In his recent impressionistic book, “Disco Night Sept. 11” (Red Hook Editions, $59) award-winning photojournalist Peter van Agtmael juxtaposes his photographs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with images that capture the disconnect of Americans at home. He describes it all with moving words.
From 2006 to 2013, van Agtmael got to know many soldiers at the front, and he followed veterans — several with horrific wounds — at home. He met the families of soldiers who died as well as civilians who suffered in war-torn lands. The book vividly shows what war does to people, the brutality and absurdity of industrialized conflict, as a war-weary populace at home ignores the terrible price of state violence pursued in its name.
Van Agtmael’s book presents a haunting montage of wartime images. A large U.S. soldier rides a small donkey in Iraq as perplexed villagers look on (“The troops took turns riding the donkey,” he writes). An Afghan soldier wears eyeliner into battle. Blood smears an emergency room floor in Baghdad. At home, a smiling woman aims a toy gun at an amputee veteran. Families attend solemn rituals of mourning. Graveyards. Gravediggers. Graffiti on a base wall: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
“Disco Night” provides an innovative, non-chronological history that tackles two complex, parallel stories of raging war and indifference at home. The book has been widely praised, by an array of reviewers from NBC News and Mother Jones to Photo-Eye and The British Journal of Photography, for its art and for the power of van Agtmael’s photography and his words.
For the past decade, van Agtmael has been exploring America and its foreign policy through his documentary photography for publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Time and The Wall Street Journal. His first book was “2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die” (Photolucida, $57.99), a collection of early photos from the Mideast wars. He began extensive work on U.S. wars as an embedded photographer with the military in 2006 and, between tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, photographed in the U.S. Recently, he has covered the U.S. as well as the conflict in Gaza. Van Agtmael is a member of Magnum Photos and has won numerous awards for his work, including a W. Eugene Smith Grant, the Lumix FreeLens Award and the World Press Photo Award.
Shortly before departing for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, he talked about his work from his home in New York.
How did you come to write “Disco Night Sept. 11”?
After I put out my book “2nd Tour” a few years ago, I felt that book was premature. I kept shooting work on the subject since then. I experimented with some of the older material from “2nd Tour” and the newer imagery and realized it didn’t make sense organically to be two books, so I mashed it all together to tell the experience holistically.
How did you decide on the title?
The title comes from a street sign reading “Disco Night Sept. 11” in Hopewell Junction, New York [at the Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall]. I was just back from Iraq in 2010, and I was driving and that glowing sign came out of the darkness. I was stunned. For me that sign symbolized the disconnect that the populace was feeling for the wars. It was a potent reminder that, through American history, we tend to involve ourselves in the world in all sorts of destructive ways and, if we ever know about it at all, we tend to quickly lose interest in it. So it was a symbol of these wars and of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.
You provide a special form of history of post-9/11 America with impressionistic writing and photographs that seem almost random, rather than a conventional, chronological history.
The first book was structured “war-home-war” basically and organized around the title, “2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die.” As I started thinking more about my work over the years, I realized that the chronology wasn’t that important. These wars weren’t about decisive events, but about an ongoing grind. Day to day, the patrols looked similar no matter where you were. There were small shifts in strategy but the forms of engagement were similar, and I was left with the same impression going back and forth to these places.
Simultaneously [I had] this sense of going back and forth to the wars and never being quite home and never being quite in the wars that I felt and I think a lot of the soldiers felt. That scrambling disconnection was part of the idea for the structure.
Another part of it was these simultaneous existences we’re constantly present in. Whatever we see in front of us is very small. When I thought about the sum weight of the destructiveness of the wars over the years, I thought of the incalculably small percentage of it I’d witnessed. So, with the structure, I wanted to mimic how little we are apart [from] and present at these events.
Your photos present a unique perspective. Afghan soldiers wear eyeliner and makeup into battle. A large U.S. soldier rides a small donkey to the bemusement of villagers in Nineveh, Iraq.
The thing about war is that it’s hard to see beyond the violence and the sadness and the destruction. But I realized there was only so much I could say and do with that imagery. So, instead, I decided to pull back and open my eyes wider and try to confront the places as myself rather than as someone in the tradition of war photography. While I have a deep reverence for those traditions and try to practice them to an extent myself, I knew there was room for a more personal interpretation that was grounded in the universal. The more surrealistic images began to appear organically.
I was struck by the utter and complete strangeness of the experience. It’s presented in a solemn, serious and formalized way to the public while combined with an almost titillating approach. The thing that struck me the most was how extremely bizarre everything was. It’s so outside of our daily experience as Americans, it seems surreal.
Are there special influences you thought about when creating this book?
I’ve drawn from a wide range of inspirations over the years. It started with photojournalism with people like [war photographer] James Nachtwey, Philip Jones Griffith in “Vietnam Inc.,” and Eugene Richards, all of whom combine pictures and words. Beyond that, in the art and craft of photography, people like [William] Eggleston, [Garry] Winograd, Jeff Wall and Richard Avedon became huge influences. In some ways, because I have an open-ended style, subconsciously I was trying to integrate the lessons I was learning from great photojournalists and great artists. And there are painters too. I can look at Hieronymus Bosch for hours. Or Caravaggio. Or [Francisco] Goya. Lessons from the classical painters became important to me as well.
How did your work as a photographer embedded with U.S. forces compare to your independent work?
I was embedded when I first went over in 2006 because it was the only practical option. I was working with a press agency but didn’t have an assignment, and it was not safe or cost-effective for me to work on the streets.
Embedding became compelling to me because I realized I didn’t know much about America. I grew up in a bubble. I went to private school and then to Yale and then went abroad. I hadn’t discovered my own country at all. I started to discover America through these wars. A lot of what I saw horrified me, but unexpectedly I became very close to a lot of the people I met. I realized how different they were from me and yet how similar, and it made me want to engage with what it meant for America to be at war.
Over time, though, I realized how much of the other story I was missing because, when you’re embedded with the Americans, you’re in such a bubble that you’re not engaging with the local people and culture. When I was with the soldiers, the civilians saw me as part of that machine.
It was a different story when I was unembedded. Hospitality in these traditional cultures is still well entrenched. I carefully planned what I was doing. I always worked with a fixer who understood the local land. I was always touched by how warmly I was welcomed. I think it was a gesture that meant a lot by trusting Iraqis and Afghans given the risks and tensions.
This book is incredibly America-centric, [but] it’s really a small part of who is actually affected by all of this.
Your stories are touching about the soldiers you met and how you kept in touch with many when you got home. I was struck by the story of combat veteran Bobby Henline, who suffered severe burns to his face and upper body and lost a hand — and then took up comedy.
Bobby used his injuries to find direction and meaning in his life. He wanted to be a career soldier and, when he was so badly wounded in a Humvee explosion, he lost that option.
When he was recovering in physical therapy, he cracked a lot of jokes in what was otherwise a somber place. He was encouraged by the staff to try stand-up comedy. And he began doing that. And, because he’s disfigured and people stare at him, cracking one-liners became a way for him to break the ice. He’d see people’s reactions and start a conversation. He worried about being objectified and comedy provided a reason to keep going and a way of engaging. It seems a very thoughtful, emotionally mature way of dealing with [his injuries]. He performs all over, all the time now.
It helped that he was in his late 30s when he was hurt, and he had a family and children. He had a different perspective than younger soldiers who are injured and haven’t lived much of a life yet.
You describe soldiers who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. You mentioned a former combat soldier who worked as an Army public relations person. He had a brain injury, and he said he would lose brain function over time.
I thought he was interesting because he symbolized many guys I met who have a warrior spirit, where they feel they were born to serve, to be at the tip of the spear. Despite their traumas — losing friends, losing function — they still want to get back into it. There’s a vast range of reactions to the same kinds of events because it depends on the individual’s personality and circumstances.
You’ve [witnessed] horrific combat and wounded and dying soldiers as well as civilians, and it must have troubled you at times. Your early experience covering the combat and the emergency room in Baghdad must have been a shock.
Certainly some of my earlier experiences took their toll on me for a while. I had trouble adapting to a normal life at home.
Like a lot of these guys, the war defined me and became the center of my existence and other things I let slide as a result. Being obsessed and trapped in that cycle wasn’t healthy physically or emotionally.
Over time, I began to reckon with my experiences, confront them and go to therapy. I found a way of defining my place in the world in a way that I could emotionally encounter these things but also move on from them, [or] absorb them rather than repel them. I think I’ve developed good tools for coping and being emotionally aware.
Are you still working in conflict zones?
I’ve worked more in Palestine in the last two years. It embodies a lot that interests me, and it’s easy for me to move between the dysfunctional worlds there. I’m still engaging with conflict but not quite as intensely as before.
What are your thoughts on the new U.S. engagement with the Islamic radicals of ISIS or ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]?
I can’t comment politically, but it just seemed inevitable to me. The last time I was in Iraq was before the pullout and in Afghanistan before the troop surge, and it became clear that these problems weren’t going to be fixed in a matter of years.
There were issues with the armies, the governance, the sectarianism, the development. All of these issues are so much vaster than our ability to transcend them. These things have had an air of inevitability, and I think we’ll be connected to these places for an extremely long time.
Acclaimed photojournalist Peter van Agtmael chronicles the hidden side of our country’s post-Sept. 11 wars
To view his photos, click on the captions
U.S. Marines on patrol in Afghanistan as an improvised explosive device detonates.
Wounded veteran Bobby Henline floats in a pool.
Minutes after he was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, Sgt. Heff Reffner, is tended to in a military ER.
A U.S. soldier rides a donkey past villagers in Nineveh, Iraq.
A U.S. soldier holds a slipper in a bombed-out café in Mosul, Iraq, the detritus of a bombing that killed nine people and injured 23.
An Afghan soldier with eyeliner sniffs a flower. Wearing eyeliner and placing a flower behind an ear is a tradition of Afghan men going into battle.
A woman points a toy gun at U.S. veteran Raymond Hubbard. The woman and Hubbard were strangers.
Kathryn Condon, director of the Arlington National Cemetery, stands among rows of headstones. The 624-acre cemetery, which has been expanded multiple times to accommodate the bodies of more soldiers, celebrated its 150th anniversary in May.