When Peter van Agtmael was 21 years old, a junior in college, he woke up one morning to learn that the Twin Towers had fallen in New York. Although this was a seminal day for countless people across the world—and touched van Agtmael deeply—it was another transformative moment, which had come about a year earlier, that had already determined the young man’s path. This moment had come in an introductory photography class:
In his words, “I had always been interested in conflict but had no desire to be a soldier. I was studying history and on an academic track, but even then, I could tell that the world of academia was too detached from the things I cared about. Journalism seemed like an obvious fit. I took a photography class on a whim and it was there that I had a weird, almost mystical moment—and I’m not a mystical guy. For me, picking up the camera was a powerful experience. It just made sense, like the missing puzzle piece getting filled in. It was like falling in the deepest kind of love. I told my parents that I wanted to be a photographer and I haven’t had to question this path ever since.”
A year later, van Agtmael was on the periphery of Ground Zero, shooting pictures for his college newspaper. Then, as the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq got underway, van Agtmael’s previously disparate interests in photography, war and history consolidated around a single subject: van Agtmael committed himself to photographing these conflicts.
One year after graduating, van Agtmael became a freelance photographer and took off for South Africa on assignment for a small photo agency. With that experience under his belt, van Agtmael felt ready for Iraq: he set up a 2-month embed with an American military unit in Mosul, Iraq and dove in. He was 24 years old.
For whatever he might have lacked in age, van Agtmael made up for it with mental preparedness. Even today, when pressed to re-assess the readiness of his younger self, van Agtmael countered, “I was ready. I had thought about it for 5 years before I left. I couldn’t not go at that point. I was ready.”
Van Agtmael’s certainty turned out to be justified: his first embed led to six extended trips in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. He came out of this intense period with a powerful set of pictures and a World Press Photo Award in hand, all at the age of 25. Two years later, he would become a nominee of Magnum Photos—one of the youngest members in the entire agency at the time of his selection.
At this year’s World Press Photo Award Days, LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker sat down with van Agtmael for a wide-ranging discussion about the photographer’s work, Magnum, myths in photojournalism and much more. This is an edited transcript of their conversation:
LC: What did your photographic education consist of?
PA: I took one class. I shot a lot of pictures. I looked at a lot of work (and still look at a lot of work). But I was never interested in photography in an insular way, as a stylized art form. Of course, there are certain kinds of light I’m attracted to and certain faces and ways to structure my pictures. But the way I evolved was by pushing myself to discover what kind of framing I could use to encapsulate the broadest amount of information—first in an individual frame, then later, in books.
As I began to experience some success, the question of style became an important one. I saw how if someone’s work becomes over-stylized, they begin to limit themselves extraordinarily. For example, when I first won a World Press Photo Award, it was with a series of very dark pictures where I was pushing the limits of the digital technology at the time. I could have easily continued to make pictures like that—and then I would have had a style.
But I saw that a “signature look” quickly becomes a gilded cage. At a certain point, one can’t say enough with it. Some well-known photographers become almost manneristic once they achieve some fame. But I don’t want that: it’s a slow death.
LC: Back during your first embed, before these questions were on your mind, you were simply pushing yourself to make good work. What was driving you?
PA: I was ready and I was hungry for all of it, on every level. At the time, being amidst conflict was deeply fulfilling. And scary at times, but I wanted it so badly, that I didn’t feel a lot of the things I should have been feeling. Later, there was a period when I had to reckon with all those experiences and slow down. A moment when I realized that I had become so dedicated to the work that parts of me had atrophied—especially in my relationships. So, I took some time to fix that part of myself, which I think was successful.
LC: But what was the desire that was originally driving you, to go to such lengths to make your work?
PA: A legitimate belief, which I still have, in the role of photography and the free press in creating historical narrative. That was one part of it.
A desire to prove myself, to myself; that was a second part.
And finally, whatever dark and adolescent desires draw young men to war. Those were the three dominant parts, each burning with equal intensity.
A decade on, I still feel connected to this feeling but my interests have expanded into other realms. For example, I was back in Iraq last year and I saw how there are diminishing returns of being in any place for too long. After all, I’m not a conflict photographer who is following the hot spots. I am deeply invested in these wars and from the consequences that have followed, but I need to look for new threads elsewhere—threads about American identity, American history, the narrative of American power and empire.
All of these interests are tied to war but the front-line stuff doesn’t give me what it used to: both photographically and personally. I might go back when the necessity arises but I don’t have a hole in me that I need to fill by putting myself in dangerous situations.
LC: Your work is on the line between photojournalism and documentary. Many photojournalists switch from the former towards the latter as they start to lose faith in single images to really tell the story and make a difference. Did you have a similar conversion?
PA: I don’t relate to that narrative, actually. People always expect to see the consequences of their images. But it would be interesting to see the opposite—a world where none of these images existed. Then we’d be able to understand the consequences of what we’re doing: in the complete absence of photojournalism, its value would be clear. But thankfully, the free press is a cornerstone of democratic, civil societies.
Still, many photographers have a notion that they want their pictures to be the cause of individual change. That’s an unrealistic expectation to put on your own work (or any one person’s work). In fact, it’s even a bit narcissistic.
From my view, it’s the cumulative weight of images that produces change; it’s not about any one individual’s pictures. Even a single war is far too vast and complex for a single image to have a decisive, meaningful effect.
LC: What about Vietnam, for example, where some iconic images have been singled out for shifting Americans’ view of the war?
PA: I think those were symbols at a time when the combined efforts of journalism were starting to shift the tide of war. And remember, it’s never just pictures! There was: Walter Cronkite and the other nightly news anchors; the written words that were appearing in the major newspapers; headlines and interviews and documentaries and more.
I get passionate about this subject because I despise the victimized narcissism of photojournalists who think that single images alone can (or can’t) make a difference. It’s a tired narrative that continues to be perpetuated—the single image that changes the world. It’s a myth, so people like it, but it’s not a well thought-out position. Photographers need to re-frame their work—to get out of the ego-driven, narcissistic, “witness-of-the-century” narrative and understand they’re part of a larger, collective effort.
LC: What drew you, then, towards Magnum? You joined the agency in 2008, at the age of 27. Can you walk us through that process?
PA: Really, I had discovered photography through Magnum. I always related to the agency, its history, its approach to photography. I was taken in by its breadth and its importance to the history of the medium—the visual history of the world. So, joining Magnum was my one ambition in photography from the start. Of course, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
When I applied, I just cold-dropped a portfolio. My hope was to meet some people. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from Thomas Dworzak to come down for some conversations. There, I met Larry Towell, Chris Anderson, Alex Majoli, Jim Goldberg. They told they were intrigued but they also weren’t optimistic about my chances. Still, at that point, it already felt like a success.
Several weeks went by. Around that time, my aunt died of breast cancer. I came to Holland for the funeral. It was one of the worst days of my life. The next day, I received a text message that said, “Go buy some champagne! Come to Paris.” It was completely surreal: to have one of the best days of my life after one of the worst. I didn’t even know how to feel.
LC: It seems there are two extreme views when it comes to agencies these days: on one side, there are those who say, “I want to join an agency so they can help me launch my career.” On the other side, “Why would I want to be in an agency? I can do this all on my own.”
PA: Well, it’s not a golden ticket, of course. When I joined Magnum, I had no real career and it did me a lot of good. The association opened doors and helped me establish myself. But, at Magnum, like anywhere else, you have to do most of the work yourself. These days, I think of it more as a family than a business.
What people have to recognize is that there’s an entrepreneurial side to the photography business. You need to figure out how to make a living doing the thing that you love, on your own terms. No one can do that for you—you have to find your own path.
As for the opposite view: it’s true, nobody needs an agency. But I find it essential if you want a community. Otherwise, I find photography to be too lonely a profession—I like to be part of something bigger than myself.
LC: Growing up, when you were really looking up to Magnum, who were the icons for you? The heroes?
PA: I don’t have hero heroes. Remember: everyone’s human. I don’t hold anyone in such high esteem because it could blind my judgment. That being said, Chris Anderson has been a great mentor to me, from the beginning. Philip Jones Griffiths was a critical figure as well, though he died a few months before I joined. And then there’s Alex Majoli, Paolo Pellegrin, Thomas Dworzak—all the guys who first interviewed me.
Later, it was strange to become friends with those guys, after I had looked at them as an unreachable, untouchable, abstract group. But I like them because it’s like I’m looking into a distorted mirror.
But really, I like Magnum because I like everyone: I deeply admire Alec Soth, Martin Parr and Jim Goldberg because their work is so different than mine. They all intrigue the hell out of me. It’s their obsessive pursuit of their perspective that I find fascinating.
LC: Is that what ties Magnum all together?
PA: Obsession? Yeah, I think so. Why do people continue when they have nothing left to prove?
LC: And what about you—what continues to keep you obsessed?
PA: What I love about photography is its ambiguity, openness, mystery. A photograph might be about something but at its best, that’s only ever a pretext.
One of my favorite lines about photography comes from Garry Winogrand (who is probably my favorite photographer, when push comes to shove). He said, “To make a photo more theatrical than the subject’s own theatricality is a hell of a problem.” But that’s what Winogrand did so often and so successfully. He was able to create something transcendent out of otherwise mundane moments.
The difference between a photograph and a document—that’s it right there. Or the difference between Art and a document, if you prefer: something that’s ambiguous and open vs. final, definitive, closed off.
Think about it: with a great picture, you can’t say why you love it. You can describe the individual parts but that won’t encapsulate what makes it moving or powerful.
For example, the elements of a portrait are always the same—but some are amazing and some you don’t remember the moment you stop looking at them.
So, that’s what keeps me attracted to photography: the fact that you can’t define it—especially its very best parts.
—Peter van Agtmael interviewed by Alexander Strecker