10 December 2007

"War Photographer Revealed "- A Conversation with Peter van Agtmael

An Iraqi boy waits in an empty room as his home is searched by
U.S. soldiers. Photograph © Peter van Agtmael, Polaris Images

Jörg Colberg e-mailed me today calling attention to yet another of his terrific interviews with important photographers - this one with a young, talented (indeed award-winning) photojournalist Peter van Agtmael. I first want to say that I think Jörg is providing a wonderful resource with these interviews.

Peter van Agtmael has been embedded with American troops in Iraq (he has also done work in South Africa and Afghanistan) and he seems to be remarkably thoughtful about his experiences. Here is one passage that I find extremely revealing about the difficulties that photographers have funding and placing their work and about the ways the mainstream American media filter out images that might in fact provide us with something approaching a more realistic view of the world.

"JC: I usually read European and American news sources, and I often note differences in what the same magazine (website) will show on its European and its American pages. Just as an example, in September 2006, a Newsweek cover story entitled "Losing Afghanistan" in the US was changed to a cover about Annie Leibowitz - so there clearly are some selections being made by editors about what and how much the American public actually gets to see. What is your experience with this?

: While there has been a lot of phenomenal and revealing coverage of the war, especially by The New York Times, my main experience with censorship has come from the media, not the military.

I will cite a few examples.
A few days after finishing my first tour to Iraq, I picked up a copy of a very well known American magazine at the airport in Holland. I was flipping through it absently when I came upon a brutal picture I had taken of the aftermath of a suicide bombing, run across nearly a full page [see photo above]. I called my parents to tell them the good news and they went out to buy a copy. In the U.S. edition, in place of my picture they found an image of a few helicopters taking off. I was pretty crushed.

A few months later I got an email from a friend in England saying that one of my pictures of a wounded American soldier had run in another major American magazine. I went out to buy a copy and in the U.S. edition was a picture of a soldier running through a darkened room.

In 2007 I won a World Press Photo award for a series of twelve photographs on night raids. I received a lot of publicity, and the pictures were published all over, but to my knowledge there hasn't been a single picture from that series that ran in the U.S.

To fund my trips, I did assignments. One was to photograph a USO show, another was to photograph a soldier training for the Boston marathon, and still another was to photograph the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. They were enjoyable, but in seven months of embedding I only received one assignment to photograph combat operations, and that story was never published.

So while some photographers have had good experiences with the media and publishing, I have to admit I've been incredibly disappointed. I just had my first big spread of Afghanistan work published, and it was in Croatia!

I'm changing tactics these days to focus much more on the internet, and that has so far been more successful. I recently did a piece with ABCnews.com that was far more revealing than most of the work I'd previously had published. I think it's incredibly important for people to see the true ravages of war, which are usually absent from the U.S. news media.

For me, the worst moments in Iraq and Afghanistan defined me, and as the sole witness to these events with a means to record them, I felt a deep responsibility to disseminate the photos. Photographs can only convey a tiny fraction of what it feels like to be there, but are better than these tragic events getting lost in the anonymity of history. If only the public were given a better opportunity to see for themselves. Things might be very different."

You can find the full interview at Conscientious or at PopPhoto.com.

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Blogger Per said...

There's a reference to a photo of a bombing in the article but it's either missing or replaced. I hope not because of censorship.

11 December, 2007 13:26  
Blogger Joerg Colberg said...

Per, it's in the version on my blog.

11 December, 2007 17:15  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

I read the full interview over at Conscientious and I very much appreciated Peter's views. He seems to be a man of honor and respect, and has a lot of love for America and her men in uniform. Thanks for the share.

11 December, 2007 20:41  

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