Skip to content

The Photographer’s Dilemma

Peter van Agtmael in the maw of the American war machine

1. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2007. Lieutenant Erik Malmstrom turns away from photographs of the coffins of his soldiers who were killed in a Taliban ambush in the Waigul Valley on August 11, 2006. By the end of the deployment, Malmstrom’s brigade had lost more men than any single unit in Afghanistan since the war began.

2. Houston, Texas, 2013. Bobby Henline didn’t realize how badly he was injured until he returned home. When that sank in, he prayed for God to take him in his sleep. He didn’t want to be a burden on his family.

In a period that began with such striking images of the collapse of the Twin Towers, it is notable that there are few memorable photographs from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fewer still taken by professional photographers. This is partly due to the changing nature of conflict. Every war correspondent can repeat Robert Capa’s famous line, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” But when drone pilots in Nevada carry out missile strikes in Pakistan, it isn’t clear where to stand, or where the action is taking place. Besides, in a world where everyone has a camera, and even missiles take their own selfies, the role of the war correspondent isn’t so precisely defined.

Not that this has stopped anyone. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq saw a stampede of photojournalists eager to embed with coalition forces. There was something anachronistic about many of the images they made, which recycled the visual imaginary of the Vietnam War, all tired, tough Marines and anonymous, broken bodies. The last twenty years have seen a series of critiques of this form of witnessing. Writers like Julian Stallabrass have pointed out that the embedded photographers of America’s conflicts cannot claim to stand outside the fray of battle. They are firmly part of the war machine. James Nachtwey, a five-time winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award, has created a body of work that is emblematic of the impasse. His sparse images of Iraqi suffering evoke an older world, in which an American photographer could present people dying abroad, devoid of context, in the pages of Life magazine. I cannot help but wonder what Nachtwey’s Iraqi subjects would make of his images. His photographs risk reproducing the American public’s disconnect with the wars fought in its name. They are pictures of the incomprehensible misery of those with unpronounceable names, in which politics and history take a back seat to spectacle.

Moving away from the conventions of photojournalism, several contemporary artists and photographers have instead focused on the uncertain distances that mark contemporary conflict. Trevor Paglen’s work examines the secret spaces of the War on Terror. Through images of a black site in Kabul and a covert air base in Nevada, he makes visible the material infrastructure of a world of extraterritorial prisons and extraordinary renditions. His images are one answer to the problem posed by Capa’s challenge in an era of precision warfare. The action doesn’t take place on the battlefield—there we find only the simulacrum of heroism—but in the blank spaces on the map. We need to show what cannot be shown. An-My Lê’s images in 29 Palms offer another answer. In her photographs of troops training in the heat of the Californian desert, she shows a war already scripted in advance: worked out in Washington for deployment in Waziristan.

Peter van Agtmael’s work represents a third possibility. Since 2006, he has photographed the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and explored the gaps between the fantasies that sustain these wars and the lived experiences of the soldiers involved. In his photographs, it is the chimeras of war that seem furious and authentic, while combat often seems placid, if not unreal. In one image, a patrol moves through an arid landscape in Helmand Province bleached by an unrelenting sun. Shot from above, it seems totally still, as if composed of toy soldiers placed in Afghanistan by a child’s hand. In another image, flares redden smoke spilling out from burning oil drums, while spotlights illuminate empty buildings. It looks like what I imagined war in Iraq to be like, though in fact it was shot in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, where a paintball competition based on the D-Day landings was underway.

Van Agtmael’s oeuvre, which now includes five books, is less a study of American warfare than of America at war: its nationalism and its narratives, its enabling dreamworlds and quieter aporias. He hasn’t invented a new visual language for these conflicts or looked at unseen sides of Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, his work illuminates how fantastical these wars were to begin with, sutured with dreams and images exported alongside bombs and missiles. In answer to the question of where one should stand to comprehend America’s wars, van Agtmael answers: amid its fantasies, its dreams of itself.

An exemplary van Agtmael photograph—he includes a version in his first two books—is of one of his reoccurring subjects, a soldier by the name of Erik Malmstrom. By the end of his deployment, Malmstrom’s brigade lost more men than any single unit in Afghanistan. In the picture, shot in Jalalabad, Malmstrom is in uniform, turned away from a photograph of flag-wrapped coffins of three of his soldiers, who were killed in a Taliban ambush. He is staring at portraits on the adjoining wall. At its end, closest to the viewer, you can see a picture of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower. Malmstrom seems lost, suspended between the images.

Disregarding the Pain of Others

The last photograph in Buzzing at the Sill, van Agtmael’s third book, returns us to his beginnings. A silver take-away tray is shot from above and gleams in the flash, its contents spilled onto a worn carpet. It’s an artfully disordered still life of the sort of things I keep at my mother’s house—unable to throw them away, I know they will never be used again. Van Agtmael stands above them like a detective before a crime scene, inspecting his childhood, his feet poking into the frame from the right. Amidst dead batteries and superglue, I can see a tiny plastic Colt, a flintlock, and many a toy soldier. In the accompanying text, van Agtmael tells us that as a boy he loved playing war. In 1993, during the invasion of Somalia, he staged a battle on the carpet; the Americans were outgunned. Weeks later came the disastrous Blackhawk Down operation, and young Peter was convinced he willed the battle into being. In playful terms, the story establishes one of van Agtmael’s central questions: What role does our imaginary of war play in its actual course?

Moving away from the conventions of photo-journalism, some artists and photographers have instead focused on the uncertain distances that mark contemporary conflict.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1981, van Agtmael had a comfortable childhood in Maryland, where he grew up dreaming of war. Interspersed among the photographs in his books are recollections of the conflicts he heard about as a boy and the tales of an exemplary grandfather who fought in World War II. These sketches suggest the way that his childhood, like so many others, was saturated with war stories. In his books, portraits of shellshocked Marines sit side-by-side with pictures of kids stalking through fields with BB guns. What saves these juxtapositions from facile polemic is van Agtmael’s willingness to offer himself up as a specimen for inquiry. He was seduced by images of war. He doesn’t want to celebrate or decry that seduction, but rather understand how it functions.

Van Agtmael always knew he would go to war. “I had felt it in me from the beginning of my consciousness,” he has written. At Yale, he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on how the World War II iconography of the Chetniks and the Ustaše, Yugoslav royalists and fascists, was revived during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. After graduating, he began a career as a photographer, working in China and then covering the tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean region in 2004. He headed to Bangkok to recuperate, boasting to tourists about having covered the elections in Iraq. It was a lie, of course, but mentally he was already there. It’s a brave photographer who will lay out, so honestly, his dishonest obsession with war. “The night before going to Iraq for the first time,” he writes, “I was staying in a hotel room in Kuwait. I walked around in my underwear in front of a mirror wearing my new body armor and helmet and felt like a real badass.”

From the beginning, van Agtmael’s perspective as a chronicler of war has been doubled. He is at once a keen observer of conflict and of his own place in the action. Arriving in Baghdad in 2006, he feels exhilarated to be embedding with American soldiers. He writes of wanting to create photographs that make a difference—though how is left curiously underspecified. This is a romantic conception of the war photographer: someone who braves danger, saves images from oblivion, and makes us look at them. The coordinates of the us are fixed: there is a dangerous battleground abroad, and a population back home in need of education. Susie Linfield celebrated this figure in her influential 2010 study The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. As Linfield’s narrative makes clear, the war photographer came to prominence during the two World Wars and reached his—the gendering is justified—apotheosis in Vietnam. The power of the photographs produced during that conflict, however, relied partly on their relative scarcity, as well as on the size and the scale of the anti-war movement that received them back in America. In Afghanistan and Iraq, in contrast, there was a surfeit of images, and back home, little in the way of a powerful anti-war movement.

The stakes of war were different this time, too. Robert Capa once told Martha Gellhorn that “in a war, you must hate somebody or love somebody, you must have a position, or you cannot stand what goes on.” His images of the fraternity of Republican struggle in the Spanish Civil War spell out exactly where his sympathies lie. In Iraq, in contrast, no foreign photographer felt able to side with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, or any of the other factions splintering the country. Instead, they settled for embedding with American troops, which in time made for a respectful, if uneasy, fraternity. Or else, like Nachtwey, they rendered suffering in the passive voice.

To his credit, van Agtmael doesn’t escape these dilemmas, but rather exposes them in his work. His first book, 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die, covers the trips he made to Afghanistan and Iraq from 2006–2008. It is an at-times lurid look at America’s wars abroad, which includes photographs of a woman posing on a Marine assault vehicle during “Fleet Week” in New York City and the blood stains on the floor of the Baghdad ER. His second book, Disco Night Sept 11, reworks some of the same material, extending his investigations through to 2013, in a quieter, more somber register. In both works, van Agtmael hews closely to the occupiers and shows himself to be a keen chronicler of their limitations. In his photographs, Marines snatch moments of rest, swimming in irrigation canals in saturated sunlight, or else watch DVDs on laptops in the darkness of their bunkers. It’s easy to imagine that for them, the mess hall, with its burgers and fried chicken, seems far more real than the world outside the Green Zone. Van Agtmael doesn’t cover major events or follow the ready-made media narrative of the occupations. If anything, he flattens the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, dwelling on the similarities between both occupations—above all, how American soldiers seemed totally disconnected from the countries they deigned to invade.


3. Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan, 2009. Marines on patrol minutes before an IED was triggered. Although the patrol had cautiously swept the road with metal detectors, they’d failed to find the device.

4. Mosul, Iraq, 2006. American soldiers on a foot patrol noticed that two young men were eying them and fidgeting. Anticipating violence, they stormed their house.

To go by van Agtmael’s photographs, the only difference was that Afghanistan is a war of patrols, while Iraq was a war of raids. Afghanistan is nervous young men with guns wandering through desert landscapes and high mountain passes. Iraq is nervous young men with guns glimpsing frightened faces and staring at the bloodied grimaces of those they arrest. In one image, shot in Iraq, van Agtmael captures events unfolding in separate rooms. The text explains that American soldiers had noticed two young men eyeing them (as one might eye men with guns). Unnerved and anticipating violence, the soldiers stormed the house. To the right, we glimpse three Americans, seen through the doorway, in moody blue light, ripping a room apart. The objects in front of them are hard to distinguish—already rubbish, already broken—but the cabinet is made of good wood, perhaps mahogany. To the left, in another room, we can glimpse an Iraqi boy of perhaps twelve, exposed by bright yellow light, his back to the wall, his feet on a carpet, and his head bent forward toward an unseen interrogator. Though the soldiers found nothing in the house, the two young men were blindfolded, bound, and bundled into the back of a waiting vehicle. This is a story that plays out in photo after photo, as American soldiers search for enemies and weapons, preferably in the same house. From the accompanying texts, we learn that sometimes nothing is found, and yet Iraqis die. On other raids, weapons are discovered and there are only arrests. For Iraqis, these raids must have been frighteningly aleatoric.

Van Agtmael was seduced by images of war. He doesn’t want to celebrate or decry that seduction, but rather understand how it functions.

It’s not quite right to describe van Agtmael’s photographs as surreal. It’s true that he places images of naked women next to bloodied faces, and celebrations and military parades beside corpses. These juxtapositions, though, amount to a realistic portrait of a surreal world, suggesting the fantasy that ballasts the violence of American occupation. This discombobulation is also reflected in the books’ organization. We move from Afghanistan to Iraq and back again over a few pages, stopping off at a pro-war rally at the Washington Monument, a KKK assembly in Maryland, and the McDonald’s at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. Van Agtmael’s images are alive to the horrible comedy of this life—the way that worlds rub up against each other, without ever connecting. I’ve yet to see an image by van Agtmael in which Afghans or Iraqis are actually speaking to an American. The only moments of connection are between kids and soldiers. One image shows Iraqi children, shot against the clay and wattle wall of their dwelling, looking on in apprehension and delight as a Marine mounts a donkey that seems too small to hold his weight.

Van Agtmael’s first two books tell a story of disenchantment. They follow a young man who believed in good and evil, and in the possibility that photography could reveal the truth about the world. At the end of this period, he cuts a less sanguine and more self-critical figure. In the introduction to 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die, he reflects despondently on our incapacity to recognize our own fictions. Through the course of the war, he writes, it seemed like “we invest all the more desperately in the lies we tell ourselves.”

In the wake of fantasy’s failure, there is silence. One photo in Disco Night Sept 11 is taken in the village of Mian Poshteh in southern Helmand Province. A village elder sits next to a Marine, his eyes closed. He might be sleeping, or else simply waiting for the American to leave. His watch faces the camera as if to suggest he has time on his side. The Marine looks despondent. Elections are coming up, for which index fingers will be stained purple to prevent repeat voting. In the text, elders inform the Marine that there shall be no voting at all. If we vote, they explain, the Taliban will find out, and cut off our fingers. The Marine looks off into the middle distance. His gaze seems to measure the gap between the stories America tells him and a world that stubbornly refuses to conform to these narratives. It’s a form of solitude I often encounter in van Agtmael’s work.

An American Quiet

Alongside the irreal and oneiric frontiers of America’s wars, van Agtmael’s work has always focused on veterans as they struggle to make lives back home. This is the domestic front of the forever war. His approach makes for a post-heroic photography, which follows the quiet, courageous lives of men persevering in the aftermath of violence. In these lonely portraits, van Agtmael evokes the sadness and incommunicability of trauma, while attending to moments of community that allow for healing: family unifications and conversations at the cemetery. I shall never forget his picture of Bobby Henline, dealing with terrible burns, adrift in a blue swimming pool, his face almost a mask amid the play of light on its surface. Or of Robert Chamberlain, in bed at dawn, about to be promoted to Major, his lonely eyes staring out beyond the camera, the rest of his body wrapped in a duvet.

Van Agtmael exposes the centrality of war to America’s image of itself, and the way military hagiography and empire are bound up with civic nationalism.

What makes these images all the more poignant is the artificial loudness of the celebrations that van Agtmael also chronicles: Salute to the Service Month in the National Football League and an arms show in the Washington Convention Center, Ms. Veteran America and Armed Forces Appreciation Day at the Houston Rodeo. These spectacles bring home the centrality of war to America’s image of itself, and the way military hagiography and empire are bound up with civic nationalism.

A particularly striking sequence in Buzzing at the Sill shows that paintball competition in Wyandotte. Many veterans are participating, keen to find a sense of comradeship missing elsewhere. It looks fun. In one image, a sniper hides behind concrete blocks decorated with the purple rosettes of paintballs. In front of him is a ruined Huey transport helicopter, of the sort made famous during the Vietnam War. To his left is an anti-tank obstacle of the “kind used on the beaches of Normandy,” van Agtmael writes. These curious condensations of time reminded me of his toy soldiers, with their mixtures of eras and weapons. It’s as if all of America’s wars have collapsed into a single pastiche: a collection of fetishized objects without context, assembled together into a single long war. Painting ourselves by numbers on the paintball field.

The latest two books by van Agtmael, published last year, mark a new phase in his work. Sorry for the War considers the continuing fallout from America’s conflicts abroad, whose dizzying coordinates are approximated by a kind of culture jamming. Photographs of refugees on the Greek border, pinned by his flash against a gathering sky, are interspersed with proud Peshmerga and screenshots of ISIS propaganda videos. 2020 chronicles the pandemic year in America, though there are reoccurrences, which are both visual and political.

In almost all van Agtmael’s books, there is a face caught by a flash against a blooming tree. In the picture from Afghanistan, the tree’s beauty seems terrible, unconscionable, amidst so much violence. In the photograph included in 2020, it’s a face in a mask, glimpsed in a park, and it brought me back to the early months of last year, when everything seemed to be at once absolutely still and moving uncontrollably fast. Other echoes are more direct. Van Agtmael took his body armor, still covered with the dust of Iraq, with him to document the protests in Minneapolis. He left the Kentucky Derby in Louisville to photograph the Breonna Taylor memorial downtown and took images of armed white militia men. For an instant, I think I am looking again at a picture of Afghanistan or Iraq. Except that in those images, I was looking at people who were, in many cases, thinking about Vietnam, or about World War II. This is the forever war, returned to sender.

The point is well taken. Recent writing by Stuart Schrader, Samuel Moyn, and Stephen Wertheim, among others, has made clear the degree to which counterinsurgency abroad has transformed policing in America (and vice versa). To say that the forever war has come home, however, is a rhetorical exaggeration. The streets of Minneapolis in 2020 were not Baghdad in 2008. These nuances can be parsed in writing. In photography, the risk is that the differences are effaced. As if under the flares, all battles look red, and there is only a single landscape of conflict. The imperial consequences vanish from the narrative. With Afghanistan and Iraq forgotten, America continues to tell a story only about itself.

The Long Goodbye

In the wake of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan, I turned to the work of Afghan and Iraqi artists and photographers. I wanted to try and make sense of what was ending, and what would endure. In striking contrast to American photographers, who have been mesmerized by the eternal present of raids and patrols, artists in the region have insisted on framing the American occupations in light of longer histories. Jananne al-Ani’s images and films, which draw on archaeology, bring to light the sedimented stories and rich histories underneath an Iraqi landscape that, in American war photography since the first Gulf War, has been portrayed as barren and empty. Farshad Usyan’s rich, almost ethnographic photographs of Mazar-i-Sharif evoke social life in a manner sorely lacking from American photojournalism. These images, of children laboring in cotton fields and salesmen walking through red dust-storms, depict a country of people, where American photographers have tended to find only abstractions and abstract violence. Akam Shex Hadi’s photographs follow the lives of refugees in Erbil. They show people paused in landscapes, uncertain when life can begin again. The Americans might be leaving, but people are still displaced, and no one really fits in. It’s a world out-of-joint—which is the real inheritance, both visual and political, of the wars of occupation.

The last image of Sorry for the War suggests the impossible disjunctions with which we now live. Overhead, in the center of the photo, an F-16 Fighting Falcon flies through the desert sky. Such a plane, van Agtmael notes, costs $29.1 million. Below the plane is a homeless encampment at the edges of the Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, and at the left edge of the picture you can see a man, sitting among a pile of debris, in a comfortable chair. I wanted to pair this image with one Hatif Farhan shot of the destitute men of Al Rashid Street in Baghdad. They sit, staring into the middle distance, waiting for something to happen, as if pasted into the urban landscape. Somehow, a photographer needs to stand somewhere that can capture both speeds: the war machine and the fantasies that sustain it, and the silent people it leaves in its wake.


5. Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan, 2009. A Marine with a village elder from Mian Poshteh, a rural village in southern Helmand Province. The Marines were trying to build the Afghan Army.