JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Red Hook Editions (here). Hardcover, 276 pages, with 19 gatefolds. Includes 188 color photographs, with captions and introductory and concluding texts by the photographer. The images were made between 2001 and 2013. Disco Night Sept 11 has been shortlisted for the 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year award. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11 has been sitting on my desk for the better part of the last three months. Unlike the vast majority of photobooks that we can easily comprehend in a single flip, van Agtmael’s nuanced chronicle of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the shadow war going on back home in America) has resisted my best efforts to tie it into a neat package; I have read it and put it aside several times, never quite satisfied that I had gotten my arms around the true essence of its unwieldy brilliance, frustrated by my inability to succinctly describe its authentic grace.
Of course, this book documents the wars since 9/11, the people that fought them on our behalf, the lives they have led, and the sacrifices they have made, both in the field and at home; this is patently obvious from the many images of forward camps and improvised barracks, nighttime raids and dusty marches, expectant spouses and blank faces, amputated limbs and rows of gravestones. But this book is also about the tumultuous inner life of a young embedded photojournalist – not the details of the taking of pictures and the filing of stories so much, but the subtleties of how participating in the life of a modern day soldier (or medic or veteran or spouse at home) slowly turns a person’s head around. It chronicles a creeping progression from excitement to jaded resignation, the inherent violence and surprising tenderness of the daily traumas of war, building to the point that emotions start to overflow, the edges get scorched and blurred, and even agreed upon truths become mystifying.
Part of the reason that van Agtmael’s astonishingly personal account seems so different from most examples of contemporary war reportage is that we immediately try to place it into an established context of what we think photojournalism was, is, or might be, and it doesn’t entirely fit. Even though we intellectually understand that no reporting is ever fully “objective”, we somehow still think that the events being covered by a photojournalist should somehow be kept at arm’s length from his or her personal perspectives on those events. Even if we want to add a label of “concerned” or “humanist” in front of a photojournalist’s credentials (and fully comprehend that such a moniker implies a particular point of view or perspective that will manifest itself in the choices the photographer makes), we’re still expecting objectivity of a kind; if we discover too much apparent subjectivity, we feel tricked or misled, jumping almost immediately into the knee jerk realm of skepticism where authenticity and validity are discounted rapidly.
When seen in this context, Disco Night Sept 11 tests traditional photojournalistic boundaries in two important ways. First, Van Agtmael’s pictures are remarkably un-event driven; he’s not showing us important battles, historic moments, famous politicians, or iconic pivotal exchanges like many of his esteemed predecessors have done in the past – everything he’s captured took place largely “in the background” or “off screen”, an aside or a footnote to the major narrative arc of the wars. We follow plodding training sessions and routine patrols, tense meetings with village elders and staged photo ops, awkward silences among families and lonely moments at night. His photographs consciously alternate between the wry absurdity of riding a donkey or swimming in a muddy culvert and the ferocious despair of an exhausted medic or a bloodied leader reviewing the portraits of his fallen comrades; we’re constantly off balance emotionally, riding a heightened roller coaster of ridiculousness and anguish, resilient human connection and dejection. All of the stories he has chosen to tell take root at this individual level, often where the motivations have gotten tangled up and broken by the rough force of the long conflict; his best pictures turn these tiny moments into something emblematic of the larger effort and its hidden but often devastating personal consequences.
Second, his text captions introduce a layer of information that is undeniably subjective and personal, but with a deftness that does so without detracting from the credibility of the imagery; he both offers his photographs as standalone vignettes, and then inserts himself into the fray via the text. We see the war through his eyes, his pictures enlarged by the impressions he weaves with the voice over that whispers in our ear. Many of our greatest photojournalists (Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Eugene Smith) were also sophisticated caption writers, their meticulously penned notes giving us the details and context that we would otherwise have missed or largely misunderstood. Van Agtmael’s captions rank among the very best the genre has produced, but not because of his careful accounting of dates, times, names, battles, and outcomes. Instead, his words wander like snippets of lost conversations or ephemeral thoughts and recollections; parts of stories are told, friends and acquaintances are introduced, small poignant details are remembered, hard won insights and sad endings are shared, each fragment offered with a quiet, articulate honesty and a measured cadence that draws us in with its openness. Sewn together into a whole, the captions deepen our understanding of the events at hand, while simultaneously showing us a reflected image of van Agtmael’s own heartfelt reactions and emotions.
As we hear van Agtmael’s parade of intimate stories, a truly fascinating transformation occurs – slowly, we see the photographer turning inward, reflecting on what he has seen (and what it might mean), his pictures becoming a diary of faces and landmarks that kick off bouts of pensive memorializing and thoughtful introspection. We see him taking sides, drinking too many beers and getting in fights, seeing the irony and randomness in the process, empathizing with loss, sadness, and anger, and wrangling with the same post-traumatic struggles that plague the soldiers and families he has been documenting. Every image suddenly has a layer of personal voice, a set of raw unguarded responses that weigh seemingly routine pictures down with extra emotional freight. Because the pictures are sequenced out of chronological and geographical order, time and place seem jumbled and confused, each photograph thrusting us into the frenzy of a new moment, or wearing us down with the relentlessness of its silent head-shaking bleakness. We feel van Agtmael’s initial fascination with the adrenaline rush of intense action, and then discern the more subtle and persistent challenges of its gnawing absence, vividness quickly turning to hollow emptiness and thinly veiled depression – the war has undeniably changed him. Two thirds of the way through the book, it becomes harder to figure out which direction to go; of course, we go forward, but maybe that means going back.
As I sit with this book now, many hours and days into my involvement with its contents, I continue to wrestle with how to characterize its understated genius and its overall mood. Is it an invested bystander’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front, updated for modern times and modern realities? Or maybe it’s a new kind of coming of age story, a visual bildungsroman of conflict zone photojournalism? Or is it simply an indirect but brutally honest portrait of the puzzling fabric of war, seen through a prism of personal anecdotes and stolen moments, captured by a sympathetic narrator? Honestly, it may be all of these things, and perhaps others. What is certain is that van Agtmael has made his pictures better by telling us his stories. He’s brought us inside his head, where the rage and the compassion thrash against each other, and that generous intimacy supports and enlarges the photographs, giving his whole project a sense of richly human three dimensionality.
Collector’s POV: Peter van Agtmael is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a full member in 2013. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.