An autobiography of Miss Wish
“An autobiography of Miss Wish is my favorite new photo book of the year. Nina Berman transcends what is documentary, humane, personal, and collaborative into a new terrain of documentary photography. At once emotive and investigative, Nina has elevated the ethical responsibility of our role as photographers and what we “take” from those who open their lives to us, and our responsibility as ethical humans and story tellers.
Kimberly Stevens – a sex trafficking survivor and victim of horrific child abuse, takes an active role in her story. Intuitively designed with Teun van der Heijden, Nina and protagonist Kimberly weave a seamless mix of personal history, diary, ‘graphic novel’ horrors, portraiture, and heart break.
Throughout the book, Kimberly’s graphic illustrations depict a personal diary of hell, so unsettling that I had to look away several times. Crudely artful drawings show memories of ritual child sex abuse ceremonies and being forced to watch women assaulted, raped, killed, and dismembered. At times, I put down the book, almost afraid to read the accompanying text, to comprehend her story and drawings. Juxtaposed against this, are archival materials woven against the illustrations—pages of psychiatric reports with elements redacted. Through out this backdrop, Nina Berman’s visual approaches to these 17 years shows a youthful face, alone on streets. Always alone. Sometimes engaged in drugs. At times hopeful. Sequenced against a rapidly aged present, alone…sometimes in Central Park. Sometimes a poetic object or an eerily lit night sky of cyan, reflecting fluorescent city lights. When she does smile, its frailty on her prematurely aged face breaks your heart. (Further cemented by the non linear sequencing of youth and present). This book is heart break. You care about Kimberly. You feel her, you don’t pity her. Nina’s “telling” and the intuitive design of the allows Kimberly her dignity. Kimberly actively occupies the space, telling her own story. She has agency. And this against Nina’s expertly curated archival material, visuals, and writing. Indeed the textual treatment elevates the work.
Sometimes a line alone will make you weep or sit unsettled, as you understand “Ms Wishes’ horrific abuse and descent into mental illness and homelessness resulting from basic failure in the system for children. And understand how a basic act of humanity can affect someone, as Kimberly recounts how a simply kind exchange on a subway with a stranger (who did not ask her questions to lecture her but inquired how she was) made her heart sing, as she returned to same spot for days after…hoping to find her again. This alone, this writing, broke my heart as I understood the failure of society, of systems, of humans to be decent. And this is why Nina is challenging us to be better photographers as we take and tell. This is what collaboration in documentary is truly about. What to strive for. Decades of work and friendship.This shared narration subverts traditional clear cut and reductive roles such as “subject” and top down story telling. This is artful multidisciplinary story telling, masterful book design, and collaborative.”
An autobiography of Miss Wish tells the story of a sex trafficking survivor whom photographer Nina Berman met randomly and started photographing as the young woman hustled for money and drugs on the streets of London in 1990. The two stayed in touch and three years later, on the advice of Scotland Yard, Miss Wish later known as Kimberly Stevens, fled England for New York City, never to return.
The work documents her struggle to survive and find physical and emotional safety, to assert herself as an artist and narrator, and to craft a life while living in a state of flashbacks, trauma and addiction.
Photographed over twenty-five years in London and then in New York City, the story is told through multiple narrative elements including the protagonist’s vast personal archive, which was safeguarded by the photographer who assumed the role of friend and advocate.
The resulting book weaves together photographs and an archive of extraordinary drawings depicting memories of crime scenes and abuse, along with medical reports, diary entries, identity papers and texts between the photographer and Miss Wish.
An autobiography of Miss Wish, is also a tale about two lives intertwined, the photographer and subject, who and the healing power of collaborative documentary photography.
Photographs: Nina Berman/ NOOR
Drawings: Kimberly Stevens
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, author and educator. Her wide ranging work looks at American militarism, post-violence trauma, social injustice and resistance. Her photographs and videos have been exhibited at more than 100 venues including the Whitney Museum Biennial, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Dublin Contemporary. She is the author of Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq, portraits and interviews with wounded American veterans, Homeland, an exploration of the militarization of American life post September 11, and most recently, “An autobiography of Miss Wish” a story told with a survivor of sexual violence and reported over 25 years. Her work has been recognized with awards in art and journalism from the World Press Photo Foundation, Pictures of the Year International, the Open Society Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Aftermath Project and Hasselblad. She is the 2017 inaugural Susan Tifft fellow at the Center for Documentary studies at Duke University. She is a member of NOOR images and an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in her hometown of New York City.