When Peter van Agtmael ‘03 thinks about his convalescence, he pictures himself sitting in a rocking chair, looking through millions of photographs.
“Photography is my diary,” he said over the phone this week. It’s also his way of exposing the American public to the brutalities of war.
Van Agtmael is a photojournalist recently returned from a stint in Iraq. He has also worked in Afghanistan, as well as multiple countries in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, usually taking pictures for the New York Times or Time Magazine.
Of everywhere he’s been, Afghanistan might be his favorite, he said, because of the combination of danger and incredible beauty there. The first photo that came to his mind when asked to pick a favorite piece of his own work was a picture of a mountain landscape in Afghanistan with a single cloud floating above it — a sight he said was unlike any he had seen before.
Van Agtmael said he aims to make his photos either simple and beautiful, or emotionally complex. Either way, he said, they should encourage viewers to consider a new perspective on a place or person.
In Iraq, van Agtmael spent about three-quarters of his time embedded within the U.S. Army, documenting their lives and activities. But he said a crucial part of his work is exploring the streets of Baghdad by himself.
“When you’re with the American soldiers, [people] don’t see you as an individual,” he explained. “When you’re on your own, you’re more vulnerable, and you’re kind of a curiosity in a way. But it’s easier to connect to people and have them trust you.”
Still, some of his best work comes from time spent with the troops. He described a picture he took of a U.S. soldier with a weary expression, holding onto two dogs.
“To me, it seemed like a complex interpretation of humanity under those circumstances,” he said. “The man needed the physicality and affection of the dogs, and to be able to touch something. On the other hand, after 15 months of deployment, he had almost turned into an animal himself.”
During his most recent trip to Iraq, van Agtmael said he sensed a lot of anxiety about the withdrawal of U.S. troops and what could come next. Asked about the country’s future, he said he doesn’t know what it will look like. He doesn’t think anyone can predict what will happen to the region, or to its presently unstable government.
At Yale, van Agtmael majored in history, but it quickly became obvious to him that he was more interested in contemporary events than the study of the past. When he was a junior, terrorists flew two planes into the Word Trade Center; when he was a senior, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
“It was pretty clear that these would be the decisive moments of my time,” he said. “They crystallized with my burgeoning interest in journalism, and after I took a photo class in the art department, the pieces very quickly fell into place. I wanted to be a photojournalist, and I wanted to follow these conflicts.”
Van Agtmael believes part of his responsibility as a journalist is to confront his audience with their enemy, and show them the humanity in people who might seem completely alien. But, as political as his work is, it is equally artistic.
Asked what makes a good picture, he said the right light and composition are a must. But what sets a great picture apart from a good one?
“That’s the eternal mystery. But you know it when you see it,” he said.