Peter van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11

Peter van Agtmael

It must be nice to kick back once you’re retired. Suddenly, you got all the time in the world to truly enjoy life. George W. Bush, formerly the president, decided to take up painting: “I wanted to learn about painting — water hitting water.” And there’s an exhibition of his work now, which got a nice review in the New York Times, written by Roberta Smith. Other art critics, however, were quite a bit less impressed. Greg Allen wrote a long piece, which serves as a nice counterpoint to Smith’s, concluding: “This is how art appears in our society today. Art works, as they say, and this is what it does: it absolves and redeems and defuses and deflects. Ultimately, George Bush’s paintings are important less for what they show, than for what they obscure.”

The human body consists of around 60% water. So in that photograph above, that’s what it looks like, for some people at least, when water is hitting water.

Here is the caption of the photograph, which was taken by Peter van Agtmael: “Bobby Henline didn’t realize how badly he was injured until he returned home. When that sank in, he prayed for God to take him in his sleep. He didn’t want to be a burden on his family. Houston, Texas. USA. 2013″

Having watched, yes, I’ll admit it, part of the Today Show interview with George W. Bush (conducted by his own daughter – apparently, nobody seems to think there’s something weirdly unjournalistic about this), the former president seems rather worry free. I don’t think he is considering whether he might be a burden on his family – or country. The same is true for the likes of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. They, too, are enjoying their retirement, having written their obligatory memoirs (Mark Danner wrote a series of remarkable articles about these two men for the New York Review of Books).

I was going to point out that Allen’s lament about art in our society isn’t quite correct. There is quite a bit of, well, art about the legacy of George W. Bush. Photography, after all, is part of the art world. But then I read a current piece about photography, in particular about how photojournalism can be art and all, and I changed my mind. I’ve long argued that everything can be art, as long as you hang it in an art gallery or museum. And sure, there is a lot of photojournalism that can be art. But somehow, this all seems to miss a rather important point.

Pernilla Holmes, the author of the piece writes “Trying to distinguish between art and documentary photography quickly leads to a murky series of vague distinctions and then their many exceptions, and is somehow always unsatisfying – partly because these images are often so powerful and affecting that whether one adds the label of art or not seems almost petty.” That’s too simple for me. Why don’t we do the following: let’s just accept that anything can be art, and let’s – for the love of God! – not talk about that any longer. Because, let’s face it, there really is no controversy about hanging pictures, wherever they might come from, in an art gallery and have people sip sour wine at fancy openings over them.

But the main question we need to deal with is not if some photojournalism is art. It is whether some photojournalism is in fact photojournalism, in other words whether it conforms to what we have come to expect from that genre (however much or little we enjoy using the term). We all expect very specific things from photojournalism – you can’t just, for example, stage your pictures or Photoshop them to remove something you don’t like. As much as the idea of objective photography is fundamentally flawed, in many circumstances we stick to it, in particular in the context of the news.

This is then why I did not want to point out that there is all that photography made around George W. Bush’s so-called War on Terror as a response to Allen’s lament. Sure, photography is art. Peter van Agtmael’s photographs are art. But they are also more than that. Within the parameters of the medium they strive for bringing home a form of truth that art, per se, does not have, a form of truth that is as naive and unattainable as it is affecting and powerful.

Like many of his peers, van Agtmael went to war once he had left school, armed with cameras, not guns, to take pictures. He spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Iraqs, and he suffered some of the same consequences, post-traumatic stress disorder. Van Agtmael came to know some of the soldiers in his photographs quite well, and he continued photographing them back home. Many of them were deployed more than once, many of them were killed.

His photographs, covering the years 2006-2013, have now been released in the form of the book Disco Night Sept 11, published by Red Hook Editions (you can order the book right there). It’s a strange coincidence that the book is being released roughly at the same time as the paintings by the former president are exhibited. It doesn’t necessarily serve as a counterpoint of those paintings – that would be too simplistic a reading. You can, of course, see it that way; but you could also see it the other way around.

Disco Night Sept 11 features a fair amount of text, the vast majority of it coming alongside van Agtmael’s photographs. Some of the text is close to what you imagine a simple caption might be, some of it is quite extended, speaking of all those things you can’t show in photographs. All of the text is indispensable, in particular since it establishes recurring characters in the form of soldiers at war or (at least physically) after the war.

As a photographer, there is only so much you can do. Your medium gives you a set of limitations you have to struggle with, and the larger circumstances of your work do as well. How do you even go about photographing what the War on Terror has meant and still means? At the same time, the photographs’ viewers will have to accept the fact that there are limitations, that, in other words, photographers can only do what their medium allows them to do and that they cannot be omnipresent or omniscient.

So very clearly, Disco Night Sept 11 does not provide the complete and full overview of everything that happened over the course of those years. That would be impossible. But the book’s arc is huge, both in terms of the geography it covers and in terms of how it weaves back and forth between the personal and the universal.

Here then is what is going to be one of the defining photobooks of this era, an era that in all kinds of ways is still with us – and it will be until we come to terms with it. We might as well realize that its message is not particularly new: this is what war does to people. It always has, and it always will. Unless we finally come to honest terms with it, we’re doomed to repeat the experience over and over again, destroying or maiming many more lives.

Highly recommended.

Disco Night Sept 11; photographs and text by Peter van Agtmael; 276 pages; Red Hook Editions; 2014

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 4 – Overall 4.3

(ratings explained here)