nathaniel ward – bullet catcher

"Sargent says I'm going to grow up and be a bullet catcher.", Ca


Bullet Catcher by Nathaniel Ward

“Sargent says I’m going to grow up and be a bullet catcher.”, Cadets, Mt. Sterling High School ROTC, Mt. Sterling, KY

I encountered two teenage ROTC cadets in Mt Sterling, Kentucky this fall. After I photographed them, they asked to see a copy of the shot. Holding the Polaroid proof, the boys dropped their stoic expressions and began to relay their stories. One would ship out three months after graduation as a tank gunner and the other joked he would grow up to be a bullet catcher. The Bullet Catcher said his mom didn’t care because the last time he saw her, he was eight and she was outrunning the police on drug and assault charges. While he had tremendous pride in public service, the Bullet Catcher’s pride was wrapped up in the devaluation of his existence. He was acutely aware of his history and environment but seemingly held no anger over a dearth of opportunity or a surplus of hardship. He was a child and yet he denied, in that moment, the entitlement of American youth. Resigned to the facts of his past, he was goofing on the promise of his future while doing everything in his power to make a better life.


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26 Responses to “nathaniel ward – bullet catcher”

  • Couple of fine lads with a great future.

  • One glimpse… tells two stories….
    powerful…Great , straight, clean, direct…:)

  • One glimpse..
    a thousand stories…
    and yes,
    everybody has
    their story….
    and then some…

  • Yes, a wonderful straight shot of America today.

  • Someone should tell them that officers aren’t “tank gunners.” That job is usually held by a sergeant with a few years of experience under his belt.

    Whatever their path, I’m sure it won’t be exactly what they are expecting.

    Good photo. I could see those attitudes on their faces before reading the text.

  • The coca-cola sign — the red, white and blue. Pure America here. Bullet-catcher. Funny. Haha.

  • I’m afraid that the photograph relies too much on the caption. Having said that, I don’t know how it would be possible to tell the young man’s story photographically in one photo. Maybe in an essay.

    Jim, a usual post from you.

    You have not replied to my last comment on Crest Hotel (you do that frequently, start a debate, lose it then stop posting).

    Here it is again (apologies for hijack):

    Jim, Richard is not attempting to fix the problems in Darfur or anywhere else: that’s the point. You are laying a guilt trip on him that he doesn’t deserve. You don’t know the relationships that he built up during his stay at the Crest. From what I have seen, no one seemed to mind being filmed or photographed.

    As for Darfur; how do you know about it? Because someone took a camera there, that’s how! And because they did millions of people put their cameras, laptops, knives, forks etc. down and put their collective hands in their pockets and sent money to help. Did it solve the problem? No – but it sure did help the people trapped in such a dreadful place; perhaps even some of those seen in the photographs.

    Best wishes,


  • i wish they were allowed to drink BEER before they are sent out to catch bullets and gun from tanks.

  • This one really touched me. Reading the story/caption to the photograph did perhaps alter and influence my reaction to the photograph, but I dont seem to be minding that at all. I like the detached empathy kind of feeling i gathered from both the photograph as well as the text.

  • A powerful, graceful and in many respects, heart-breaking photograph.

    What graces the most powerful photographs is that ellusive quality, the quality that both contradicts our immediate expectation and allows, through a slow rising and gathering of meaning, for a profound visual surprise. At first glance, this photograph seems to be a simple, convenient road-side portrait, but quickly we are made uneasy by the stark reality of the life of these boys, their futures, and the life of the image. The extraordinary tension (contradiction) between the youth of their faces (they look so god damn young, too young to be soliders) that I was started and uncertain when i first saw the photography: these boys look as young as my own son, a 14 year old. The tension between their incredibly young faces and these ‘adult’ uniforms breaks our delusion that the soldiers are old/wise/muscular/cinema heros, but in truth young, fragile often unknowing children. This has always been true of war and the greatest shame upon the shoulders of the fathers of nations, that they sacrfice the slaughter of their children to promulgate their own, stupid idiocy….

    and then all the strange visual details begin to surface: the tension between these soldiers (boys) and the very-large adult ring on the boy’s finger (again, as if playing at being an adult), the casual way they’re leaning over the railing, peering into the sunlight…and the ghosts in that blue pickup truck (fathers, grandfathers, recruiters, dead soldiers?), the blurred-out coca-cola sign, the cafe, the strange, ghostly environment….the picture reminds me of either a moment from an Faulkner novel (pick one) or early McCarthy….there is so much haunting tension in this photograph, it’s not only a portrait of these two young boys soon to be long-far from this small-town idle, but as much a portrait of small-town america (especially the south, again faulker)…and then, this strange angle of composition, which is very very different than one normally expects from a Medium Format portrait….our expectations are upended…

    i dont think at all that the power (visual and emotional) rest at all on the title or the text, that just fleshes it our for us, contextualizes, gives us the specifics of these two young boys….for the image, alone, is both a powerful portrait of the life of 2 young boys and a powerful evocation of the loss that attends war,or a society that bathes itself so comfortably in the sacrifice…

    look at their faces….

    they are still too young to catch the meaty and unforgiving stench of death, whether their own, a buddies, or the death that they too shall inflict upon another, far away from this quiet street parking lot….

    and if that doesn’t break your heart (for these boys, these childrens, and for all the other who will taken: both the soldiers and the civilians that will be at their youthful fear and hot artillery)…

    powerful powerful, heartbreaking portrait…

    thank you for sharing this Nathaniel…

    all the best

  • Mike, I have no problem with Richard’s work in an objective sense. He stated the Crest hotel is a personal journey for him. My objection from the beginning was that it was in fact so personal that it wasn’t really successful as an essay except in a technical sense. Who needs to see more scenes of despair and hopeless that we can do nothing about?

    This photo (to stay on topic) strikes me as a snapshot of a couple of kids playing grownup. The caption explains that they are intent on wasting their lives in someone’s pointless war. What else is new. Even with the text, it’s just an unremarkable snapshot and I’m puzzled why David thought it had value to post here.

  • jim

    i think more and more single photos posted at similar times are intended to be read together..

    in the pairing presented today there are obvious points in common and obvious points which differ.. there are links between the photographs, the subjects and there is ground where the photos blend for me..

    the text from above may well lend context to the beating photograph on the following page.

  • Speaking of pairing, I can only see the second image…

    @Anton – help?? Am going to go look at the archives, perhaps I can see the other one there…

    Interesting shot – I need to let it soak in a bit before I comment…


  • Thank you, Michael, for sharing with us the details of how this photo came to be made. But, more importantly, thank you for following the attackers, calling 911 and then returning to see if you could help the victim.

    I first looked at your photo in the middle of last night at around 4:30 a.m. and it stayed with me waking and sleeping until now. It is a disturbing image, to say the least. But it is reality. Unfortunately. And whether we want to or not, we must face reality head on. It’s all too easy to read about beatings, stabbings, people being gunned down and see them as they are portrayed in movies or TV shows. That only perpetuates the sense of unreality.

    I really dislike this photo not because it’s poorly done–it’s superbly done–but because I don’t want to see this kind of suffering that we bring on one another. But I know I must and so I commend you for taking it and showing it here. It’s hard enough to look at the photo; I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for you to experience this in person. I hope the young man is healed of his wounds annd has found safety.


  • Sorry, I posted my comment under the wrong photo.

  • JIM…

    yes, this appears to be totally an unremarkable snapshot…banal….which IS the point exactly….a jazzed up snazzed up GOOD PICTURE would be so trite in my opinion for this particular effort by Nathaniel..he carefully made it banal…so please look carefully, very carefully….yes, the text is necessary here just as the text is necessary in every picture you publish in your newspaper….text, context, are usually necessary for most work…

    David Bowen has it right…these two pictures were posted simultaneously for the reasons he so suggested…

    besides Jim , is it not obvious that i would post one photograph dealing with violence that is super dramatic and the other super banal???


  • Yes, the connection between the two photos is quite obvious, to me anyway. These two youngsters are trying to be macho military “men” but are still boys. And they are the ones my country sends to kill and be killed in wars that will never be “won,” whatever that means. They are victims every bit as much as the young man who had been beaten is a victim, victims of the whims of men in suits who stay safe behind their desks in Washington, DC. Forgive me for going “political” here but that’s what these images trigger in my mind and heart.


  • I’m not sure, David, that the first photo really has any power to shock in our culture. Perhaps it is as banal as the second. Step back and consider you are a 20 something year old. This could be a shot from a fashion shoot. I’ve seen stronger images in fashion shoots. Will the viewers read the cutline? While not posed, the first photo’s inferences are so strong they overpower the violence. Posed or not, it looks posed, and that may kill its impact.

    My initial reaction to both was pretty much the same, although the first would grab some attention above the fold on the news stand.

  • What we see in photos has everything to do with who we are, what we have experienced. That is no surprise to anybody on Burn, I’m sure. My ambiguous and complicated reaction to the two photos, but especially the ‘Bullet Catcher’, and most especially to the caption and the comments so far, is colored by my experience as a Vietnam-era army veteran who was afterwards an anti-war activist (and subsequently by the many, many books I have read, films both documentary and fictional I’ve seen, and the many people I have talked with about armed conflicts). But did my very deep disillusionment and skepticism over the U.S. government’s military adventures over the last 50 years, or my own intense desire to escape the military once I was in it, make me into an outright pacifist or anti-military? Not so simply or so clearly.
    When I lived in Idaho we used to talk about the history of the Nez Perce Indian tribe, and how they would send their wild and restless young men east over the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo with the Blackfeet, and join in their internecine warfare with other Northern Plains tribes who were far more warlike than the Nez Perce. After they’d worked the restlessness, violence, and the need for risky physical adventure that many young men feel, out of there hearts, they’d return west to live a more peaceful life with the Nez Perce.
    Will many young men always have this kind of wild restlessness and a propensity to find violence attractive? Does it only come from the conditioning of our culture? I don’t know, but I think it is an open question. When I was growing up, when the nation as a whole still basked in the aftermath of World War II, the ‘good war’, military service was seen in a generally positive light. And young men who didn’t quite know what to do with themselves, or because of their background had few options, were often encouraged to join up. It would ‘make a man of you’, teach you some skills and some discipline, give you confidence in your own abilities, show you a wider world overseas, and ‘keep you out of trouble’. Funny thing is, for a lot of young men that turned out to be true. Many didn’t stay in the military, but used whatever specialties they had learned as radiomen, medics, cooks, mechanics, pilots, bulldozer operators, office clerks, or linguists as the later basis for a civilian career. Especially for many African-Americans, the military was one of the few viable escape routes from grinding poverty, a lack of educational opportunity, and severe discrimination. And in the South particularly, of which Kentucky is a part, among whites there has always been a stronger tradition of military service than in other parts of the country. (Of course the living nightmares of Vietnam changed much of that, maybe forever).
    So even though I personally hated the army and couldn’t wait to get out, I’m not sure it isn’t actually a good choice for the two young men in this photo, especially for the ‘bullet catcher’. I’ve known, heard of, or read hundreds of stories about young men with similar backgrounds to his being ‘straightened out’ in the military and turning into successful and well-respected citizens. Unless of course, you feel that all military service is by definition immoral. I can’t feel that way. For one thing, most people in the military are not usually actively engaged in combat (although it is of course always a possibility). I never, ever supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq… I think the NATO involvement in Afghanistan is a fiasco… and I risked plenty in actively campaigning against the Vietnam War. But what about World War II, the Korean War? What about Bosnia and Kosovo?
    Maybe most military adventures throughout history have been fools’ errands at best, and more typically nothing more than government-sanctioned mass murder, pillage, and vandalism. But is that ALWAYS true, without exception? Should we really abolish all armies and all armed defense forces? That’s a leap I have never quite been ready to make. And if we did, what would become of young men like the ‘bullet catcher’??

  • Well said Sidney.

  • I like the idea of the photograph, the concept behind “the bullet catcher” but this photo seems like a snapshot to me. Overexposed, flat lighting. If the photo matched the concept I’d be all for it. But to me it seems contrived.

  • Nat:

    my younger brother went to RISD…and i lived in Providence for 3 years :)))…small world ;))

    and my mom works in Center City…and lives just outside the city….know Philly well…know Newtown well too :))

    SIDNEY :)))

    TERRIFIC post….:))))…love the perspective with regard to the Nez Perce….and I have NOT forgotten you or the DVD…as u can imagine have been intensely busy last 2 weeks :))…but i will post a comment about it soon! :))




  • Wonderful post Sidney.

    DAH, thanks for your perspective and wisdom.

    My take on these two photos is that the approach to each is backward.

    Beating, looks like a staged photograph, even though it is not. I think this is a flaw. It would benefit from a more “banal” approach, to ground it in reality. I think perhaps Michaels artistic reflexes betrayed him in this case. It does in fact look more like an “art” photograph than a document.

    In contrast I think “bullet catcher” is a pretty weak photograph on its own. My first reaction was that it was poorly exposed and not very well composed. My opinion of it did rise after reading your post and some further consideration, but I would have loved to see a more formal approach, with the same elements. As it sits, it does not work for me without the text. Lots of weak photographs will work with text to provide context. I think it could have been stronger.

    Gordon L.

  • I would love a glimpse into bullet catchers life. Is he the one on the right? I wonder does he have a youthful playful side??? Would LOVE to see that!!!

  • Kathleen Fonseca

    i feel like i´m looking at a ¨before¨ shot of two of David Douglas Duncan´s marines. In fact i am looking at these two ¨tough¨ guys and imagining them post combat duty and the clever blandness of this photo becomes quite chilling in contrast. And if that was as far as I went with this it would be an interesting enough photograph. Nothing special, Just a ¨huh!¨and move on. However, there is a sadness in the false bravado of these two that bespeaks of real life trauma that has everything to do with tough lives and then this photo becomes an ¨after¨. So, before and after at the same time. My ´huh´ becomes a ¨HUH!!!¨ Jared´s observation of the red, white and blue adds yet another clever layer of interest.


  • With a son-in-law in the Army, just back from Afghanistan, this photo makes me sad. I know how his trip to war changed my son-in-law and I also know how a stint in the Marines during the Korean War changed my dad. I find it very sad that there is an element in our country that allows for a segment of our population to be forever changed by war or just a stint in the military without going to war. Civilian life is never the same for these boys and men. The military takes away the person and replaces with a war machine. How do you ever shake that enough to reconnect with life as it is supposed to be?

    Aside from that the lighting in this photo is awful.


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