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State of the Nation

Carla Power on images of contemporary life in the United States

If Barack Obama’s election showed a nation fired by hope and a longing for change, Nina Berman’s Homeland (Trolley, 194pp, £24.99) reveals another America, animated by fear and faith. In weirdly gorgeous photographs, Berman, a New York photojournalist, has chronicled the all-pervasive reach of the homeland security industry. Al-Qaeda may have struck at the country’s cosmopolitan metropolis, but it is in small-town and suburban America where the fear of terrorists reverberates most strongly. In her first book, Purple Hearts, Berman’s portraits and interviews of small-town veterans of the Iraq War were meditations on patriotism and the decay of the American dream. In Homeland, she looks at the trickle-down financial benefits to the heartland of the 11 September 2001 attacks, at the towns with hefty federal government grants for terrorism prevention, at the Citizen Corps emergency response teams, and the training centres that hire locals to stage Armageddon scenarios. The politics of fear is theatrical, Berman suggests. Her shot of soldiers’ black boots marching on a red carpet at the New York City Parade (above) has a terrifying majesty. Three stout men of Louisiana, hired to play Iraqis at a joint readiness training centre, recall, in their tense expectation, with their red-checked keffiyehs and white robes, a Renaissance rendering of the Three Kings. A boy gambolling on the grass near a North Carolina potassium iodide dispenser station looks as beatific as a Botticelli angel. Berman’s composition hints at the sublime. A blue sky presides over many shots, and you can’t blame Berman for believing, as one interviewee says, that she lives “in a country uniquely blessed”. But under those blue skies, a homeland security industry, and the fear that powers it, is clogging up a blessed nation’s potential.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess