photography, writing and the spaces between
Technically speaking, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. The last American forces pulled out of Iraq in 2011, and President Obama recently announced that all U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But for many Americans, Iraqis and Afghans, the conflict lingers—whether in real terms (through suicide bombings and sectarian violence), in physical scars (there are at least 1,500 major limb amputees to date from both wars), or in psychological traumas that visit every time a car backfires or a firework goes off.
Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael is intimately acquainted with the real-life stories behind these facts. In 2006, as a twenty-four year old Yale graduate in History, he set off for Iraq to photograph the war there. Over the next six years, van Agtmael spent large amounts of time in both countries, often embedded with troops who were being sent on risky patrols of questionable value. Back in the U.S., as the wars dragged on, he noticed a growing weariness and disinterest in what was happening overseas, and this disconnect is the subject of his important new book, Disco Night Sept. 11.
Last Friday, I went to the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn to hear van Agtmael in conversation with Dexter Filkins, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent who is now a New Yorker staff writer. Filkins has covered the two wars extensively, and he and van Agtmael have been embedded together more than once. Filkins’ 2008 book The Forever War is “a classic,” van Agtmael told the audience.
It’s obviously a bit strange to discuss the brutalities of war when you’re sitting in a plush screening room in a boutique Brooklyn hotel, and perhaps because of this, the two men started off on a jokey note. “Boy, we should go on tour—this might be the funniest war presentation ever,” mused van Agtmael after he’d told an anecdote about Filkins’ boots melting in Afghanistan, and Filkins had remarked, “I’m just going to sit here and look pretty.”
But van Agtmael—who came across as extremely sincere and smart—turned serious when it came to discussing his reasons for creating the book (a follow-up to his first book, 2nd Tour Hope I don’t Die). “One of the things that got me into this was just a belief in and love for journalism,” he said. He also owned up to having been fascinated by war ever since he could remember, and wanting to see what would happen if he brought the “intangible, indescribable” quality of photography to it.
Once in Iraq, van Agtmael soon found himself confronting highly nuanced situations. There were soldiers who—in an attempt to blunt their guilt and pain—likened their killings to Hollywood movies. There were night raids where random searches of residents occasionally turned up bomb-making equipment, but caused commotion and bred bitterness when they didn’t. “Your basic commanding officer is a decent, sincere guy who wants to do the right thing, but he’s out of his depth,” van Agtmael remarked.
He tried to express this complexity through several images, in one of which a terrified boy stands in a living room while, in the room next door, soldiers tear apart his family’s possessions. In another almost surreal image, a heavily armed soldier sits on duty in a yellow-on-yellow living room that could be somewhere in the American ‘burbs. In a third (image above), an angry-looking young soldier sits next to a sleeping Afghan elder. (“It’s usually the other way around—the Afghan looks angry and the soldier looks sleepy,” Filkins joked.)
Meanwhile, in trips back to the U.S., van Agtmael found himself confronting situations that were equally poignant and dissonant. He watched waitresses flirt with marines during New York’s Fleet Week, and saw commercials for commemorative coins made from silver recovered from Ground Zero. He befriended several amputees and was with one, Raymond Hubbard, in a New York bar when a woman playing a shoot-em-up video game noticed his prosthesis and aimed her gun at him. “I think she was just trying to be friendly, but God knows what in her mind made her think it was appropriate to pull a gun—even a fake one—on an amputee,” van Agtmael said.
This full-on confrontation of uncomfortable moments, and the dual focus on war’s effects both at home and abroad, make Disco Night Sept 11 unique among war photography books. There are some interesting parallels in the book: for example, people are tangibly disconnected from the war in places both at home and abroad. In Iraq, van Agtmael photographed a soldier riding a family’s donkey in a tiny town outside Mosul where “they didn’t know there was a war on, they thought we were Russians and just wanted us to get the hell out.” In the U.S., he attended a 2010 military funeral where few people showed up. “I think we paid lip service to caring about these wars in the first place, but at this point in the war, in this small town, people had forgotten,” he said.
Committed to words too, van Agtmael has generously captioned his photographs in the book and includes other text ranging from diary entries to graffitti and transcribed conversations. He did this, he said, because “as much as photographs can say things words can’t, the reverse is true.” Photographs can also be deceptive: “Sometimes you have these profound experiences and they’re just not pictures, and then you have these meaningless experiences and they’re beautiful pictures.”
(Later, during the Q&A, an audience member asked Filkins if he felt that his writing is enriched by images . “Any writer would want to have his or her book illustrated, because it brings it to life,” Filkins answered. Pressed about whether he’d ever had an image in mind that van Agtmael didn’t capture, Filkins was fulsome in praise of his younger colleague. “He got ’em all. Peter has an amazing eye,” he said. He then looked at van Agtmael and said, “I was very happy with the photos you took,” at which an abashed van Agtmael answered, “Well, you wrote a nice article too.”)
For van Agtmael, the image that perfectly expresses the book’s theme of dissonance—and which gave it its title—shows a marquee outside a banquet hall in upstate New York. He described how he’d been driving along the road by the hall in 2010, and was drawn by a sign reading DISCO NIGHT SEPT 11. “I’d been covering the wars for years by then, and I was feeling a deep disconnect from the populace here,” he said. “The sign said it all.”
I’ve interviewed quite a few war photographers (including James Nachtwey, Susan Meiselas, and Kate Brooks) and I’ve found them all very thoughtful and dedicated, not at all the adrenalin junkies of popular lore. On the evidence of Friday’s talk, van Agtmael is the real thing. He was thoughtful and refreshingly honest, talking about the mild PTSD his experiences had left him with, and admitting he didn’t really understand his own “dark adolescent fantasy” of going to war.
It’s a truism that going to war changes a person, and it has left its effects on this young photographer. Going to Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, van Agtmael captured an image of people huddled on benches, sheltering from a dust storm—much as if they were in Afghanistan. “I was very excited about this picture,” he said, “but when I came home and showed it to my Mom, she said, ‘Peter, why couldn’t you just enjoy the day like everyone else?'” The answer, of course, is that he couldn’t—and we should be glad for that.
Peter van Agtmael’s website is here.