Peter van Agtmael Won't Deny the Strange Allure of War
May 16 2013
USA. South Carolina. 2011. "Wounded" soldiers are treated during a combat-lifesaving course that attempts to train soldiers to treat common wounds during simulated combat.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Thus far, photographer Peter van Agtmael's career has primarily focused on documenting the effects of America's pos- 9/11 wars, both at home and abroad. Before traveling to Iraq in 2006, however, he covered certain issues surrounding HIV-positive refugees in South Africa and the Asian tsunami in 2005. After starting work in Iraq, he went on to win numerous awards, work in Afghanistan—both embedded and unembedded—and documented injured servicemen and their families. Oh, and he also shot the photo in the table of contents for the May issue of our magazine. We spoke to him about the mysterious attraction of conflict and the realities of censorship and care for a country's wounded.
USA. Wisconsin. 2007. Wounded veteran Raymond Hubbard plays with Star Wars lightsabers with his sons Brady and Riley.
Do you think that your education led to you working as a photographer in a war zone at the age of 24?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Those suburbs are like suburbs anywhere. It's easy to want to dream about more exciting places. When I was a kid, I was always very into pictorial history books—especially ones about WWII. I found it all very exciting and romantic, in its own way.
Obviously, you get older and the reality of these things kicks in, but the romance doesn't go away, even when you get caught in the midst of it; that's the strange and scary thing. I have had depraved and scary experiences in the last decade, but I've had beautiful ones too. The fact is that when you get caught in the middle of these things, in these places, there's an indescribable merit somehow to feeling involved, to be making a record for history, it is satisfying a certain natural curiosity—one with certain useful impulses and certain dark impulses, as well.
Do you think that built-in fascination with conflict applies to most soldiers, too?
I think it's across the board. If you have read Michael Herr's Dispatches, he puts it really well—though it may be a dated reference in some ways. He essentially said that you can't take the romance out of war. It's sort of innate. It's a genetically hardwired part of the experience. We all objectively realize the awfulness and brutality of it, but also for a lot of young people—especially men—there is this draw to it, not at all based on logic or rational thought. There are a million ways to try to intellectualize it, rationalize it, and break it into its tiny component pieces, but at the end of the day, there's a pull that can't really be described or explained away. At least not for me. I envy people who aren't drawn to war in a lot of ways. I've had a good and interesting life so far, but at times, I wish I had made different choices.
AFGHANISTAN. August 10, 2009. Marines of Fox Company, 2/8 Battalion swim in a canal that runs through their Forward Operating Base in Helmand province.
Your photos of graffiti on military bases betray, possibly, a waning enthusiasm for war, or these wars, at least, among soldiers. Did you see a great change in morale over your time in Afghanistan or Iraq?
I felt some dissatisfaction from when I first started covering these wars, which was at the beginning of 2006, when things were already going wrong. But actually what I most often found striking was the lack of curiosity that a lot of soldiers had about the ramifications of what they were doing. There was something sporting about what they were doing, people testing their limits, doing it for the love and protection of their comrades... but the big picture? I don't think the average guy on the ground is very curious about it.
Of course there are some who are extremely engaged in it, others not at all. I remember in Iraq in 2010, one guy came up to me who heard that I had been covering both Iraq and Afghanistan for some years. He wanted me to clarify if the wars had started at the same time. I was stunned by this question. Obviously there’s a pretty important historical trajectory of how these wars started. I asked how old he was, and he said 19. I realized then that he was just ten years old when the war in Afghanistan started, 12 when Iraq did—he joined the military in an era of wartime, and none of these things had made much impression on him.
I speak with a lot of qualifications when talking about these things, because the US military is a pretty diverse cross section of society, but I was surprised by a general lack of interest in why these wars were being fought at all. In terms of how these wars were going, I would say the average soldier was pretty skeptical.
IRAQ. Mosul. 2006. An Iraqi man is shoved to the ground to be searched after acting suspiciously. No contraband was found after a search of his person and house.
How have your own views on these wars changed?
I try not to draw too many conclusions before going into a situation. Despite working within the media, I have always had a pretty healthy skepticism about it. The problem is it’s very hard to interpret what’s going on in the longview, when you are seeing things on a day-to-day ground level. By going to these places I learned an extraordinary amount about them, and, more specifically, because I spent so much time embedded, I learned a lot about how America wages a war. Which is a fascinating thing, the way this gigantic military bureaucratic machine arrives, builds these structures, and then conducts itself.
That’s what I focused on. I became pretty jaded about ill-informed people—or even decently informed people—spouting their opinions that are often manipulated by their desire to be heard. When you sift through all the white noise of it, you end up with very little of real worth. I think that the meaning of historical events is really determined during them or in the immediate aftermath, so at this point I am very cautious about making judgments. I am of the wait-and-see category. But of course it's pretty dispiriting being there and seeing what's going on. I am left with more feelings of concern than optimism.
Was the military ever hard to work with? That "huge machine" you spoke of?
I have heard a few reports of censorship, but as a general structure, I think embedding with the military is amazingly open. There are certain unit commanders who might be concerned about you and what you are doing, more often out of concern for their men than for some sort of fear of reality getting out. But then you can just move to a different unit. I've never had any problems with censorship. I have been able to record the depraved core of these events. I am referring here more to the Americans. The British and the Germans, for example, allow hardly any access at all—certainly not to combat operations.
I heard of one instance involving the British photographer Jason Howe, who had taken a photo of an injured British soldier. The soldier in question gave full consent for the photos to be published, but the MOD tried to make it very difficult for him. To me, that feels very undemocratic. That said, I feel like the real censorship, in my experience, came from the media institutions. There's been a lot of discussion about what the iconic images of these wars are, but iconic images rely on a lot of dissemination, and I think that a lot of the images have just not been afforded that.
IRAQ. Mosul. 2006. Aftermath of a suicide bombing that killed nine and wounded 20.
You have taken a number of shocking images. Have you had trouble getting any of them seen?
Don’t get me wrong on this: I am not in favor of publishing graphic images for graphic images' sake. I think there are a lot of violent and brutal images that actually can have a distancing effect. But there are plenty of violent images that do bring one into the subject. Actually, my photo of a US soldier holding up a boot in front of a blood-spattered wall in the aftermath of a suicide bombing, for example, did get published, and in an American magazine, but only in the European edition. The article ran in both, but they substituted that photo with a generic image of some helicopters in the US edition. A similar thing happened with another photo of mine of an injured soldier staring at the camera. To me that amounts to the media’s reluctance to expose Americans to these brutal facts of war—wars that we are all incriminated in by the nature of our democracy. Lots of people try to absolve themselves by saying, "Oh, I voted against Bush, I did my part." But at the same time we haven't exactly had an antiwar movement to speak of. I find those gestures and claims a bit empty.
As well as photographing these wars, you spent a great deal of time following injured soldiers trying to reacclimate to life in America. What’s your impression of the situation for injured veterans in the US?
It’s an interesting question. What we have had in the US is a lot of "support for the soldiers," on the surface at least. After the Vietnam War, it went too far toward disgust for the soldiers. They were seen as bloodthirsty criminals rather than for the most part victims of poorly crafted foreign policy. In these wars it has flipped to the other side, where the soldiers are almost fetishized, but in a very superficial way. People are putting on all these Support Our Troops events, tying yellow ribbons on their cars... these very public displays. The idea of the soldier as noble and serving the nation is there, but what I have found in practical terms is that it's all pretty empty. Once it gets down to it, a lot of these soldiers I know who have been injured—physically or emotionally—no one wants to really care for them much beyond a pat on the back. The interest in soldiers is that sort of classic "Did you kill anyone over there? Did you get in any scary firefights?" sort of interest. The empathetic interest in soldiers is, I would say, extremely limited.
USA. New Orleans. 2012. Second line on a Sunday with the Dumaine Street Crew.
What are you working on now?
I am still working with these soldiers, but my focus is shifting onto looking at the other side of these wars. The Iraqis and Afghans who have been affected by the war. The diasporas of refugees around the world as a result of these wars. I was recently in Bavaria, which has very strict immigration laws, to look at one of these refugee camps where Afghan refugees are essentially in limbo, confined to Hitler-esque barracks for years at a time with limited support from the local government. The fallout from these wars is that, and it will continue for many years.
As well as war zones, you have also worked in civilian situations, photographing daily life in America, or the Egyptian revolution, or postearthquake Haiti. How does your working style differ in these settings?
I find myself attracted to fairly similar things in most situations. What I like about photography is that I can make myself as open as possible to what the place has to offer—obviously you can't avoid having a point of view, but you can be confronted by beautiful, novel, confusing, or shocking things without warning. That can happen in a war zone, or anywhere. I think as long as you are keeping your eyes open, it’s much the same.
Click through to see more photography by Peter van Agtmael.
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