A conversation with Peter van Agtmael



SGT Jason Thompson waits for a nurse to clean his face of blood and grime after he was wounded along with two of his soldiers when an IED hit their vehicle. All three soldiers were returned to duty.

Peter van Agtmael “studied history at Yale University. After graduation, he went to China on a fellowship to photograph the areas of the Yangtze River being inundated by the Three Gorges Dam. Peter lived in South Africa in 2005, and worked extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He is currently working on a long-term project about the toll of America’s wars, at home and abroad. In 2006, Peter was named one of “25 under 25 - Up and Coming American Photographers” by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. And in 2007, he came second in the General News Stories category at the World Press Photo awards for his coverage of night raids in Iraq.” (source) Peter emailed me after I had commented on an Iraq war photo, and after we started talking, I asked him whether he’d be up for a conversation. I’m very glad he agreed to it.

A flight medic stationed in Baghdad waits in the ready hut by the flightline for the next mission to evacuate the wounded from the battlefield. The first hour after injury is the most crucial in saving lives, and the medevacs launch towards the scene of violence just minutes after a call comes in.

Jörg Colberg: Over the past few years, you spent time both in Afghanistan and in Iraq as a photojournalist. The risk of getting killed in these countries seems awfully high to me - how did you decide to become a photojournalist covering war?

Peter van Agtmael: I was interested in war from a very young age. I loved the shapes of fighter planes and the confidence and strength projected by uniforms. For a time I wanted to be a soldier. But I was also a sensitive child, and had no real conception of what war meant. Several events changed me. The first Gulf War ended when I was ten. I had rigorously followed the buildup to war, spewing statistics to anyone who would listen and laminating pictures of U.S. troops I had cut from the New York Times, and which I carried in my pockets everywhere I went. Sometime after the war, I was in the local library and came across a photo retrospective of the conflict. Inside were the obvious jingoistic icons but there were also images of the road of death leading back to Iraq, the Kenneth Jarecke picture of a horrible burned Iraqi soldier, the David Turnley picture of a wounded soldier weeping next to a body bag containing his buddy. Those pictures shocked me. Until that point my conception of death was the exaggerated, bloodless, noble kind from old war movies.

Around the same time I discovered the book, I was in a summer camp that taught us to shoot. I was a pretty good shot and proudly brought the targets back to show my mom. She was horrified, reminding me of the obvious, that learning to shoot is only useful if you plan on killing something. I don’t remember consciously making the connection between her words and the images I had seen, but it wasn’t long after that I stopped thinking of joining the Army. But my interest in war continued.

When I was in college I became very idealistic about the idea that images could eventually end war. Pictures had profoundly changed my own views of the world, and I wanted to continue in that tradition. I picked up a camera at nineteen and soon after I felt I’d filled in a huge piece in the puzzle of my existence. When I was a senior, America invaded Iraq, and I knew that eventually I would be going.

After graduation, I won a fellowship to spend a year in China. When I returned, I joined an agency that needed a photographer in South Africa, where I spent a year building up my understanding of how to construct photos from my emotions, as well as confidence in myself. I started getting regular assignments from Time, and spent much of my free time documenting the life of Holy Moyo, an amazing Zimbabwean refugee living in a shantytown south of Johannesburg.

By the end of 2005 I decided I was ready for Iraq. I felt comfortable in difficult circumstances, and major publications seemed willing to print my images. Also, I could no longer bear not to go. I told my agency, my parents (who were horrified, angry, depressed but not really surprised), arranged to embed with the U.S. Army, and a month later I was in Iraq.

A memorial service for SGT Kevin Jessen, killed the previous day in Rawah, Iraq by an Improvised Explosive Device buried in the road.

JC: And then, once you were in Iraq, how long did it take you to adjust to the war? Were you shocked by the initial experience? And how did your photographic work evolve - if it did - while you were in Iraq and Afghanistan?

PvA: The days preceding all my flights into a war are nerve wracking and lonely. The knowledge that I could be easily killed is a hard burden. If I were living for myself it would be much easier, but my family is very close. My mother lost her younger brother shortly before I was born, and when I was growing up the burden of that loss was a strong presence in the family. I thought I was doing what I was meant to do, but I also felt very selfish. Still, I felt an unexpected calm when I strapped into the plane that would take me to Iraq.

It didn’t take long to get to my first embed in Mosul. There were no other journalists being processed through, and getting around is surprisingly easy. Helicopters run frequent circuits around the major bases in Iraq and it rarely takes more than a day to get to any point in the country. I went out on my first patrol a few hours after arriving on base. I’ll never forget that feeling of stepping out of the vehicle. Despite my fears and a notion of what doubtless lay ahead, I was oddly euphoric. Reality, of course, wouldn’t take long to set in. Like everyone else, I now bear the burden of my experiences, and my hubris.

A suspected insurgent is interrogated by U.S. soldiers during a raid on his home.

I believe my work has evolved with my understanding, but the deeper I’ve explored, the more confused I’ve become. Who was good? Who was bad? What did those words even mean? I really liked the soldiers individually, and I knew they wanted to be noble and just, but they were ultimately invaders, and largely unwelcome. When I looked into the eyes of an insurgent as he was being detained, I didn’t think I was looking at a heartless killer. Mostly they were just scared young men. They seemed to be local boys wrenched from their ordinary lives by circumstance, not crazed and ruthless extremists. Not so different from the soldiers, really. I tried to capture those contradictions wherever I could in my pictures.

This understanding took time to develop, and at first I was so shocked by the violence I had no interest in photographing anything else. I’ll always remember one particular day shortly after arriving. I had complained to some soldiers about how quiet things were, and they looked at me like I was crazy. They had seen their fill. A few minutes later our vehicle was slammed with an enormous concussion. We’d narrowly avoided being hit by an IED. Then we were shot at and went on a wild running chase through the streets. We were mortared, and then a suicide bomber slammed a patrol a few blocks from us, severely wounding several soldiers. Then another IED, which resulted in civilian casualties. I never complained about a calm day ever again.

After several months of concentrating on war’s ravages, I needed a break. I went back to the U.S. for about six weeks and thought about what I’d seen. I looked at my pictures, and the Americans were always these shadowy figures inflicting horror. Despite making friends, I hadn’t humanized them in the least. I decided to go back to tell a more nuanced view. I also went back because I absolutely couldn’t relate to being back to normality and I was frightened to even try. Pictures of violence are important but ultimately alienating on their own. Very few people can relate to those kinds of moments, and I felt that they needed to be balanced by the compassion, humor, and courage I’d seen. So I set up an embed with the Baghdad ER. What better place to see war’s contradictions then to witness humans trying desperately to save the lives of the victims of our folly? Besides pain, the most enduring feeling in that ER was love. Unfortunately, when the two mix there are consequences, and the young medics in the ER took to intense self-medication, resulting eventually in the overdose death of a friend of mine, and the expulsion of several others from the military without any health benefits.

A U.S. soldier tries to play soccer with Iraqi children during a foot patrol in Mosul, Iraq.

JC: One of the recurring themes that I have come across when reading accounts of war is that apart from often having to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many if not most soldiers refuse to talk about their experiences because their families and friends simply cannot comprehend what they went through. I think for photojournalists who go to war zones, something similar might exist - you clearly must have seen things that I cannot imagine. After having been exposed to Afghanistan and Iraq, is that something you struggle with? And if yes, how do you deal with it?

PvA: Everyone who sees enough trauma gets PTSD. It takes different forms for different people, but I certainly have it. For me, In me, it has manifested itself fairly traditionally, in bouts of depression, irrational anger, and damaged relationships.

I’ve been able to work through most of my problems on my own. The lucky thing about being a photographer is that you usually have the photographic evidence of your worst memories. It took me a long time to look at some of my pictures, especially of the Baghdad ER, but I’m making peace with my experiences. It helps hugely that I genuinely believe in the power of photojournalism, even if its effects are completely abstract.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. When asked in the 1970’s what the effects of the French Revolution were, he famous replied that it was still ‘too soon to tell.’ Although my cynical side believes that every generation of humanity will repeat the previous generations mistakes (after all there have been thousands of years of humanistic thinking). I still hold out hope that sometime, somehow, all the pictures and videos and words will force that critical mass of humanity to renounce war. We will all be long dead by then, but I still want to play my part.

It also helps that I never carried a gun, and thus never had to pull the trigger and take someone’s life. Most people that kill another person will never fully recover from it. A few months ago I was playing darts with some friends who were recovering from their wounds at Walter Reed. Near the end of the game, one of the guys told us that he’d killed a little girl in Iraq. Her parents were turning over illegal weapons they had stashed in their house, and they had given her a grenade to return, supposing that they would have been shot if they tried to approach the soldiers with it themselves. If I had been able to capture his face when he told us that story, it would have said a lot about war. There are a lot of other memories I wish I had pictures for.

SGT Nick Sprovtsoff of Flint, Michigan looks at a slideshow of images from home before going to bed. Sprovtsoff, 24, was in the final months of his third combat tour since joining the marines when he was eighteen. He was living in a remote outpost in Eastern Afghanistan, training and patrolling with a squad of Afghan soldiers. His previous two deployments had been to Iraq, where he saw heavy fighting and lost one of his closest friends.

I’ve tried to be aware of the changes in my life brought on by my experiences, but I don’t know what I don’t know, and I recently started going to a psychologist that specializes in PTSD. I started thanks to the example of my friend Ashley Gilbertson, an extremely brave photographer who has worked in Iraq since the beginning of the war. He recently released his book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Army lingo for ‘What the Fuck?’ without a doubt, the most accurate title about war ever conceived), where he talks candidly about his own experiences with PTSD. If the bravest amongst us can admit it, why shouldn’t I? I hope more journalists do the same; PTSD needs to be roundly de-stigmatized.

JC: One of the new recent developments has been to “embed” journalists with troops. While I can see how this setup provides a lot of protection for the journalists, it also appears to run counter the practices of journalism itself, where, at least in theory, someone tries to find out what is going on in as objective a manner as possible. Doesn’t embedding create a bias? Is what we get to see from, say, Iraq really what’s going on there?

PvA: I think that’s a question with many answers, and is subject mostly to the integrity of the journalist. I will answer from my own experience. I wanted to see Iraq and Afghanistan through my own eyes, without deadlines or editorial constraints. In many ways I had a built-in bias. I’m an American, and was twenty-four when I first went to Iraq, the same age as many of the soldiers. When I was embedded, I lived with them, often in the same room. We became friends. Almost all were good people.

But my work is about the contradictions in war. While I focused my camera on the individual soldiers, trying to humanize them for our self-deceptive, hero-worshiping culture, I didn’t shy away from the moments of misery and horror that they created. Particularly disturbing were the frequent midnight raids, where the soldiers would burst into the home of a suspected insurgent, yelling and pointing their weapons and dragging the men out of their beds while women and children screamed and wept. I went on dozens of these raids, and the soldiers only captured their intended target a few times.

There was an occasion where I censored myself, which I’ve always regretted. I was on a patrol in Mosul, and we heard a staccato of shots coming from some blocks away. We raced over to where the shots had come from, and we found a bullet-riddled body lying in the street. A policeman returning home had been murdered in a drive-by shooting. As we arrived on the scene, the family of the policeman burst out of their house, clutching and clawing at one another and shrieking miserably. The patrol I was with was deeply affected by the scene and started pounding on all the neighbors doors, demanding to know if they’d seen or heard anything. The neighbors were scared witless, and claimed they hadn’t heard anything, not even the gunshots. As we were going door-to-door, a few young men began hanging about, giving us venomous looks. A beefy soldier, angry about the murder and the reluctance of the populace to help the investigation (he was in the sixth month of his tour, and no doubt had seen many similar situations) ran to them and grabbed one with each arm and slammed them against a wall. The platoon commander ran up and put his pistol to their heads, demanding to know if he’d participated in the shooting. It was an act of frustration, and I hesitated for a few seconds. When I finally raised my camera, the platoon leader saw me and lowered his gun, and I snapped a picture but it was too late. I had a personal affection for the guy and it clouded my judgment.

But for the most part, the embedding system was pretty amazing. I was never censored by a soldier. Once the executive officer of a battalion I was with tried to prevent me from going on raids, but when I told the company commander who was taking me on patrols he just laughed and completely disregarded the order. When I was embedded in the Baghdad ER, I was shooting sixteen-hour shifts, seven days a week. I was nodding out constantly, but a medic would always wake me up when helicopters carrying the wounded were inbound, and the staff always made space for me in the very small ER. I was pretty amazed by that.

SGT Jackson rests in the home of a suspected insurgent after a late night raid by U.S. soldiers. Two men were detained.

JC: How much interaction did you end up having with Iraqis?

PvA: Not a whole lot. The only meaningful personal contact I had with Iraqis was with the interpreters. They were generally young men, often Kurds (who usually hated the Arabs) or educated opportunists that had been caught up by the idealism of the early days and found it impossible to return to their previous lives after throwing in their lot with the U.S. I didn’t meet many who were gung-ho about the U.S. at that point, but the money was good and there really weren’t many options for them. Most of them eventually wanted to go to the U.S. but weren’t having any luck. That was the way most of our interactions began. As a journalist, they wanted to know if I could help them get to America. Some had been on thousands of combat missions, had received commendations for valor, and yet had repeatedly been rejected for visas.

While working in the ER in Baghdad, one of the translators was murdered. He had been followed home from a checkpoint after leaving work in the Green Zone. The rest of the translators demanded they be given housing in the Green Zone, or they would quit. The staff did their best, but translators around the country were making the same demands as the violence spiraled out of control.

Another Iraqi I got to know was a smiley Colonel named Mohammed, who commanded a battalion of Iraqi troops in Amiriyah, one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods. He was brave to the point of foolhardy, and fiercely non-sectarian. I witnessed the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq ask for his loyalty in case of civil war, and Mohammed refused, point blank. The next day I raced into the Green Zone with his American advisor when we heard security forces from the Ministry of the Interior were trying to throw his family out of their house and into the streets of Baghdad. That was a virtual death sentence, as he’d already had nine family members murdered because of his prominence. I made a show with my cameras, and claimed to be working for a big American magazine, and the advisor bluffed and threatened, and eventually the forces left. But there were several more crises, and eventually Mohammed was relieved of command and resettled in the U.S. He’s one of the lucky ones.

Specialist Lucas Yaminishi holds up the bloody shoe of the victim of a suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq. Nine people were killed and over twenty wounded in the bombing, one of the first of its kind in Mosul.

JC: I usually read European and American news sources, and I often note differences in what the same magazine (website) will show on its European and its American pages. Just as an example, in September 2006, a Newsweek cover story entitled “Losing Afghanistan” in the US was changed to a cover about Annie Leibowitz - so there clearly are some selections being made by editors about what and how much the American public actually gets to see. What is you experience with this?

PvA: While there has been a lot of phenomenal and revealing coverage of the war, especially by The New York Times, my main experience with censorship has come from the media, not the military. I will cite a few examples.

A few days after finishing my first tour to Iraq, I picked up a copy of a very well known American magazine at the airport in Holland. I was flipping through it absently when I came upon a brutal picture I had taken of the aftermath of a suicide bombing, run across nearly a full page [see photo above]. I called my parents to tell them the good news and they went out to buy a copy. In the U.S. edition, in place of my picture they found an image of a few helicopters taking off. I was pretty crushed.

A few months later I got an email from a friend in England saying that one of my pictures of a wounded American soldier had run in another major American magazine. I went out to buy a copy and in the U.S. edition was a picture of a soldier running through a darkened room.

In 2007 I won a World Press Photo award for a series of twelve photographs on night raids. I received a lot of publicity, and the pictures were published all over, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been a single picture from that series that ran in the U.S. To fund my trips, I did assignments. One was to photograph a USO show, another was to photograph a soldier training for the Boston marathon, and still another was to photograph the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. They were enjoyable, but in seven months of embedding I only received one assignment to photograph combat operations, and that story was never published.

So while some photographers have had good experiences with the media and publishing, I have to admit I’ve been incredibly disappointed. I just had my first big spread of Afghanistan work published, and it was in Croatia!

I’m changing tactics these days to focus much more on the internet, and that has so far been more successful. I recently did a piece with ABCnews.com that was far more revealing than most of the work I’d previously had published. I think it’s incredibly important for people to see the true ravages of war, which are usually absent from the U.S. news media.

For me, the worst moments in Iraq and Afghanistan defined me, and as the sole witness to these events with a means to record them, I felt a deep responsibility to disseminate the photos. Photographs can only convey a tiny fraction of what it feels like to be there, but are better than these tragic events getting lost in the anonymity of history. If only the public were given a better opportunity to see for themselves. Things might be very different.

Specialist Jeff Reffner of Altoona, PA is turned on his side by doctors checking for lacerations on his back. Reffner was severely wounded when an IED impacted next to his humvee in Baghdad. Although in extreme pain, Reffner was more concerned about his friend Jeff Forshee who was also wounded in the blast. Reffner was evacuated back to the U.S. and is still recovering from his wounds, while Forshee suffered lighter wounds and was returned to his patrol base to see out the final six months of his deployment.

JC: In an article entitled We Are The Thought Police, Michael Massing argues that to a large extent the coverage of the war - and thus our exposure to what is going on - is shaped not only by what the media show us, but also what we want to (or can bear to) see. “Americans,” he writes, “reluctant to confront certain raw realities of the war — have placed strong filters and screens on the facts and images they receive.” If we are to assume that that’s true then maybe things might be very different after all?

PvA: Thank you for pointing me towards that article. Massing definitely has a convincing point, but in order to continue working I can’t allow myself to be that cynical. It’s true that if you go to your local magazines stand, you can see where our priorities lie. Mostly it seems to be in celebrities, commodities, and ourselves. If we wanted hard, revealing news about the consequences of our nations decisions, and the state of the world around us, the few news magazines wouldn’t be such light reading, and every major newspaper in the country wouldn’t be hemorrhaging money.

After my second trip to Iraq I bought a bunch of old copies of Vietnam-era Life and Time magazines from a cranky cigar smoking old man who has a table of dusty wares set up a few blocks from my grandparents’ place in NYC. Maybe I came across an unrepresentative sample of magazines, but there seemed to be many more strong images being published in the Vietnam era. The media played a decisive role in ending an unjust war in Vietnam. It shows the media’s limitations that the unpredictable path of history ultimately betrayed that triumph. After all, the very generation that came of age in Vietnam launched the war in Iraq!

So is there a solution? Maybe a start would be to look at recent German history. It seems that at this moment, Germans have renounced any form of aggressive war. But this only came as a result of the devastating death toll of your soldiers, and more importantly your civilians, during the two World Wars. Although I’d like to believe that Americans will learn from these wars, only a tiny percentage of the population is being touched. That makes a lasting legacy difficult to maintain. Compound that by the fact that the ones who bleed for this country rarely end up running it. I went to college at Yale, a traditional feeder into politics, and yet I’m one of just a handful who is intimately familiar with the feeling of going to war. That’s a bit of a scary feeling. I worry that my generation will make more mistakes in the name of noble ideals.

SGT Josh Jump of Laramie, WY in the Baghdad ER after an IED impacted on his vehicle. Jump was evacuated to the U.S. where he recovered from his wounds.

JC: After you came back to the US did you stay in touch with the soldiers of the unit you were embedded in? If so, how did they react to your photos?

PvA: I’m in touch with many soldiers I’ve met in Iraq and Afghanistan, and talk to folks every week. We usually talk about the wars, about the things that we don’t want to burden our friends and loved ones with. Often times, it continues to be a ‘professional’ relationship as well, although the line between professional and personal have blurred with my work at home. I continue to follow these stories domestically because I think it’s important to relate the abstraction of life in war to the familiarity of home. The pictures that impact people sometimes seem hard to predict, but I think that everyone can relate to the familiar.

I’ve shown my work to many soldiers. Their judgment is very important to its credibility. Although some people will feel that I have wrongly chosen to exclude certain aspects of my observations, I hope the work is viewed as something authentic and relatable. So far I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback, although most think that it’s a little on the bleak side. One question I’m frequently asked is how I was able to photograph wounded soldiers so closely. When soldiers would come into the ER, they would usually be already doped up with painkillers from the medevac flight. I would ask I could take their picture. With only one exception, they agreed readily. The exception was embarrassed that he’d nearly torn off his thumb through a careless mistake and didn’t want it publicized. Some of them have contacted me months later, updating me on their recovery and saying, ‘thank you for showing the people what is really going on in the world.’

A woman at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day grieves at the grave of a loved one killed in Iraq. She had sat in silence by the grave for hours, hunched and tightly grasping a bouquet of flowers. Families visiting other fallen soldiers reached out to try to comfort her, but she was unresponsive. As dusk fell and the other families left, she clasped the grave tightly until the last light faded.

I get really frustrated when I hear excuses about not publishing pictures in the name of protecting the privacy of wounded soldiers. With few exceptions, the folks I’ve met have wanted others to see what they went through in their name. I think the real problem is that America has a guilty conscience and we don’t want to see the pain caused by our folly.

Sometimes I get really depressed about the state of the world, and my inability to affect any sort of tangible change. It’s at those times that I try and remember a line from the Vonnegut novel, The Sirens of Titan, ‘Following the death of Jesus Christ, there was a period of readjustment that lasted for approximately one million years.’ Maybe my ideals won’t amount to much in the short term, but I hope that my pictures can play some role in improving the future.

This conversation was commissioned by American Photo and can also be found here.