That visceral collection of images, viewed today, now stands apart from the three photobooks van Agtmael has released since, starting with “Disco Night: Sept 11″ in 2014, “Buzzing at the Sill” in 2017 and “Sorry for the War,” released earlier this year. “2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die” did not glamorize the war; far from it. The book showed the full effects of the war on the soldiers and on the photographer himself, sometimes in graphic detail. It also offered the beginning of a critique on how the United States, as a country, glamorizes conflict without fully acknowledging its consequences — a theme that would come to dominate the photographer’s next three books. It is as if, back in 2009, van Agtmael was just starting to grasp what he meant to say, without fully succeeding. In fact, mentions of that first book are now scarce. (It does not even appear in van Agtmael’s own biography, with “Disco Night” labeled as “his first book.”)
Now, with “Sorry for the War,” that social commentary has fully matured. “With the early books, I wanted to create a more emotional record of violence and loss, the enduring foundations of every war,” he said. “It was an exciting, frightening time. I realized I’d found myself and my path, but I was living on a razor’s edge of extreme violence and depravity. Now things are somewhat quieter and more reflective. A lot of other ideas have opened up, of class, race, nationalism, militarism, mythmaking, empire, exile and history. I’ve been pursuing those ideas in these past books, while also reflecting on myself and my own motivations.”
“Sorry for the War” is van Agtmael’s most opinionated book yet. The carefully edited images, which he photographed between 2014 and 2019, are spliced with screenshots from presidential addresses, American game shows and music videos, all with the goal to expose the propaganda that “shapes the narrative of our times,” he said. “Photographs have a lot of limitations, and ultimately they are my subjective version of reality. I believe in complexity, nuance, and rigorous examination (and self-examination), and the screenshots help flesh my ideas out.” The screenshots, he added, represent his interpretation of the imprint of this propaganda. “There is political propaganda in the form of three presidents talking about ending a war that still endures,” he said. “Cultural propaganda in the form of Hollywood and nationalistic music videos. ISIS propaganda. And of course my work is its own form of propaganda.”
As van Agtmael juxtaposes these images, the pairings he makes can feel absurd, sometimes even jarring — for example, the book includes an image of President Donald Trump’s inaugural cake followed by a 2006 photo of a dying soldier on an operating table in Baghdad — but that’s very much the point the photographer is trying to make. “I hope with that discomfort also comes the shock of recognition that they represent something deep and honest,” he said. “The United States is the most potent mythmaking machine the world has ever known. Our stories about ourself have reached every corner of the world and continue to inform, inspire, frighten and manipulate. I think part of our success is the grandness of the spectacle. Though there is, of course, shocking inequality and poverty, we are a filthy-rich nation, and the decadence and outrageousness is part of the appeal of the American narrative.”
For van Agtmael, highlighting this is crucial. “I believe one of the greatest duties of deeply invested journalism is to thoughtfully and rigorously point out the destructive hypocrisies in society,” he said. “When you grow up in the United States as I did, a White man from a politically moderate family in a prosperous suburb, it can be difficult to escape the triumphant narrative the country teaches you. Certainly, I was a beneficiary. When you realize the emperor has no clothes, it’s both frightening and exciting. Trying to understand this complex and contradictory country is an endless rabbit hole.”
Van Agtmael has been in that rabbit hole for the better part of two decades now — he is still circling the drain, as he put it, while most people have moved on. “I suppose my work on this will end for me one day, but there is no real historical ending we can define at this point,” he said. “The arc of history was permanently shifted by 9/11, and the impact was global and far reaching. The United States withdrew from Afghanistan, and it collapsed with alarming speed, but who knows what’s next? Will the Pashto-nationalist Taliban be able to consolidate and rule fairly over a diverse multiethnic society? If they fail, will the country devolve into civil war again? If so, will the United States once again step in?”
Even within the country’s own borders, the future remains uncertain as divisions become more insurmountable. Van Agtmael, though, does not see the United States as a front line yet, but there are many fault lines, he said. “There were points in 2020 that I thought we could be on the verge of a civil war. I was at the storming of the Capitol, which threatened horrific violence at many moments.” That was a shock for the photographer, the same one who started his career as a conflict photographer. “Things seem to have settled down a bit, but we know now how quickly things can escalate in this country.”
For those who have followed van Agtmael’s work for the past 12 years, ever since “2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die,” this realization will not come as a surprise. Through his photographs and through his books, we have seen these fault lines grow. In “Sorry for the War,” the message is even clearer than ever.
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