[ Magnum In Motion ]
“This is probably the most important
work I will do in my life.” These were
the opening words of Peter Van Agtmael
last Thursday night at the Milk Gallery.
Over the next hour Peter lead us through his
daily life covering wars in the
Middle East and the unrest he still
feels towards the experiences,
his emotions, and the distortions which
occur when stories travel across
“Where Do I Start?”
The ground floor gallery at 450 West 15th Street is massive. It stands out in comparison to the boutique photography galleries where every square inch of space is filled like a hermit’s refuge. There was red velvet security and a clip board check-in that felt more like a Chelsea lounge than a photo opening. You get the sense that Milk wants to change the tone of photography exhibitions. Art openings have a formality that gets lost on many people. It is about time that a photography gallery stand up, chest to chest with the art world gorillas down the block and assemble an evening that out does the social scene of Chelsea openings. There was no head scratching or accusations that “My kid could have done that.” Peter Van Agtmael’s work was adult content that could not have been done by any child.
After a brief introduction, Peter took the microphone, leaned against a large column and started talking. He asked Song to cut him off if he began to ramble. Behind him was a ten foot projection of his work with two multi media projections filling the additional gallery space. Peter recounted a conversation with a colleague, where they agreed sometimes war photography is about, “Stepping in front of some profound shit and pressing click.” The experiences he faced in Afghanistan and Iraq fit that requirement. When he talks about the images, its hard to find words other than horror to describe the scenes. His images explore the horrible silence before the next mission and the screaming evacuations of the wounded. The events he witnessed over the last six years were appalling, psychologically, physically, and historically. When I later asked Peter what unexpected things he encountered while on assignment, he explained the following:
“Going into it, you know what its going to look like. We have been looking at war photography for a long time. But when you are there, its all new, every time. I don’t have any blood on my hands and, I believe, in my work. So I am not really burdened by anything I did. But friends I have, who killed, and sometimes for the wrong reasons have a different burden to deal with.”
The collection of images follow his trips back and forth between war zones. During the down time he visited with his wounded friends as they recovered back in the states. Each trip gave him a chance to reflect on the time he spent embedded with the troops. Back at home, where the walls are not made of temporary plywood, Peter had trouble sleeping. At night, he would watch YouTube clips from other soldiers.
He still can’t explain why he watches them. The unrest he experienced outside of the Middle East kept him awake. Overall he describes the climate in the US very disconnected from the reality of war. The pro-Army functions or Buck Hunter video games people play at bars, bother him. When Peter describes the feeling of looking at a tank he says, without judgement or pretense, “They make me kind of sick to look at.” For him, the psychological effect of watching what tanks do to people outweighs the glory usually associated when armored vehicles parading through towns on the 4th of July.
“A Broken Camera”
As a helicopter dropped Peter off with Marines in Afghanistan, he leaned out the door and fired the shot above. The dust lifted by the helicopter’s blades ruined one camera. He said,”Its strange never knowing what will happen next.” The conditions he would encounter varied by the hour. Behind the concrete blast walls of the American bases, there was endless waiting. Field medics in particular caught Peter’s interest. They would go from the relative silence of a little bed to fire fights where soldiers were returning in pieces. They were there to sow everyone back together or help someone transition as their final job was complete. In two stories that made us all wince, Peter described the ever present IED (improvised explosive device) road side bombs.
When you listen to veterans of prior wars, they all have specific explosives which terrorized their lives. If it was World War II we hear of the German 88’s (a high powered artillery shell that was so fast it would hit before you heard it) or the Pop Corn Man (which was a name for the star burst which would explode twenty feet above the ground and rain shrapnel on anyone below) or if it is Vietnam we hear about the Bouncing Betties (the mines that would spring up to groin height before detonating). These deceptive names poke fun at the explosives which make daily life miserable. Every war has a new type of tormentor. For Iraq and Afghanistan it is the IED. When Peter showed an image of an IED exploding he said, “And here is a picture of an IED blowing up in our f-ing faces.” The picture needs no further explanation. It is some of that “serious s**t” that only requires he press click.
After another unfortunate IED, Peter jumped with a few medics into an evacuation chopper. When the wounded solider regained consciousness he leapt up from the floor. His IV’s ripped out and he tried desperately to wrench open the chopper door. The problem was they were already five thousand feet in the air. Five men, including Peter, worked to detain this soldier. In spite of his wounds from the explosion, Peter promised “…this guy had the strength of 5 men.” In a fleeting moment of calm Peter snapped the picture. It would be the last photograph taken of this soldier alive. Back at base he joined the ranks of soliders who returned to their families with an official letter and a folded flag. (note: I actually got the sense during Peter’s talk that this soldier was American, but the credit reads he is Afghani)
As Peter continued, we never got a clear sense of Peter’s political convictions. He never declared, “As a blank I think that…” His sentiments on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are based on what he saw and the suffering of individuals. Some days the losses are heavier on one side than the other, but ultimately it is a loosing proposition. Caught in the mixture of midnight raids and fire fights were strange moments that never make it to the media.
The next slide showed a young Afghan soldier holding a flower, wearing eye liner. Sex between men is openly discussed in the Afghani Army from Peter’s account. While he said homosexuality is strictly forbidden, there are clearly men who play the female role. They wear make up and flirt with the other men. Peter made the Freudian slip of saying, “At one point this guy was trying to get me to smell his flower. Well not literally, but you know what I mean.” The paradoxes of daily life were endless and many times had to be the focus of Peter’s work.
Not all of the images in his series are gory. In fact, he goes out of his way to express ideas without showing all of the blood and guts. He reminded the audience that we live in a culture that finds violence entertaining. So even real pictures of violence have virtually no meaning. As a photographer he must find another way to convey his experience without it looking like the next Hollywood blockbuster. And he said:
“Ideally aesthetics and content are really intertwined. But its not always possible.”
Tucked in another refuge on base, the communal toilets, Peter started to photograph the graffiti on the walls. In many ways, he finds the messages so specific while being anonymous. They are not as explosive as the field work, but they do express something about the minds of the people living in war zones. Its not surprising that Peter, who has a degree in history from Yale University, looks for visual clues beyond the battlefield to explore the motivations people feel while fighting overseas.
The contradictions of men who work with guns, talking about peace and forgiveness, hit home with Peter. They offer a welcome break from the blood splattered walls that fill many of his other images.
After about an hour of talking, Peter sat for some additional questions by Milk’s Song Chong, who used to work at Magnum. Its a point to note, because there was a continuity in Song’s relationship to both Magnum and its photographers. Both she and David Hemphill, who is the gallery director, approach this exhibitions with incredible personal responsibility. You get a sense that the evening was hosted by people who would be in attendance if they were not working. It makes for a thorough experience.
The Q&A went on for about fifteen minutes before we were dispersed to the bar. The gallery looks out over 15th street and has a seating lounge backed with some collector Magnum publications for sale. People were free to enjoy the free cocktails browse books from Herbert List or Bruce Davidson.
Shortly after the talk Peter and fellow Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin slipped into the darkness. The slide carousel continued as the night went on. This was the first non-fashion photo event I went to at Milk and surely not the last. The evening was well structured, properly catered, and a thoughtful edition to the otherwise uneventful openings that happen in Chelsea. I am looking forward to additional collaborations between Milk and Magnum in the coming months. For any of you who enjoy the work of Peter Van Agtmael and his colleagues, events like this are a great opportunity to meet fellow photographers and ask the questions you wish you could email to Magnum.
Don’t be shy, someone even asked (with a slight audience gasp) “Peter, what type of camera do you use?” Avoiding the pretense that surrounds most photographers as they raise their noses and declare “the camera I use is not important,” he said very plainly, “Nikon, Canon, Leica, whatever they will give me for free. I tend to use point and shoots because they are smaller, but I break a lot of them.” Practical, sincere, and honest describes Peter’s efforts all night long.
On that note, I would like to thank everyone at Magnum and Milk for hosting a fantastic evening and encourage all of you to come out to the next event. With a quick RSVP you can meet the mysterious members of Magnum as they step out from behind their lenses and share the moments we might miss flipping though the pages of books.