Homeland, Nina Berman (Trolley Books) £24.99
Homeland collects photographer Nina Berman’s last seven years of exploring the way fear has manipulated American culture since the beginning of the Homeland Security Era. Her photographs do exactly what the best social commentary does: they capture the essence of things elegantly and succinctly. She’s done a good job of depicting cross-generational changes, though her photographs are mostly set in the Midwest and South of the United States. My favorite photographs are those of massive Home Security training exercises, complete with paid extras, elaborate sets, and fake blood. These, it seems to me, are a quintessentially American response to fear. Other favorites include her shots of parades and celebrations, all tainted with pro-military marketing. Propaganda has always been an art form, and Berman captures the influence of popular advertisement on its latest manifestations.
Together with her photographs, which I can easily imagine becoming emblematic of early 2000s America, Berman has written short commentaries from the point-of-view of her subjects. From one, entitled “Prepare”:
I belong to the Homefront Security Patrol, a volunteer program that lets me wear a uniform and carry a radio and drive in a police car with a partner three mornings a week. We patrol our streets, public buildings and tennis courts, looking for anything or anyone suspicious – bombs, terrorists, and whatnot…
And from another, titled “Believe”:
I live in a country uniquely blessed. I feel this when I enter my church and see our Christian flag next to our American flag.
I feel it on God and Country Sunday when members of our military march down the aisle. I’m proud and humbled to have a pastor who is so close to Christ, our warrior, and also to our President.
In her artist’s statement Berman writes that these should be considered seriously, suggesting that they are more than satire. That, in my opinion, is easily believable. My issue with the commentary is that it is not fully contextualized. It’s true that a large percentage of Americans would agree with some of her statements, but looking at them only in that way can have a liberal, de-humanizing effect; it can exoticize. That said, it is true that the commentary focuses on the subject at hand. Still, it might be more generously presented if it had been collected from actual speakers, something I believe possible with the collection of oral histories. Michael Shaw’s articulate note, which also follows the photographic text of the book, suggests too much, and it’s fortunate that it appears only after the photographs. Though I am mostly in agreement with him I feel he is perhaps more aggressive than necessary for a commentary on the arts, too Adbusters for this context.
In her note, Berman discusses the recent etymology of the word “homeland,” as the space we Americans now “occupy and define.” Her photographs have begun the impressive work of offering a definition. In some sense Homeland is a coffee table travel book about a land we’ve been living in all along, without realizing it fully.