Graduated from Yale University with a degree in History, Peter van Agtmael started documenting the effects of the Three Gorges Dam in China. He continued as a freelance recording the Asian Tsunami and the AIDS epidemic in South Africa.
Since 2006 he started photographing the consequences of the American wars, on the homeland and abroad, working both as embedded and un-embedded photographer. He recorded military operations and the recovering of wounded soldiers. Back in the US he documented the soldiers’ hard return to life as civilians after the horrors of war, and the void left in the families of the fallen. With his images, widely exhibited and published, he won several prizes, such as the World Press Photo and the Eugene Smith grant. He joined Magnum Photos in 2008.
Can you briefly tell us how you approached photography after graduating in History at Yale? How important is it for a photographer to have a background in humanities and what is your relationship with writing?I was partway through my studies when
I realised I didn't want to be an academic. I wanted to see history being made. Journalism seemed like the natural path. I took a photography course and something clicked into place. From that moment, I knew my path. I applied for a fellowship to go to China. I spent a year wandering around taking photos, often feeling disappointed and upset with my pictures. But there were occasional times of hope when I saw something appear in the moment, I clicked the shutter and then instantly disappear forever. That's a very seductive, regenerative feeling.
I think it's important for a photographer (or anybody for that matter) to engage with all that informs human knowledge. It is endlessly vast and contradictory, but building something out of the pieces is all we've really got. Of course the learned can be as foolish and hateful as the ignorant. More dangerous, too.
Pictures express something remarkable but limited. Words offer something complementary. I've had some very powerful experiences over the years, and these experiences are often linked to the photographs - but they're not contained (or represented) in them. Words can fill in the gaps left by photos.
Watching your photographs, an explicit intent of building up stories emerges, and most of the times the observer’s perception changes if the images are watched in a sequence, rather than as single shots. Can you tell us about your relationship with storytelling and how you build your stories?
I don't really reason in terms of single shots, although I want each picture to be self-contained. Sequences are rarely linear. Photographs can describe a story, but it's usually a pretty simplistic one. I'm interested in sequences that flow on the one hand, but that are also capable of leaving the observer perplexed, on the other. Images that reveal some things while obscuring other things. It never occured to me to end up looking at a great photo-book and thinking that I had figured it all out.
Is it hard to build personal stories when one is engaged in photojournalism full-time? Has it been hard for you to propose stories that were different from what was requested by editors?
I alway try to live on my own terms, within the stories I tell, too. I'm rarely asked to follow a pre-assigned path, and I'm very grateful [to my clients] for that. In all honesty, I don't know how to construct a traditional iconic image, so I can only be really successful when I'm able to follow my instincts. I don't propose many stories. If I want to tell a story I usually just go for it and try to publish it afterwards. It feels good to be completely free sometimes.
In your works you have explored the American wars from several perspectives, both on the front and in the houses, in different situations. Do you think America’s self-percetion has changed? How have your images been received in your country?
I think America's self-perception is oddly unwavering. We have this confused post-World War II identity where we suddenly had this incredible power and wealth and expectation for greatness. These changes happened so fast we never really processed them as a nation, and continued a muddled brand of naiveté, sincerity, realpolitik, occasional good deeds, strategic blundering masquerading as realpolitik, and good old-fashioned power-mongering. It seems our collective conscience hasn't learned much, despite the huge wealth of information out there exposing some of our lesser deeds. In that, America is not unusual or unique in the least. Perhaps change is happening, but it is slow and hard to measure at this point. Maybe it will be easier to assess in a few decades.
I don't think there's much interest in my photos outside the photography community. I have a book coming out of seven years of work from Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S.. Maybe it will have some impact. I hope so. Still, I'm not sure what this idea of 'impact' really means when the very bleakness of the work is a barrier to widespread attention. When I started the work Iraq and Afghanistan were very much on the radar in America. Now they've drifted out of sight. We want to forget that we are all implicated by these wars.
It seems that you want to tell us about America in its contemporaneity. Looking at the series “American Wars”, “The War at Home” and “USA”, photographs seem to belong to a common work and tell us of a self-resembling America, both in war times as well as in everyday life. Do you think it is true?
I think it's true. The work I've done in America was born from my work in the wars. I wanted to explore my own country. I only really started thinking about America in a serious way after I started working in Iraq. I've now worked my way backwards, drifting away from epic events to move on to anonymous life at the margins. But the work isn't a critique, or a statement of facts. It is a product of wandering through different regions, races, socio-economic classes…. I couldn't tell you what it's really about in more explicative ways.
Some of your photographs have a “rough” aspect. They are without frills and sometimes appear evidently "noisy". What kind of post-production do you use for your photographs? And, in your opinion, are there cases where post-production may impair the documentary value of pictures?
The earlier work is quite noisy. I was coming up against the limits of the technology available at the time, or at least the technology I could afford. Some people thought it was some sort of stylised aesthetic choice. I thought that judgement was ridiculous. Now that the technology has improved and I can work in very low light with good results, the pictures are less noisy.
I'm not interested in post-production much. Most of my favourite pictures are clearly printed, without strange tweaks that will probably look dated in a couple of years. Remember the artificial vignetting craze? We think it's absurd now, but it used to be very popular for a while. Of course sometimes I see exceptional and interesting post-production - but it's just not for me.
What is your relationship with video and multimedia? To what extent are they connected to your way of telling stories by images?
I feel frustrated with the limits of photography and writing. Video is another option. I have been profoundly moved by a few documentaries and I feel like I should give them a try. I'm still at very early stages, but I'm enjoying it enormously. I'm collaborating extensively with my girlfriend who is teaching me a lot. I'd be lost in the process without her. It's so different than photography. It's also very time-consuming and it can be hard to divide attention into separate processes.
Your photographic stories are always constructed by a precise perspective, which - very often - is collateral to the mainstream idea of facts. Is this a deliberate approach?
Sure. Facts can sometimes be compiled into some sort of 'truth,' but mostly they are just exploited to serve individual needs. Almost every fact I've encountered is so limited when contextualised with other facts, and they cease to have any kind of decisive meaning. So I work with fragments of scenes, anecdotes, a few specific 'facts' here and there when they are appropriate to constructing my own story. That is all I can do. Exploring these massively contentious subjects is a very humbling experience for the intellect - and a very frustrating one. Of course, it's also exciting.
In the “9-line” project you decide to put us, the public, in front of a dramatic situation with extreme precision,that is the American soldiers who have been hospitalised due to extremely serious injuries. Considering that this your only work from this perspective, could you tell us why you chose this specific point of view?
I was a younger then. I did that work when I was 25-26. I wasn't considering a 'point of view' in any concrete terms. I was shooting by instinct. I'd been shooting professionally for just over a year and had no formal training. I only wanted to express my feelings at the sight of these terrible things. Some of the worst memories of my life are connected to the month I spent in the ER in Baghdad. Those facts stunned the hospital staff, as well. One doctor died of overdose, and substances abuse was extremely widespread. There was a soldier who died of burns in such atrocious pain whilst his skin was sloughing and dripping off, but he was still conscious and screaming for his daddy. For years his dying words rattled around my head. Of course the work was never published in any meaningful form by the mainstream press.
We think that your images have great and powerful strength in telling stories of different situations. At the same time, we feel that they lay on the border between the normality of life and potential catastrophe. In your photographs something happened, something is happening, and something will certainly happen. Nobody and nothing is still, is it?
Well, I guess my pictures are a reflection of my deepest self. Since I was a kid I've always been a bit nervous about how fragile things are. Strange feeling for a middle-class suburban boy with a loving family. I guess it was informed by being exposed to images of violence at a young age. I used to pore over the Time-Life visual anthologies of World War II, which were unsparing. Later, my studies in history often focused on the methodical dissolution of societies on their march to war. The seeming ease with which societies can break down has encouraged that feeling of fragility.
How do you see the future of your profession?
I'm not really sure. Editorial is in bad shape. I do some assignments, I have won some grants, I shoot a bit of commercial work. I have put away some money for my personal work. It's a privileged position. It's also only really tenable because I'm young and don't have a family. As I age and hopefully have a family I'll probably have to double or triple the money I'm making now and spend less time away from home. Then I'm sure I'll really start to worry. Maybe I'll start buying lottery tickets.
Do you think your approach is close to that of other photographers, contemporary or from the past?
I feel inspired by hundreds of photographers, artists, writers, documentarians and plenty of people outside the arts. I think my work is a combination of all those influences. I hope it is. I never really felt like I was following in someone's footsteps.
Who are you going to pass the baton to?
To Curran Hatleberg.
Peter Van Agtmael also runs a personal blog on Tumblr.
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