Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael’s work in Iraq, Afghanistan and the US has won countless awards over the past decade but, finds Olivier Laurent, it gains newfound meaning in Disco Night Sept 11, the photographer’s second monograph
Peter van Agtmael never set out to explain war, and even if he had, I’m not sure any of his readers would truly have understood it. Unless you have served on the frontlines of a conflict zone, whether as a soldier or a journalist, I don’t think anyone can really grasp what it means – the toll it takes on a person’s body and psyche. Documentary photographer Eugene Richards has produced the best account so far of the impact the ‘War on Terror’ has had on soldiers and their families in the appropriately titled War is Personal. Van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11 is just as powerful, but unlike Richards’ work, that power is more subtle. It creeps up on you as you turn the pages, as you take in the many images the young Magnum photographer has produced over the past 13 years.
Disco Night Sept 11 is not a photobook you can browse for five minutes at a time every so often – it requires proper commitment. My review copy sat on my desk a full week before I was able to set aside a few hours to explore it properly. Van Agtmael’s book is also the type of photobook you read from cover to cover – where each caption, even if it seems trivial, has its significance. But, more importantly, Disco Night Sept 11 is the type of book that tells you a lot more about its author than about war itself.
Disco Night Sept 11 is not van Agtmael’s story. Instead, the photographer chronicles the lives of the soldiers he has met in the field and back home. We follow Raymond Hubbard, who lost his leg in Baghdad in 2006 and who had to learn to live without Army benefits. We meet Sergeant Nick Sprovtsoff, who crossed paths with van Agtmael in 2007, but was killed in Helmand, Afghanistan four years later. We smile at Bobby Henline’s jokes and wonder how a man who lost an arm and suffered burns to over 38 percent of his body can keep a positive outlook on life.
Image © Peter van Agtmael from the book Disco Night Sept 11 (Red Hook Editions)
Yet throughout all these experiences, and through all these images, which have been carefully edited and sequenced, van Agtmael reveals himself, perhaps unwittingly. It first creeps up with a photograph of an Army couple watching medical staff trying to awaken a knocked-out Ultimate Fighting contestant. It gets stronger when van Agtmael relates a surreal conversation he had with three Marines, who couldn’t stop laughing at the “fucked-up ways” some of their comrades had died. But it’s a couple of conversations the photographer had with his parents – before his first assignment in Iraq and upon the book’s completion years later – that are probably the most telling. “My parents never gave me their blessing,” van Agtmael tells BJP in an email. “They never tried to argue me out of going, though. They recognised that this was some sort of primal, pre-conscious instinct and did their best to accept it. Still, they suffered like hell. At the time, I was so caught up in my desire to do this work that I didn’t feel much guilt. Over time, I have realised what an enormous burden this was on them.”
This is a burden many soldiers share, as Richards has shown in War is Personal and as van Agtmael presents in Disco Night Sept 11. It’s a burden that cannot always be explained, especially when you’re a journalist, who can choose not to go to war. “I was scared of war but also comfortable in it,” he says in the book’s introduction. “I had felt it in me from the beginning of my consciousness. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I always knew I would go.”
There is no doubt the war took its toll on the Magnum photographer, who relates some of the post-traumatic manifestations: “I went to a party in Washington shortly after returning from a trip to Iraq […] I got drunk and angry, and after brooding and swaying over a beer in the corner of the party, watching across the black space of the deck people laughing in that warm summer night, I began re-enacting the convulsive death of a soldier as he succumbed to grievous burns.”
Van Agtmael’s mother saw the impact that war had on her son. The photographer recounts her saying: “It did damage to you internally. It was not without consequences for you,” which van Agtmael acknowledges by responding: “Well, it led to a six-year freeze on my emotional development in intimate relationships.” When I ask him what he meant by that, he doesn’t shy away from talking about his personal life. “When I was spending a lot of time going back and forth to war zones, I was somehow incapable of being in healthy relationships,” he explains. “Maybe I was choosing conflict in my personal life to fill some sort of void from being out of war zones. A few years ago, I started going to therapy when I realised I wanted to ease myself out of this lifestyle of being in conflicts. Over time, I’ve begun filling in my emotional holes. It has been a hard road. I don’t know what has been lost, but I feel far more whole than I did a few years ago.”
Image © Peter van Agtmael from the book Disco Night Sept 11 (Red Hook Editions)
Part of the healing process involved getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and criss-crossing the United States instead. The realisation that van Agtmael needed to take to US roads came when he saw an ad on TV for a 9/11 commemorative coin, which was retailing at $29.95 instead of $49.00 and was made of silver recovered from Ground Zero. “[It was] four days after I came back from my second trip to Iraq,” he tells BJP. “It was the end of summer, and I’d spent much of the year in Iraq. I had one day at my grandparents’ apartment before joining them and my family for a vacation in Massachusetts. I remember I couldn’t sleep that night; my mind hadn’t quite caught up with my body. I was jittery but I couldn’t quite understand what I was feeling. According to the metadata, this ad came on TV at 3:14 in the morning. I’d seen the ad before but only vaguely registered it. This time it just felt crushingly sad and empty. It was also the first picture that made me feel that in order to understand these wars, I had to look at America as much as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Travelling across the US allowed van Agtmael to meet up with some of the soldiers he had followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the relatives of the fallen ones. One photograph is particularly powerful. It portrays Mario Ferrera, whose son Matthew was killed by insurgents in the Waigul Valley on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In the frame, Ferrera is sitting outside his home in Torrance, California. “That night, we sat around the fire in his backyard and talked about a little of everything,” recalls van Agtmael. “Matt’s personality, the way he was raised, his successes in high school and college, his [three] brothers’ military service, the void after his death, the righteousness of the wars, the triumphs and tragedies of recent American history – it was a very natural conversation.”
There’s little doubt that these conversations have become critical to van Agtmael’s healing process. So has Disco Night Sept 11 – and not just for the photographer, but also for all of us as we increasingly pretend these wars never happened, sweeping their memories from our minds, the tens of thousands of injured young veterans with them. Ironically, van Agtmael’s quest for understanding originated from a very similar drive 13 years ago, when he photographed Ground Zero. There, a plywood stand had been erected with sticky notes for passersby to write their thoughts on the attacks. Some of the notes offered messages of hope, but most called for war. That day, the then-aspiring photographer didn’t write anything down. “I was 20, and still trying to wrap my head around what the hell had happened a few weeks previously. In many ways, I still am.”
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