A New Mexico State University professor and his collaborators were honored in January 2020 with the Southwest Book Award for “Cutting the Wire: Photographs and Poetry from the U.S. Mexico Border.”
Bruce Berman, associate professor of photojournalism in NMSU’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies, and poets Ray Gonzalez, professor of literature at the University of Minnesota, and Lawrence Welsh, an English professor at El Paso Community College, collaborated together for six years to put together the 136-page book published by University of New Mexico Press in 2018.
Critics have said the book offers readers a unique way to look at the border and its layers of reality. For Berman, the blending of images and words wasn’t easy…. at first.
“That manuscript sat on my desk and I stared at it for almost four months,” Berman said. “One day, I decided to stop trying to "understand" poetry and just went through their work, pulling out a word here and phrase there and then went back to my files and pulled out a photo here and another there and when an image seemed to relate somehow to the writing, I gave it a ‘go’ sign.”
Berman has been a working photojournalist for national and international publications since the late 1960s. For the past thirty-five years his work has concentrated on the borderland. Berman’s photography reflects the realities of the El Paso/Juarez border like detention centers, Smeltertown cemeteries and kids playing along a river levee. Gonzalez and Welsh’s poetry is described as capturing “elements of a personal and collective past that historians have often failed to record.”
The Border Regional Library Association has presented the Southwest Book Award every year since 1971 in recognition of outstanding books published about the Southwest. The purpose is to stimulate writing and promote publication of materials about the region.
“In the end, I learned that still photography works a lot like poetry works,” Berman said. “It's not logical or even rational but relies on a sort of "music," a sound, an inflection, a fleeting glance. In other words, still photography is poetry. It's not real and it's not that factual. It relies on the viewer to ‘fill in the blanks.’”
The process Berman worked through in melding his photography with the words of two poets into a book has influenced the way he looks at teaching NMSU photojournalism students.
“We start every semester clarifying that our studies will require us to know the technical "science" of photography but the technical stuff -cameras, lenses, f-stops and shutter speeds, etc.- are only tools that let us ‘speak’ in what I call the ‘language of photography,’ said Berman.
“Once we have our tools mastered then we engage in discovery, the discovery of the world around us, fully relying not only on what we know, but using the camera to explore what we do not know and probably could not know intellectually.”
The poems and photographs from “Cutting the Wire” tell the story of the physical aspects of the borderland but also share the ‘feeling’ of this region that attracts so many.
“What better way to try and understand this region, what better to cut the wire of the border, than the poetry of pen and camera?”