A Diary of War and Home

In a new photobook published by Thames & Hudson, Peter van Agtmael shares a harrowing personal account of the post-9/11 era, at war and at home

Peter van Agtmael

Before an ambush. Mian Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan. 2009. All images © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

“The country was thrilled with itself: our failure in Vietnam had been exorcized, the Cold War was over, and the fiftieth anniversary of World War II was approaching.” writes Peter van Agtmael in the preface to his latest photobook, Look at the U.S.A: A Diary of War and Home. “The glow of victory reigned throughout the 90s. We were the world’s undisputed superpower, and there was a lot of money to be made by celebrating our military greatness as an extension of our benevolent democratic values. TV, movies, books, politics, school — everyone was on board. What a story, what a country.”

House raid. Mosul, Iraq. 2006.
Somewhere over Afghanistan. 2008.

It wasn’t until he first traveled to Iraq in 2006 that he began to understand the USA, he goes on to explain, disillusioned by the reality of war on the front lines in absurd contrast to the glorified narratives of war that he had read, watched, and listened to during his youth. “In a society where the highest-grossing war movie of all time is about an American sniper in Iraq who killed 160 people before being murdered himself by a traumatized veteran, it’s worth having counternarratives, even if they can’t really threaten the mainstream,” he writes.

Buried bomb. Mian Poshteh, Helmand, Afghanistan. 2009.

While Van Agtmael’s previously published photobooks Disco Night Sept 11, Buzzing at the Sill and Sorry for the War shed light on the American military at war, Look at the U.S.A. is his most thorough work of documentation to date, bringing together almost two decades of his practice. The personal tone is set at the very beginning of the book, opening with a conversation between himself and his parents before he was first deployed to Iraq in 2006. “I think the big concern I have is that at some point you will grow out of it, which is just a question of age and family circumstance,” his father says. “What, of course, terrifies me is that you won’t have a chance to grow out of it.”

Seeking medical treatment at an American base. Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan. 2009.
The Grand Palace Theatre. Missouri, U.S.A. 2015.
First aid training. South California, U.S.A. 2011.

In a selection of almost 200 images spanning seventeen years of careful documentation, harrowing images of war are juxtaposed with unsettling images of daily life in the U.S.A. Following a chronological narrative, the book traces Van Agtmael’s arrival in Iraq in 2006, through the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the aftermath of the battle of Mosul in 2017, to Afghanistan in 2022. And from his home country, the photographer captures Trump rallies in 2020, demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, and an overwhelmed funeral home in New York during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bobby Henline. Houston, Texas, U.S.A. 2013.

"Sometimes I felt like a real bastard to be taking pictures, but it felt worse when I hesitated and let a powerful moment pass, a record of the war lost forever."

Administrators survey the ruins of Mosul University. Mosul, Iraq. 2017.
Adnan Thanon Younis was blinded by an exploding shell in Mosul. Erbil, Iraq. 2017.

Alongside the images, autobiographical excerpts such as diary entries, memories, retrospective reflections, and messages from friends and family form a complex and searingly honest narrative. On occasion, we see behind his lens and into his deep reflections on his role and responsibility as a photographer.

Scaling the walls of the U.S. Capitol. Washington D.C., U.S.A, 2021.

“Sometimes I felt like a real bastard to be taking pictures, but it felt worse when I hesitated and let a powerful moment pass, a record of the war lost forever,” he writes in one excerpt. “The value of journalism can feel both critically important and terribly abstract. We would only know its true meaning in its absence, a horrifying thought. I choose to believe in its value, despite my doubts.”

Trump's first rally in Tulsa at the height of the pre-vaccination pandemic. Former Presidential candidate Herman Cain contracted Covid at the rally and died. Oklahoma, U.S.A. 2020.
A Second Line parade. New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A. 2012.

In the book’s afterword, he describes the complicated process of piecing together the myriad memories at war and at home together after so many years: “The once vivid memories are now mostly just pictures and words, both clarifying and obscuring what actually happened,” he writes. “I hope I told the story right.”

A malnourished boy collapses outside the Taliban foreign ministry. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2022.
Fleet Week is an annual showcase of American military and might. New York City, U.S.A. 2013.

“For every story that is recorded, there are nearly infinite ones we’ll never know,” he concludes. Look at the U.S.A. is his version of the story, now shared with the world. 

Look at the U.S.A.: A Diary of War and Home is now available to order on the Magnum Shop.

Join Peter van Agtmael for a book talk and signing at the Magnum Gallery and Bookshop in London on April 11. Book your tickets here

Van Agtmael is one of the three mentors in the upcoming Summer Course in Paris. With Lúa Ribeira and Newsha Tavakolian, the three photographers will lead a three-week course designed to help participants develop a photographic project and fanzine in the French capital. Book your spot here

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