Documentary photographer Nina Berman’s new book, An Autobiography of Miss Wish, weaves together 27 years worth of photos, letters, drawings, partially redacted medical reports and messages from her friend Kim. Kim is a survivor of the child pornography trade and sex trafficking in England who fled to New York only to face further struggles with homelessness and drug addiction.
The book is a collaboration between the two women, charting Kim’s battle to overcome trauma and tell her story. At times deeply touching and at others horrific, the book is unnerving in its warped, non-linear narrative. Part true-crime document, part biography, part surreal nightmare-scape, Berman’s book aims to shed light on the struggles behind the lives of those most in need in our society. We spoke with Berman about the challenges of making their lives into a book.
VICE: First off, I would like to hear how you describe the project. It’s unlike any “photo book” I have seen.
Nina Berman: It’s our attempt to craft this story, of the things that happened to Kim when she was a child and teenager, her journey to the US and how she survived here. And how she has worked to find the confidence to assert herself as a narrator, and an artist. To tell a story that she felt frightened about sharing, and was told not to share. Our life as collaborators, friends, family members… we have never managed to find the right words to define our roles or relationship.
You have known each other for 27 years, and the book is made up not only of your photos, but your communications over that time. Just how close was the level of collaboration between you and Kim on the creation of the book?
In 2014 I took all the materials – the drawings of Kim’s that I had safeguarded, her diaries, her version of her book that she had typed out, her letters, my photographs, videos and sound recordings – and I took them up to the Blue Mountain Center, near the Adirondacks, where I had a residency to try and figure out how I was going to put it all together. I brought it all back to New York and took a room here [at Columbia University] and Kim, and later a designer, and I tried to work out how it all fitted together. Later the designer and I did a first pass which we then showed Kim, for her feelings on what worked and what didn't, what pictures we still needed to make. Pictures she didn't like we would take out, pictures she did we would include. There’s not one thing in there that she didn’t sign off on.
It's a very unusual project – and I have read interviews with you before in which you said you were reticent about pigeonholing your work, about saying you are a “journalist”, or an “artist”. If you were forced to describe your work on this book, what would you say your role was?
I would say I am a co-author. It was up to me in many ways to figure out what aspects of Kim’s personality and struggle I wanted to focus on. I could have easily done a whole book only on things she says about drugs.
"I never intended it to be a book. It was just my life. It was never something I dreamed of making public."
Some of it is hilarious, twisted, weird… but I decided I didn't want to do that. What it is that I always found amazing about her is that she’s always been such a thoughtful and compassionate person. So I tried to find those threads, and I think that's one of the book’s surprising aspects.
At what point over those 27 years did you start to think this should be a book?
I never intended it to be a book. It was just my life. It was never something I dreamed of making public. My former publisher was Trolley Books, started by an Italian called Gigi Giannuzzi. He came to my apartment once – maybe in 2011 – and I told him about Kim and showed him some of her drawings. He met her as well, and he told me that this was the book we needed to make. He was the first to even put that idea in my head. Then he died, and I didn’t really want to think about it after that.
But then when I got the residency at the Blue Mountain Center I had to think about what I wanted to do there. I invited people in who were also there to look at the work. These were academics, artists, filmmakers, writers – almost all women – and they encouraged me to think that there was value in the work beyond my own experience. That’s when it really started.
Was there another project or book that you had in mind when you started looking at making the book? Or do you see it as fitting into a line of similar work?
I think actually I became quite influenced by some of the events that Magnum Foundation was running around that time in New York called "Photography Expanded". I would bring my students to those events, and they were looking at ways that photographers were combining photos with texts, and work done by the subjects. I grew up as a photographer and it was all about the image. I mean it sounds odd now - but those workshops were the first time that I thought – actually this can be more than just photos.
There was of course also some of the Wendy Ewald work from way back where she had kids draw or write on their pictures, or Jim Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves work, but I don't really see those as direct links. These days though it’s almost normal for photo books to be more than just photos. These days often you don't look at the book, you read the book. For people who just want to look at great photos, this is not going to be the book for them. For those who want to see how the photos connect to a bigger story, then they might get something out of it.
The book deals with a raft of extremely sensitive issues – sexual abuse, mental health, suicidal behaviour, drug addiction, and police failure. How did you deal with that side of the content? Primarily in dealing with it responsibly, and secondarily – in terms of verifications and so on.
There was so much material that didn’t get into the book – draws and draws of stuff. Lots of drawings that were too disturbing to include. There are things I feel confident enough are true that I was able put my name on this book knowing that I would be out there defending it and explaining it. But it took me a really long time to get to that place. There was also a part of me that thought, I don’t need to know all the details of all these events. My thinking changed so much over time, not only with the book, but with Kim’s story in general.
For a long time I wanted to hire an investigative journalist in England to suss out what could be confirmed, then when I went back to England to shoot I pulled a lot of information out of Kim and I was able to verify a fair amount with some of her former counsellors. And she was always correct, everything I checked on – she had been correct. So then I started asking myself: why am I questioning the story?
The book is structured in such a way that if you read it all, you are going to understand what I believe, and what she believes. I think it’s also up to the reader to decide how they want to take these documents. Someone might say “Oh, maybe she lied”. Well, maybe she did. It’s up to the reader to decide. But the effort was to try and reconstruct a life, and also to maybe help people understand why a person might be sleeping on the street. Why someone may have a life long problem with addiction. And those are questions people rarely ask. There's such a numbness today to these issues, and that was certainly one of the book’s aims, to say – you might have come across this person on the subway! There’s a backstory to everyone.
It was terrifying for me to put this work out in many ways, it’s so different to other work I have done. That was why I needed that group of people at the residency, telling me I was on the right track. I also presented the book before it went to press at Duke University Centre for Documentary Studies, to about 15 or 20 people, and after one woman came up and said to me “my mother is Kim, but my mother didn’t make it”. And she understood things about her mum, having seen the book, that she hadn’t before. That confirmed for me that there was added and public value to the book. There’s something in there, whether you have yourself been a survivor of sexual violence, it can speak to a lot of people. Particularly at this moment when women are finding the strength to speak out.
How worried were you about accusations of exploitation? People’s radar for exploitation does, I think, become more sensitive if a project is focused on one person.
I was worried about a million things. I was worried that I didn't have enough upbeat pictures, and tried to include some with a different tone to them, but it didn’t seem to work. Also during the really intensive shooting over that past couple of years Kim was a wreck. I was very nervous, also, because in May last year I wrote something in The New York Times about photographing sexual violence and arguing for a different way to do it – talking about a project I did photographing evidence used to convict perpetrators. I was arguing to not focus on the victim…
And then released a whole book about one victim of sexual violence….
Right.I was of course thinking: how’s this going to float? But one reason I did that story about the evidence was that I was so personally infuriated that Kim’s perpetrator was never brought to justice. I wanted to start looking at these cases. I was worried that people would pull me up on that, yes. I think that all of the deep text and investigation makes it very different from just someone going to a brothel in say, Calcutta, and pointing their camera at a teenager having sex for money. For whatever reason, the American press like to do stories about young sex slaves around the world, when you have this woman right here. I would venture that half the women living on the streets of New York were used for various reasons. So, I haven’t had that push back yet, but it might come.
After 27 years, how did you come to decide it was time to call the project complete, and make the book?
Kim and I talked about that a lot. How were we going to end the book? And we joked that either she would die, or get a dog. Neither happened. When I finished shooting I really didn’t expect her to survive through to the end of the publishing process. But when we signed the contact, she got into permanent housing, and was more stable. We stuck with the decision to put it out, and we never really had an ending in mind. And actually – I think that if it had a clean ending, it would seem fake.
Well the book ends in an opaque way. I was totally uncertain as to whether Kim was alive at the time of press, or not. What was the thinking in leaving it so open to interpretation?
There’s no ending. You are taken back, at the very end of the book, to her as a young woman in London. It’s a photo I always loved. I didn't want it to be explicit because that’s not how life is. Maybe in a novel, or a movie there’s a sort of resolution at the end. There’s no resolution in the book apart from the fact that the story was told and the book was created.
An Autobiography of Miss Wish, is out now.