Look at the USA: How Iraq and Afghanistan changed America’s image forever

The weight of war on the American psyche is recorded through the lens of brooding photojournalist Peter van Agtmael, writes Liam James

Monday 15 April 2024 12:05 BST
An American soldier rests during a night raid in Rawa, Iraq in 2006
An American soldier rests during a night raid in Rawa, Iraq in 2006 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)

Hundreds of pictures daily fly across the news wires from battlefields around the world, inviting their audience to engage from a distance with the horrors that warring parties inflict on each other.

Does the source of these images, the war photographer, throw themselves into harrowing and deadly environments for a sense of duty? A thrill? A paycheque?

Peter van Agtmael, who spent many years on the ground with his camera in Iraq and Afghanistan, offers a nuanced answer in his new book, Look at the USA: A Diary of War and Home, published this month by Thames & Hudson.

Buried bomb in Miam Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2009 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
Fleet Week, Arms Fair in Washington DC, 2018 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)

As the title suggests Van Agtmael, a Magnum photographer born in Washington DC, had America on his mind while at work. He was not a dispassionate recorder of events but someone deeply concerned with the state of his country and how it was being affected by the waging of war down generations.

“Why does war persist? It’s who we are ... Enough of us, anyhow, to make a mess of things,” he writes.

War had been an obsession of his from childhood, when the US first took up arms against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Gulf War. In the introduction to his latest book he details how his nine-year-old self was spellbound by the patriotic maelstrom that followed Desert Storm and the reams of what might these days be called “content” published alongside it.

By 2005, Van Agtmael was 24 and still fixated on war. The US was two years into its invasion of Iraq, so he signed up to join American troops as an embedded photographer, later going on to Afghanistan.

Before an ambush in Miam Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan in 2009 (Peter van Agtmael/Thames & Hudson)
Bobby Henline, a veteran of four tours in Iraq, in Houston, Texas, 2013 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)

Look at the USA brings together pictures from these tours with domestic photography to build a wider view of the American experience in the wake of 9/11, featuring also the imprints of nationalism, the election of Donald Trump, militarism, and race and class in American society.

Now 43 and living in Paris, Van Agtmael reflects on his years spent in war zones. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he said he had, for a time, been experiencing “moral confusion”.

Jennie Taylor chooses a headstone for her husband, Brent – killed by an Afghan soldier in an insider attack – in North Ogden, Utah in 2019 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
Trump rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, 2019 (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)

“Traditionally, photographers are meant to operate from a position of authority and clear-headed detachment, but I never related to that,” he said. “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.”

Van Agtmael’s earlier books Disco Night Sept 11 (2014), Buzzing at the Sill (2017) and Sorry for the War (2021) all dwell on post-9/11 America in some respect. With Look at the USA, he gathers images from these books – along with dozens of unseen photos – and guides the reader through them with his memories and thoughts on the meaning of the events and his work.

Raymond Hubbard, who lost his leg to a rocket attack in Iraq on 4 July 2006, plays Star Wars with his sons Brady and Riley in Darien, Wisconsin in 2007. (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)
Adnan Thanon Younis was blinded by an exploding shell in Mosul (Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos)

Van Agtmael is a mentor in the Arab Documentary Photography Program and has been a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos collective since 2013.

He is the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W Eugene Smith Grant, several World Press Photo awards and an ICP Infinity Award.

Look at the USA: A Diary of War and Home is available from Thames & Hudson here

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