“Buzzing at the Sill” continues van Agtmael’s examination of the ramifications of war. But this time we are no longer in the muck of Afghanistan or Iraq. Van Agtmael takes us on a trip crisscrossing the United States as he seeks to understand both his own country and the experience of years of covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book begins with a photograph on a dusk flight over an anonymous landscape and soon takes us into the far corners of the United States, from the sometimes-surreal tableaus of a Second Line parade in New Orleans to the sweltering streets of Brooklyn on the Fourth of July. Written vignettes scattered through the book provide us with van Agtmael’s reflections on war, memory, militarism, identity, race, class and family. For example, early in the book, a poignant passage tells about his decision to pursue war photography:
“In 2005, I flew home for the holidays from South Africa, where I’d been living. I had decided several weeks earlier to go to Iraq. I’d wanted to cover conflict for a few years but felt I needed to work up my experience and skill as a photographer first. I also needed to find the courage, or that’s what I called it then. In reality, at some point the desire to photograph war became too strong to ignore. It was like a constant buzzing. It wasn’t a lust for violence, but of proving myself by doing something I believed was meaningful on the stage of history. I don’t see any of my decisions as particularly courageous or significant anymore.”
Later in the book, as van Agtmael continues to plumb his thoughts about his early career at war, he says:
“I knew more than enough to be utterly repelled by conflict, yet I was undeniably drawn to it. I thought that by photographing it, I would prove myself to myself, for whatever naive reasons. Today, I think it’s terribly shameful and absurd, but only because I’ve done it. It’s only now that I feel the things I should have been feeling then.”
At the end of the book is a pullout containing detailed captions which sometimes also contain mini-stories. What initially seems like an afterthought is, in fact, an integral, illuminating part of the book that gives added depth and insight to the whole project. Here is one of the captions:
“Near Orlando. Florida. 2009. I was visiting my friend Brandon, a medic I’d met during an embed in Iraq. He’d recently left the army after two rough tours. The second one ended with the fatal overdose of his good friend James Worster. When I arrived, he seemed a bit listless, living off partial disability for PTSD and unclear where to go with his life. He’d become friends with Scotty, an ex-infantryman turned Blackwater contractor who grew psychedelic mushrooms in his apartment. Scotty took us to a homeless camp in the woods where he’d while away the afternoons, drinking beer with the friendly group of a dozen homeless men and women who had set up their tents across a creek from a strip mall.”
In the end, “Buzzing at the Sill” is a very personal, poignant and powerful journey of self-discovery by one of the world’s leading photographers. It is composed of the thing that much great literature and art reaches for — the attempt to show humankind to humankind.