Photographer Peter van Agtmael Explores America at Home During War

Detroit, Michigan. 2012. Outside Lyniece’s house. From Buzzing At the Sill © Peter van Agtmael

Award-winning photographer Peter van Agtmael’s newest collection Buzzing at the Sill is an exploration of America in its sixteenth year of war. As a follow-up to 2014’s Disco Night Sept 11 , van Agtmael sees Buzzing at the Sill as the latest chapter in a decades-long documentation of America in the shadows of the War on Terror. In the following interview, van Agtmael discusses the early beginnings of his career, his creative process, and what he hopes others will see in his work.

SIGNATURE: How did you get into photography?

PETER VAN AGTMAEL: I started taking pictures at the end of 2000 when I was in college. I was studying history but increasingly was feeling disconnected from looking at the past when so much was happening in the present. Journalism was the logical outlet, it seemed like to me, to engage in the present but be mindful of the past. I took a photography class on a whim just to see if I could add to the skills I already had. That was almost a mystical experience for me in the sense that I felt such a deep, close connection with photography almost immediately, and more than I had felt about anything. I quickly realized that this was who I am.

SIG: What inspired Buzzing at the Sill?

PvA: I got really obsessed with photography, and about nine or ten months after I started taking pictures—maybe a little longer—the September 11 attacks happened. That was the moment that I realized what my life’s path was going to be, to a large extent. I spent quite a few years working in Iraq and Afghanistan, and looking at America in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the war came home. That was in my previous book, Disco Night Sept 11. Through that process of covering America through the wars, I got intrigued by who we are and where we were at this point in our history: looking at that across geography, class, race, and being mindful of the experiences I had in these wars. I started that in 2009, and on and off, that’s what led to Buzzing at the Sill.

SIG: What was your entry into working in the field like that? Were you a stringer for a paper?

PvA: I had been working professionally at that point for only about a year. After college I went on a fellowship to China. I came home and joined a small news photo agency that needed a photographer in South Africa. I moved there for about a year and worked on news and social justice issues throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout that time, I had wanted to go to Iraq. It was my intention, but I needed to work up the courage and skills to make that leap of faith. When I went there, I was working as a freelancer at the agency and was getting occasional jobs: just enough to sustain me. I stayed with friends and family when I wasn’t going on long, extended embeds. After a few years of it, people started taking notice in the photography world and I started getting more work. I joined Magnum Photos, which is a great, prestigious old agency, and luckily, the momentum just kind of took care of itself in terms of making it sustainable.

SIG: You probably weren’t much older than the soldiers with whom you were embedded.

PvA: Yes, that’s right. I was 24 when I first went. I was smack-dab in the middle of the age range between the junior officers, the platoon leaders and company commanders, which created a kinship with them. I was almost always on my own, not working with journalists or other photographers, so I was in this alien environment. Being of that age and generation, and sometimes having overlapping interests or values, and the camaraderie of being in danger, made it pretty immersive in a way that it might not be now after more than 10 years in the profession. Now that I’m 36, I see the world differently. I don’t feel young in the same way and don’t have some of the same naiveté, certainly.

SIG: Buzzing at the Sill is both about your subjects’ experiences at war and how they’ve affected them coming home. It’s also about your own. We’re talking about an inner quality, here: How do you capture that in a visual medium?

PvA: What I like about photography is that it is a manifestation of the subconscious: Sometimes the mind reflects things that the mind doesn’t realize is there. I take a lot of photographs and work on mostly instinct. Instinct is mostly guided by one’s past, but also more mysterious forces that can’t quite be easily defined. That’s how they’ve manifested themselves, mostly. I’d work and think about what I’d done, then go back and work some more. Over time, some patterns reveal themselves and others close off, and by the end of it, hopefully, you have something that is fully formed and it is time to move on. Most of the time when I finish a project I’m already on to something else. That very much goes for Buzzing at the Sill, and Disco Night Sept 11. They’re both chapters in a much larger work that I’m doing about America. I’ll probably continue for decades more. There’s a sense of eagerness that I finish a project so I can keep moving on. One never has enough time to explore subjects so vast.

SIG: Why are you attracted to conflict as a subject matter versus more prosaic subjects?

PvA: I probably sound more abstract and mystical about these things than I am, generally, but that’s one of the big questions of my life that I find very difficult to answer. It was in my blood for a long time. I think to some degree I was born with it, and to some degree it was cultivated by pop culture and its glorification of war and conflict as something formative, and my grandfather who served in World War II. I really admired him. It was a formative event in his life. I think you can create a narrative around these things but it doesn’t necessarily explain the whole thing. A lot of it is just there in me. A lot of other people are exposed to the same things I was and don’t end up going down that path. It’s a tough question to answer, but it has waned in me a lot. I was very interested in it, and I had something to prove to myself for a long time. Then it maybe came out of a sense of having trouble adjusting back home. There was a comfort in conflict. Now, I do it less often and more out of a sense of duty than desire.

SIG: When you spoke about trying not to build a narrative out of something—that it’s just there—I wondered how that might have informed Buzzing at the Sill. Were you trying to build a narrative, or is this just a collection for us to look through and approach individually?

PvA: Photography doesn’t tell traditional stories, like novels or non-fiction. Photography, and photography books, work as slightly more formless narratives that ideally center around common themes. The book was intentionally sequenced and edited. I took hundreds and thousands of pictures for the project, and those were narrowed down to six or seven hundred. I ended up with these 72 in the book. I went through several dozen variations and sequences. Everything flowed together within the range of their content. That’s what a photography narrative is, in a way. You shouldn’t be going through it getting a story that goes from A to Z: You should be getting a series of interconnected motions and visuals and stories that all add to something that to some degree you should define for yourself. The pictures and words in this build off of what we already have what’s inside of us instead of telling a traditional story with a beginning, middle, and end. Is that too abstract of an answer?

SIG: No, not at all: Before I got into writing, I was a painter. I understand how difficult it can be to explain your process to another person. It can be ephemeral.

PvA: Okay, so you can relate to this stuff.

SIG: Sometimes you just want to tell people to look at something for themselves instead of explaining why you did something. It’s all there.

PvA: That’s right: That’s the challenge, and always the question. Maybe it’s less of a question with painting instead of photography, but how much do you let the form of the image stand for itself in the sequence, and how much do you interject? Writing is a big part of my process, and I’m always walking that fine line between that and presenting the images in a vacuum.

SIG: When you’re going through a collection of images, is it hard to stick with your vision of a collection versus what you think the audience will want to see? How do you handle audience expectations?

PvA: I want people to relate to the work, of course. I want it to resonate and my experiences to seem close and meaningful to others. That’s what art and books have always done for me. That consideration is in the back of one’s mind, but at the same time I feel that the best way to reach that point is to be uncompromising to what I myself have experienced, even if sometimes I feel a little embarrassed about revealing it. Some of the text can get pretty personal at times. Those aren’t necessarily things I’m eager to reveal about myself, but for some reason I felt compelled to write them. When I wrote them I felt that it was about much more than it was for me, so I put it out there. I try to find that line between the personal and outside world: a line about where whatever sentiment I’m trying to convey. I try to cut it off where it’s just about my inner world and put out stuff that’s relatable to more people. I’m always surprised when people tell me how some of the stories mimic parts of their own life.

SIG: Was it hard to maintain a sense of rapport with their subjects? Sometimes people can become extremely defensive when they let you in close.

PvA: Generally, it’s been pretty smooth. The way I work is kind of a combination. There are images that are off the cuff that aren’t necessarily done with people’s consent — you know, on the streets — and I don’t know how many of them have seen the pictures. Maybe they would object to them. It’s hard for me to say. I try to be respectful with the photography even if it’s darker or raw subject matter. As for the people who have let me into their lives to take the pictures, generally I try to be intimate with people but draw a line between that and what I see as my role there. I work a lot for the press, and there’s strict ethical guidelines we have to abide by. That allows expectations to be tempered, but at the same time, sometimes you get drawn into people’s lives and there’s complications with that. Nothing too serious, in the end, though, which I’m grateful for because it can be tiring.

SIG: What do you hope people get from Buzzing at the Sill? What do you want people to find in it?

PvA: We live in very polarizing times, and there’s not always overlap between people’s viewpoints. The internet and social media have further eroded that common ground, and we have an administration that seems bent on doing it even further. In that regard, I see my photography, and photography in general, as like a very powerful forum for humanizing people and their stories. I hope that when people see “the other” in these pictures, they also see a part of themselves that helps them relate and feel a warmth for them.