Magnum Photos member Peter van Agtmael shares his journey as a conflict photographer, and the importance of adopting an open, questioning approach to photojournalism.
On January 17, 1991 a coalition of 35 nations led by the United States invaded Iraq launching the Gulf War, codenamed Operation Desert Shield — the largest military alliance since World War II. Over five weeks, the allied powers waged one of the most intense aerial bombing campaigns in military history, dropping some 85,000 tons on Iraq and broadcasting select strikes as seen from far above, creating the image of war as video game.
“As Operation Desert Storm erupted last week, there was only one unequivocal victor in the first days of war: the Cable News Network,” Variety reported on January 20, 1991. In just one month, the 10-year-old cable news service gained global prominence by live broadcasting from the frontlines into 10.8 million U.S. homes. Among those watching was future Magnum Photos member Peter van Agtmael, then a fifth grade student living with his family in Bethesda, Maryland.
“What I remember most vividly were videos showing air strikes and smart bombs filmed from the airplanes,” he says of the powerfully crafted propaganda produced by the U.S. government – a far cry from the horrific reportage witnessed during the Vietnam War. “It was about how accurate the weaponry was and avoiding civilian casualties, and to my mind, I believed it. I didn’t have any critical thinking skills at that point and I didn’t come from a politically radicalized family that was trying to puncture the myth by questioning what was going on.”
As a young boy coming of age in America, van Agtmael describes how the confluence of this experience combined with toys, movies, and TV shows, as well as his beloved grandfather’s stories of World War II shape his ideas about war as a “shortcut” to masculinity. “Messaging from pop culture and society is pro war, and war is presented as something righteous,” he says. “It’s about good and evil, and death seems like justice rather than the absurd insanity it often is. The history you learn in school has violence, conquest, and heroism at its core. That seemed like the path to what it meant to be a man. So much of society seeks to confirm and push that impulse, especially American society which is extremely militaristic.”
The Making of a Conflict Photographer
As an adolescent, van Agtmael felt marginalized. Realizing he would never be the star athlete, the class president, or the homecoming king, his fantasies of joining the military took root. “I wasn’t the smartest or the best looking so what could I do?” he says with a laugh, “Maybe this is the pathway to acceptability and status for someone like me who didn’t have all those other things. It’s not war lust. The violence and trauma of war didn’t even factor into my thinking.”
Everything changed when van Agtmael enrolled in Yale to study history. He discovered a passion for journalism, and a love for photography after taking a class with Catherine Opie. “That was a very art oriented class,” Van Agtmael says. “I think Catherine didn’t know what to do with me because she wasn’t expecting someone in photojournalism. She introduced me to photographers who bore some relationship like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. It made me realize what photography is capable of.”
While at Yale, van Agtmael also developed a more critical approach to the mythos of America he had consumed as a youth. His friends, Chesa Boudin, now the District Attorney of San Francisco, and Sarah Sillman, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, shared their perspectives on “how power is used to manipulate people across the political spectrum into a status quo narrative of the nature of American power and justice,” helping him to see beneath the surface of things and find a new way to engage.
At War Abroad and at Home
“War is a primal thing,” van Agtmael says. “There’s a desire that runs through people’s blood and I have a lot of that, and it was compounded by societal and family factors. When those impulses married with the aftermath of 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq it gave a sense of direction of how I could relate that to what was happening in my country and my generation. I sometimes give photography and journalism credit for dissuading me from joining the military. I didn’t want to be a representative it but someone who questioned it.”
Beginning in 2006, van Agtmael began documenting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, chronicling his experiences in Disco Night Sept 11 (Red Hook Editions, 2014) and the just-released book Sorry for the War (Mass Books). During his time on the front, van Agtmael explored issues of society, history, conflict, and his own interior world through a series of photographs and notes about what he witnessed over the years. In his books, van Agtmael opts for an ambiguous, open-ended approach, preferring questions to answers, knowing that the first draft of history is just a rough sketch of truth.
Eschewing the notions of objectivity codified by the Western viewpoint, van Agtmael sees the photograph as a monument of both what is there and what is absent from the frame. “I’m in the business of asking questions,” he says. “I am trying to create pictures that aren’t these definitive documents because I think it’s important to be sharp with your intent but also acknowledge your blind spots and flaws. I’m a part of the power structure but simultaneously it seemed like I could use the power structure to project my vision and enable other people’s visions.”
“The insanity of what happened was the culmination of Trumpism.”
After the past 12 months, very few want to look back at what the country has endured, but after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, van Agtmael returned from Minneapolis resolved to create 2020 (Mass Books) a visual diary of one of the nation’s most climactic years. As a conflict photographer documenting battles across the United States, van Agtmael found himself at what he describes as “the culmination of everything that had been happening since 9/11, but also in the long framework of American history writ large.”
The First Draft of History
2020 ends in January, after the events of the Sixth in Washington D.C., along with the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th president. “The insanity of what happened was the culmination of Trumpism and how people’s perspective on reality can get twisted to the point where they will call storming of the Capitol an act of patriotism, righteousness, and democracy,” van Agtmael says.
He acknowledges the similarity between the “we will liberate you” ethos of those seeking to overturn the U.S. election with that of the propaganda used to popularize U.S.-led invasions around the world. As a conflict photographer contributing to the first draft of history, van Agtmael seeks to let go of certainty, knowing the limitations of both himself and the medium.
“Whenever I do a book I want to make it clear to whoever is seeing it that I’m not the voice of authority,” he says. “I’m not creating an objective history, whatever that is — that’s not even something that exists. I want to be damn clear about who I am, what my questions and vulnerabilities are because I think that gives strength to the pictures. People can seek out information and draw their own conclusions.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Sorry for the War