Life Through the Eyes of a War Photographer 

The Photo Blog
June 17 2014 12:12 PM

Life Through the Eyes of a War Photographer 

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
Houston, Texas 2013. 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.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Since he was a child, Peter van Agtmael has been interested in going to war, though he admits he wasn’t sure exactly what he would be doing once he got there.

It turned out he would go to war as a photographer. Some of his work from both Iraq and Afghanistan, taken from 2006–13 has recently been published as a book titled Disco Night Sept. 11 by Red Hook Editions. The images, some graphic, others poignant or subtle, deal not only with conflict in both countries, but also with the reaction and consequence to the wars in the United States from the view of soldiers, their families, and regular American citizens.

Disco Night Sept 11. isn’t only a collection of Van Agtmael’s images. It is also filled with first hand stories and anecdotes that provide background information about the images. They include a haunting image of a soldier with his family we learn is leaving for his fourth deployment to Afghanistan where he will be killed, to a more lighthearted and awkward moment in Iraq when American soldiers tried to ride a family’s donkey. Van Agtmael also discusses his own shift from an eager young man ready for war to the anger and numbness he felt after experiencing war firsthand.

American soldiers on a foot patrol noticed that two young men were eying them and fidgeting. Anticipating violence, they stormed their house. During the search the soldiers teased a young medic about his virginity. The soldiers had already searched hundreds of houses during their deployment, and the banter was casual as they swept the family’s possessions onto the floor.In the next room they were questioning a boy. “Have there been any new faces around the house lately?” “Are your brothers coming and going at strange hours?” The boy muttered noncommittal answers and stared at the ground. They found no contraband in the house, but the hands of the young men came up with a faint residue of explosives. The lieutenant in charge of the platoon decided to detain them, though he thought they were innocent. The explosives tests were notoriously unreliable. They were blindfolded, and their hands bound with zip ties. The rest of the family began screaming and beating their chests. The soldiers locked them in a room and pushed the two stumbling men toward the Stryker.MOSUL. IRAQ. 2006
Mosul, Iraq, 2006. American soldiers on a foot patrol noticed that two young men were eying them and fidgeting. Anticipating violence, they stormed their house. They found no contraband in the house, but the hands of the young men came up with a faint residue of explosives. The lieutenant in charge of the platoon decided to detain them, though he thought they were innocent. The explosives tests were notoriously unreliable.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

A Marine after a firefight with the Taliban.MIAN POSHTEH, HELMAND. AFGHANISTAN. 2009
Mian Poshteh, Helmand. Afghanistan, 2009. A Marine after a firefight with the Taliban.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

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Fort Jackson, South Carolina, 2011. A drill sergeant watches recruits performing combat lifesaving techniques. Several soldiers mimic brutal injuries, screaming, and writhing, a few faintly smirking. The recruits bandage the injured and get them out of the “kill zone” while others provide cover. Their movements are slow and clumsy. Ultimately, most soldiers injured on the battlefield survive even the most grievous wounds.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

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In much the same way as his feelings have shifted, so to have the feelings of many Americans who were invested during previous wars, including World War II and Vietnam, and now seem detached or, at times, disinterested in what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That might be due to a few things, Van Agtmael said. “My guess is—and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot—is, one of the overriding factors is we have an all volunteer army and the military is in some ways kind of ghettoized in small towns and far off places, far away from power structure of this country.”

He added that since less than 1 percent of Americans have served in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to 10 percent during World War II and Vietnam, which were also wars that had a draft, the connection to the recent wars isn’t as strong.

“In an all volunteer force, it’s easier to fall into the margins because it’s a small number of people bearing the burden,” he added.

While covering conflict, Van Agtmael’s style also developed into one based more in nuance than in what might be considered an obvious photograph.

The wary inhabitants of this isolated village in Nineveh had never seen an American patrol, and asked what country they were from. They had heard of America, and served sugary tea to the soldiers but otherwise kept their distance. The troops took turns riding the donkey and posed for pictures holding lambs. In the Bible, Nineveh is described as a wicked city. God sent the prophet Jonah to preach there, and its inhabitants repented. God decided to spare the city.NINEVEH. IRAQ. 2006
Nineveh, Iraq, 2006. The wary inhabitants of this isolated village in Nineveh had never seen an American patrol, and asked what country they were from. They had heard of America, and served sugary tea to the soldiers, but otherwise kept their distance. The troops took turns riding the donkey and posed for pictures holding lambs. In the Bible, Nineveh is described as a wicked city. God sent the prophet Jonah to preach there, and its inhabitants repented. God decided to spare the city.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Usually the stray dogs hanging around Patrol Base California were welcomed by the soldiers. But I was told that a few weeks earlier when one of the dogs urinated on a soldier’s cot he and his buddies taped a grenade to the dog’s jaw and pulled the pin.During the tour of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Regiment, 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, California was attacked over eighty times. The patrol base was situated on a dirt road that skirted the winding and fast moving Pech River. It was small and crowded. The soldiers lived in sandbagged bunkers. Gas generators rattled in the trench line. The soldiers ate prepackaged food, MREs. There was no running water, showers or phones. When not on patrol, they passed the days playing cards and video games, and watching movies. A few times a week, trucks brought fresh food and every two weeks a squad would spend twenty-four hours at a larger base down the road, cleaning up and calling home. Three Humvees with heavy weapons were parked along the perimeter and constantly manned, scanning the ridgeline across the river. At dusk some soldiers would slip away to the Afghan bunkers to smoke hash. Two had already been caught, sent home and dismissed from the Army.PECH VALLEY, KUNAR. AFGHANISTAN. 2007
Pech Valley, Kunar, Afghanistan, 2007. Usually the stray dogs hanging around Patrol Base California were welcomed by the soldiers, but I was told that a few weeks earlier, when one of the dogs urinated on a soldier’s cot, he and his buddies taped a grenade to the dog’s jaw and pulled the pin.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

“At first I focused on the kinetic stuff to prove to myself I could do it,” he said. “But as time progressed and I went back and started working more I started repeating myself so I began looking for kind of pictures between the pictures … things that would inform a more personal and maybe accurate war story.”

Van Agtmael said that he is constantly trying to improve his work and much like his feelings about war, seeing Disco Night Sept. 11 in print for the first time after working on it for so many years filled him with elation one night followed by feelings of smallness the next morning. Today he said those feelings have balanced out to somewhere in between.

In the book, Van Agtmael writes that for the first time in his life, he has no desire to be at war, and ends his introduction reflecting on his experiences.

“For every story that is recorded there are nearly infinite ones we’ll never know. The real weight of destruction is still happening constantly in anonymity across Iraq and Afghanistan and America, in endless repetition of all that has come before. If I found any truth in war, I found that in the end everyone has their own truth.”

Raymond Hubbard with his children, Brady and Riley. Since his injuries, Raymond has become an avid collector of Star Wars memorabilia. This is one of several family photos I took at Raymond’s request.DARIEN, WISCONSIN. USA. 2007
Darien, Wisconsin, 2007. Raymond Hubbard with his children, Brady and Riley. Since his injuries, Raymond has become an avid collector of Star Wars memorabilia. This is one of several family photos I took at Raymond’s request.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, a small American outpost deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There were no decent roads and all medevacs, re-supply and transport were done by helicopter.Blackhawks were in short supply, forcing the U.S. military to turn to outside contractors. They rented ex-Soviet helicopters, rickety and ancient and known as “Jingle Air.” They came with pilots, some of whom had served in the Russian Army during the previous war in Afghanistan. They were storied figures, legendary for their bravery under fire and rumored to be heavy vodka drinkers in flight.WAIGUL VALLEY, NURISTAN. AFGHANISTAN. 2007
Waigul Valley, Nuistan, Afghanistan, 2007. A U.S. Blackhawk helicopter lands at the Ranch House, a small American outpost deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. There were no decent roads and all medevacs, resupply, and transport were done by helicopter. Blackhawks were in short supply, forcing the U.S. military to turn to outside contractors. They rented ex-Soviet helicopters, rickety and ancient and known as “Jingle Air.” They came with pilots, some of whom had served in the Russian Army during the previous war in Afghanistan.

Copyright Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

A sign outside Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall advertising a 1970s-style Disco Night. An ad for the event promised:Dress your retro best and boogie on down!Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms!There will be prizes for Best Dressed and Best Dancer.HOPEWELL JUNCTION, NEW YORK. USA. 2010
Hopewell Junction, New York, 2010. A sign outside Arbor Ridge Catering and Banquet Hall advertising a 1970s-style Disco Night. An ad for the event promised: “Dress your retro best and boogie on down! Break out your bell-bottoms and polish your platforms! There will be prizes for Best Dressed and Best Dancer.”

Copyright Peter Van Agtmel/Magnum Photos

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