‘I was always an uncertain and confused observer’: war photographer Peter van Agtmael on decades on the frontline

<span>Night raid, Rawa, Iraq, 2006. All images by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos</span><span>Photograph: Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos</span>
Night raid, Rawa, Iraq, 2006. All images by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum PhotosPhotograph: Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Peter van Agtmael was nine years old in August 1990 when America went to war with Iraq for the first time. Mesmerised by the wave of patriotic fervour that ensued, he cut out and cherished a newspaper diagram showing the array of technological weaponry deployed by the US military. In the introduction to his new photo book, Look at the USA: A Diary of War and Home, he writes: “This was very exciting stuff for an impressionable kid who felt like a weirdo outcast with a lot of time to dream.”

Van Agtmael, who was born in Washington DC, grew up “middle-class” in Bethesda, Maryland and has a degree in history from Yale, is now a seasoned war photographer and photojournalist with the Magnum photo agency. He is also a deep thinker who, he tells me at one point, often feels “stuck inside my own head”. He describes the book, which juxtaposes his reportage from Iraq and Afghanistan with unsettling images of everyday American life, as “a collection of fragments from the post-9/11 era”. Threaded through with often deeply personal, self-questioning reflections, it is also a fraught conversation with himself about the nature and thorny ethics of his vocation.

“For me,” he says, “the words and the images, as well as the personal details about my life, are all part of a bigger process insofar as they are a means to explore what I do, and why I am compelled to do it. Likewise the conversations I have with other photographers, but also with family members and close friends. I’ve learned that addressing your fears, flaws and anxieties helps you understand yourself and feel less alone.”

The first, and one of the most revealing fragments, is a memory of a conversation he had with his parents in their house in Easton, Maryland in 2005. He was 24, the second Gulf war was under way, and he had just told them that he was about to go to Iraq for the first time as a photographer embedded with the US army. Their reaction unsurprisingly was a mixture of bafflement and anxiety. “The big concern I have is that at some point you will grow out of it,” his father tells him, referring to his abiding fascination with war. “What of course terrifies me is that you won’t have the chance to grow out of it.”

Now, aged 43, Van Agtmael has, if this book is anything to go by, finally grown out of it and entered a period of deep self-reflection. “For a time, I’ve an ongoing crisis with myself and what you might call the moral confusion of my existence,” he tells me over the phone from Paris, where he now lives. “Traditionally, photographers are meant to operate from a position of authority and clear-headed detachment, but I never related to that. For me, the professional and the personal are all tied together. In this book, I wanted to be clear that I was always an uncertain and confused observer.”

His deep interrogation of photography, and in particular his own work, will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his earlier books, such as Disco Night Sept 11 (2014), Buzzing at the Sill (2017) and Sorry for the War (2021). They each deal in different ways with the discontents of post 9/11 America, and, to a degree, his own discontent with photography. His new volume gathers images from all of them, which he has sequenced in an often wilfully jarring merging of words and images. The captions alone give some sense of the visceral nature of his reportage from Iraq and Afghanistan: “Child beaten in the chaos of a raid”; “Before an ambush”; “Aftermath of a suicide bombing”.

The photographs are often triggers for painful but telling recollections from his time working alongside US soldiers, whom he depended on for his safety, and, in some instances, befriended, but ultimately remained apart from as a non-combatant. In his writing, he is adept at what might be called loaded understatement. One short, casually unsettling, passage reads: “As we passed through a Muslim cemetery, the chaplain accompanying us stopped to urinate. He called it a holy piss.” Another sentence evokes the bloody chaos of a night raid on a house in Mosul, already made all too real by the accompanying photograph: “A boy, deranged by violence, leapt at a soldier who smashed his face with a rifle butt.”

He photographs soldiers in action, on patrol amid indifferent or palpably hostile locals, relaxing in their cramped quarters and being tended to in field hospitals for often horrific injuries caused by car bombs. Back home, he briefly befriended one young soldier who had lost his leg in a rocket attack on an American base. They drank together and shared their thoughts. Then, as Van Agtmael, puts it: “The lines got blurred… It wasn’t working to be a friend, while also taking pictures that could be stark and brutal. Eventually we drifted apart.”

The narrative shifts abruptly from Baghdad and Mosul to Kentucky and Washington DC, and from desert plains and vast mountain ranges to the brutal economic fault-line of Eight Mile Road, which runs through Detroit, separating the city’s mostly white middle classes from its predominantly black urban poor. Van Agtmael’s American images suggest the simmering discontent that has since been leveraged by Donald Trump and a Republican party in thrall to his inflammatory rhetoric. In his home state of Maryland, he frames a lone figure in a white robe and hood walking into a woodland clearing towards a Ku Klux Klan induction ceremony.

“The more I understand the place, the less I can anticipate what is going to happen,” says Van Agtmael, “But when I was photographing in white, rural working-class areas before Trump came to power, I could definitely anticipate the forces that elected him. Suddenly I was hearing the crazy racist stuff that I hadn’t heard before and it was intensely uncomfortable. All you need is for someone with political power to give licence to people’s worst instincts and the gloves come off.”

In all of this, one cannot help but wonder about the psychological fallout of his deep and sustained engagement with violent conflict and social upheaval. In the book, he vividly describes his post-Iraq state of mind, the nights spent “awake until dawn smoking cigarettes and watching videos of gun battles on YouTube though I could barely look at my own photographs”. With family and friends, he became awkward and withdrawn, “too angry to really communicate what I’d seen and felt”.

The book, in all its messy, fractured, dissonant assemblage of images, words and confessions, is, one senses, the culmination of a long process of self-healing. He describes it tellingly as a final chapter. “There is something narcissistic about the whole undertaking,” he says, “but the constant looking inward is a way to make me look outward. I’m feeling proud of it and there’s a complexity and ambiguity to it, but, much like the photographs, it barely begins to scratch the surface of what I experienced.”

For the time being, he has laid down his camera and started painting, mainly “abstracted, figurative pictures” that are based on his memories and photographs. He describes them as “slightly grotesque and disturbing”, which is perhaps unsurprising. “Magnum has a long tradition of good photographers becoming mediocre painters,” he quips, “but I’m trying it and liking it. The hand takes over from the brain. It’s giving me a lot of peace.”

  • Look at the USA: A Diary of War and Home by Peter van Agtmael is published by Thames & Hudson (£40) on 4 April