Peter van Agtmael was born in Washington DC. He studied history at Yale, graduating with honors in 2003. Since 2006 he has primarily covered the 9/11 Wars and their consequences, working extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and the USA.
He has won the W. Eugene Smith Grant, the ICP Infinity Award for Young Photographer, the Lumix Freelens Award, as well as awards from World Press Photo, American Photography Annual, The Pulitzer Center, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and Photo District News.
In 2008 he helped organize the book and exhibition Battlespace, a retrospective of largely unseen work of 22 photographers covering Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peter joined Magnum in 2008 and became a full member in 2013.
1. How does one go from a Yale History major to a Magnum photographer? I see the connection to the subject matter you’re drawn to and your studies, but where did the photography skills and interest in it come from (self taught?)?
I don’t know if there’s a clear connection there. When I found photography I felt it in my blood and bones and Yale and Magnum were peripheral. If there’s any connection it’s that Yale made me set high expectations for myself and Magnum helped provide a path to aspire towards.Ultimately I was drawn to Magnum through my interest in a community and my interest in History, both of which Magnum embodied for me. Of course pursuing Magnum also satisfied certain parts of my ego and ambition.
2. I’m a big fan of your work because it’s subtle, yet complex. I’d love for you to talk about your process and approach because I get the feeling it’s a lot more cerebral than emotional
Emotion is the starting point but emotion can be cloudy and two dimensional on its own. I’ve tried to first let myself feel, then try to interpret what I’ve been feeling, then root it in the history of the medium and of human experience, which of course are two things that are cyclical but nonetheless leave plenty of room for freedom. They also help balance each other out. Sometimes the mind is terrifying and sometimes the heart is.
3. What’s interesting is looking through your bodies of work, I actually find the America stuff to be bleak and depressing (much more so than the Afghanistan and Iraq stuff, which I strangely find witty and hopeful). Is it the edit? Your particular outlook on the state of the union? Or something much deeper, darker and harder to get the pulse of inside of you that comes out in those pix? I guess what I’m most curious about is it something internal or external that you’re reacting to when you work?
The America stuff you’ve seen is the opening stages of that work. I’ve been working for five years on it but much of it isn’t online. The early phases were born out of a deep unease at the ability of our society to be so self-righteous, ignorant and violent without much in the way of self-reflection. That made me angry as hell. The early work was a manifestation of those feelings. Over time that has been fleshed out to a somewhat quieter and more nuanced anger tempered with a lot of love and appreciation.
4. What do you hope your work, specifically the new book “Disco Night Sept. 11,” does or says about you? And about war?
DN911 says something about me and these wars at a certain place and time. I have no idea what it will mean down the road. The hope is that the meaning isn’t easily identifiable…like war… like all of our lives… I’d rather not make anything that can be easily summed up.
5. What’s the next chapter?
I’m still working slowly around these wars and will be for the foreseeable future. More immediately, the America work is starting to gel into a book and I’m getting pretty deep into the Israel-Palestine conflict, which I expect to work on for the coming years. I loosely have my next ten years or so planned out, I’m just hoping the market doesn’t implode in the meantime so I can keep up the pace… A part of me also thinks that the work of photographers and journalists is like the band playing while the Titanic sinks. Humanity sure seems to be ruining this glorious orb hurtling through the solar system. I guess that’s just how it goes.
Support good photography about important things and buy Peter van Agtmael’s latest book “Disco Night Sept. 11.” You can get a signed copy at http://www.magnumphotos.com/Store/Product/Disco-Night-Sept.-11-2K1HRG5YVNLJ.html and an unsigned copy at www.redhookeditions.com.
And I highly recommend it.
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