at Walter Reed in October
2004. I knew about the place, that they couldn't take care of all
the guys they were sending in. There were so many bigger things
compared to the dingy rooms. It's very peculiar what sets people
off, what just gets people to look around.
The response to the photo reaffirms my belief in the power of
photography. My photograph became a way for people to discuss issues
and to feel things. Maybe somehow this picture will be a wake-up
-- By Lindsay Beyerstein