This year, the United States will mourn the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a historic event that precipitated U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which barely register in the American public’s consciousness. No longer the cause célèbre driven by a desire to destroy Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, few may be aware that a May 21 deadline for complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan will symbolically mark the end of the nation’s longest war. All but discarded as yesterday’s news, these wars have become an afterthought to the American mind, their consequences on foreign and domestic policy largely ignored.
Yet their impact continues to resonate and inform the world in ways in a myriad of ways deeply and inextricably intertwined, a hallucinatory labyrinth of events and implications Magnum Photos member Peter van Agtmael seeks to explore in his latest book, Sorry for the War (Mass Books). “Sorry for the War is dedicated to the anonymous lives caught in the middle of America’s wars. Twenty years later, we hardly know a face or a name,” van Agtmael writes in the acknowledgments, a poignant reminder of the incalculable cost of war.
Since 2006, van Agtmael has documented America at war at home and abroad, creating a hallucinatory picture of a nation willfully giving itself over to the numbing powers of cognitive dissonance. In Sorry for the War, van Agtmael takes us inside the belly of the beast, drawing damning parallels between the horrors of war and the fetid bliss of ignorance. Combing documentary photographs with images of mainstream media, van Agtmael explores the vertigo-inducing disconnect between reality and spectacle through a series of surreal images accompanied by annotated captions that provide at times deeply disconcerting context.
“A picture is a very slender document, maybe 1/250 of a second of a narrow frame of something in a time when so much was happening all around it,” van Agtmael says. “As insightful and probing as it is, it’s as much about what’s not there as it is about what’s there. Words are important in the work I do to somehow describe all the things you can’t see in the photograph.”
The Message and the Messenger
Sorry for the War is more than a portrait of conflict, it is a long, lingering look at a crime scene replete with the attendant emotions of shock, denial, rage, sadness, and black humor. There’s not so much acceptance as there is numbing despair that one will never be able to fully reckon with the 15 years of war, destruction, dislocation, militarism, terrorism, nationalism or the propaganda that engulfs us like a cloud of poisonous gas. Van Agtmael includes numerous photographs made of television broadcasts as well as behind-the-scenes shots on Hollywood film sets, making it abundantly clear that in the twenty-first century, ideological battles are paramount.
In one photograph, van Agtmael shows white girls standing in front of a large image of the World Trade Center ablaze on view at the 9/11 Museum in New York. They appear too young to have been alive when the attack occurred, reminding us that secondhand knowledge is only as good as the source itself. It’s an important point, one that reverberates throughout van Agtmael’s book. We who bear witness must not accept the message without also considering the motives of the messenger.
“I started thinking of where I come from and what I represent created complicated feelings of having the ambition to see this vision through and receive recognition,” van Agtmael says, acknowledging the role he plays as a conflict photographer. “That’s where the conventional aspects of working for the New York Times and bring a Magnum photographer, all those things are very status quo markers of legitimacy and power [comes into play]. Obviously, I sought them out. I crave these opportunities to tell a story but I’m also wary of the power I have in that.”
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