Peter van Agtmael explores the subtle nature of American power and violence

The Magnum photographer releases his follow up to Disco Night Sept 11.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
New Orleans, Louisiana. 2012. A Second Line Parade. A local African American tradition where brass bands—known as the first line - march in the streets and are joined by members of the public - called the “second liners.” The Second Line parades came about after the Civil War because insurance companies wouldn’t cover ex-slaves. So African Americans formed benevolent societies and clubs that helped members defray health costs. The dues included a band for funerals and a public parade every year. Over time, their popularity evolved, and now there are parades almost every Sunday in New Orleans.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Violence has a way of permeating childhood even if you’re lucky enough to grow up in a place that is largely untouched by it.

"One of my earliest memories is of walking along a beach boardwalk as a five-year-old and excitedly spotting a little store selling cheap, neon-colored toy guns," photographer Peter van Agtmael writes in one of the essays in his new book, Buzzing at the Sill. Although van Agtmael grew up in Bethesda, Maryland—a community of "people who benefited from the American dream," the fascination was always there.

A follow up to his 2014 book Disco Night Sept 11, Buzzing at the Sill (Kehrer Verlag) is a visual exploration of violence in America organized in a beautifully designed spineless book. Here, van Agtmael speaks with us about how he sees this project as an extension of his work in Afghanistan and Iraq, his editing process, and why it's important to be aware of cultural blindspots.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Detroit, Michigan. 2012. Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. The family was still in shock over Treasure’s death. One of her sisters said “I don’t know if Treasure is asleep, or up. Because her pictures… every time I move around… they look like they are following me. She woke mama up to tell her she was leaving, she left… and that’s it.”© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Buzzing at the Sill certainly seems to deal with many of the issues that are reverberating through the United States today with the current administration: immigration, transgender rights, the divide between rural and urban communities, issues that address race and class and violence. Were you thinking of a single guiding narrative as you edited this book?

There is not a defined narrative. The book is about many things, many of the things you mentioned. It’s a little bit about history and how we got to this place. It’s about me reflecting on America after having been engaged in it emotionally, through working a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s about class and it’s about race and it’s about geography. It’s also about the surreality of the place and the beauty of the place. It’s about torture on some level. It touches on all of these different things. The hope is that all those various aspects of it would resonate with someone.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Brooklyn, New York. 2010. The Fourth of July.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

I love the way that the book almost tells two stories: There are the short poetic ones that complement the pictures and then the longer journalistic pieces that run in the back. Why was it important to include both?

I think the way I look at photography is the classic line, “Photographs are windows and mirrors.” I’ve always seen the process of being a photographer on the one hand, trying to explore and understand the world for myself. We’re bombarded, increasingly, with an isolated narrow cross section of ideas and ideology, if our beliefs tilt in one direction or another. That can verge on the propagandistic at times. Photography, in the process of exploring the world, has always been a really important check on that. I can experience things for myself, see things and hear things first-hand, then loop back in and try and understand it through a deeper context. They’re both meant to be documents for history, but it’s also an exploration of myself and my own memories. I hope, in an ideal world, that the stories I’m writing that deal with myself will resonate beyond myself—that there are points of identification that people would have with the themes in them. The beauty of photography for me is the merging of all of those worlds— that’s what I’ve tried to do with this book.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Des Moines, Iowa. 2010. At the annual Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech, which was seen as testing the waters for a possible presidential run. She savaged Obama; both for his pacifism (withdrawing American troops from Iraq) and his militarism (ordering the surge in Afghanistan). She praised the armed forces, while attacking the press (“people who are out there for the right of journalists to lie” ).© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Do you see Buzzing at the Sill as being related to your last book, Disco Night Sept 11?

A lot of it was shot concurrently. I was shooting the pictures in Disco Night from 2006 to 2013, and this I started in 2009. I was spending a lot of time with the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I started following stories of veterans and families who had lost people and then signs of militarism and nationalism and the culture—I started following that home, but that started to be a limited framework. The questions that I was starting to have about America, that started to be provoked by these experiences, were only partially being answered by working within more of a military context. I started exploring more generally and that over time provokes many other ideas. I see Buzzing at the Sill as a sequel to Disco Night but, on a greater level, I see them both as chapters in this much bigger work that I'm doing that I think will take decades, about the nature of American power in history and how it manifests and all these different forms. So it's both a sequel and a second chapter.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Hugo, Oklahoma. 2014. The remnants of a Choctaw allotment after their forced expulsion to Oklahoma. The Choctaw Tribe initially had vast territories in the Southeast United States. By the early 1800s, the American government had begun a systematic, legislated removal of the Natives from their land. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress and led to the exodus of tens of thousands of Native Americans. The majority of the Choctaw were forced to march 800km to modern Oklahoma, watched over by white militias. In the last major removal, in 1838, the remaining people of the tribes were rounded into camps and then pushed west in groups of 700 during the hottest and coldest months of the year. Up to a third of them died. It became known as the “Trail of Tears.”© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

What was the editing process like for this? How did you get started?

I started printing my pictures, little 4x6 prints. Every few months I printed out a pile of cheap pictures and sifted through them a little bit, put them on magnetic board to see what stuck. There’s this tactic that Josef Koudelka has done for years in Magnum meetings: Everyone is gathered around for three or four days once a year, and it is mostly talking about the state of the business. A lot of people’s eyes glaze over, and so it is the perfect time to show work in progress and get people’s thoughts. What he does is he hands people a pile of pictures, and if you like it you put your initials on the back of the pictures. I did that with a big pile and got a sense of what people were responding to aesthetically. Then slowly, a few days a month, I started a tentative sequence and parsing down the edit. I gave myself a good year to let the sequence slowly form itself. There is a lot of decision-making, but there is also a lot of letting the pictures stew and live on the wall. Overtime it just emerged. You look for intersections of form and light and patterns, and that is good sequencing, but once you know the basic rules, a lot of it just becomes instinct.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Louisville, KY. 2015. Kentucky Derby aftermath.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

How involved were you with the process of designing the book?

Very heavily involved, with all the books. They're all tied together, but I want them to exist on their own as well. There is this feeling that they each organically take on their own character and I didn't think anyone could decide those terms other than myself. I love photo books. I have a very big collection. Its my preferred way of working—more than magazines, more than exhibitions, I love the photo book. So there was always that ambition to design it as well. I started with a design a little more similar to Disco Night, then I realized this work is actually different. Disco Night was very consciously designed in a very sober way, slightly muted pictures, the text having equal placement as the images on the page. That worked for that book. It was a very sober subject and so I thought the sober design fit the subject. This is also a sober subject, but it's a little more raw and personal, so I wanted an intimate object. I wanted the pictures to have space to breath, because a lot of them have a certain amount of intricacy in the detail. I wanted people to be able to see the pictures better than they needed to see them in Disco Night. That's how I arrived at the lay-flat, no-real-spine design. It allowed for big pictures in a small package basically. To some degree, that's how I ended up with the paper choice as well. It's not an exotic, perfectly constructed object. The spineless structure is a little bit fragile, the printing is little bit rough, but that felt like the right fit for this kind of work.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Branson, Missouri. 2015. The parking lot of Dollie Parton’s Dixie Stampede.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

One of the pieces of text that stuck with me in this book accompanied an image taken at Lake Huron, Michigan, that read, “There’s a great beauty but also a terrible presumption in taking the image of someone else and shaping it around one’s own version of reality.” Is this a concept that you’ve become more aware of in your own work? Is it something you attempt to prevent from happening?

It’s something I have become a lot more aware of, especially in the last few years. Those lessons are rooting even more in the work I’m doing now than in the period I was doing this work. I was always mindful about how representation can be such a fraught way of engaging with people—especially if you come in with a certain perspective on the world. I’m very aware of being a white guy who grew up in the suburbs, who lives in New York, and whose work has been inspired and defined by other people much like myself. Ultimately that leaves out a lot of ways of rendering things thoughtfully, honestly and complexly. I hope I’m always making tweaks to my work to be more sensitive about those questions. Part of this process has made me conscious of these blind spots that I have.

© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Maryland. 2015. The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. After a few vague excuses, the six or seven Klan members changed into their robes and began a show amongst themselves. One of the leaders started his speech. He shouted that there were ISIS training camps being created by the United Nations with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) whose fighters would then take American’s guns away. This plan was allegedly hatched by Barack Obama (or Barry Soetoro as he was called by the Klan. Soetoro was the surname of Obama’s stepfather and that he was briefly called Barry Soetoro in elementary school in Indonesia has been used as evidence that Obama was not born in America). After finishing, the hoarse-voiced Klan member burned the UN flag and stomped on it, to the tepid cheers from the small crowd.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 2011. While on a road trip with my friend Justin, we met a couple of guys and started chatting. They invited us to check out a spot where they had a rope swing, and on the way we picked up some beer. Dusk was falling and it became a little party, we lit a fire while some of their younger cousins swung over a deep chasm, with just a thin rope around their waist to secure them to the tree. As the beer ran out and the night began to get colder, they invited us back to their home.   Upon arrival, their sister (the matriarch of the family) smelled their breath and became furious. She asked us what possessed us to give them beer. She told us there was rampant alcoholism on the reservation, and declared we were just another in a long line of white men exploiting the Lakota. We were filled with tremendous shame and apologized profusely. As she explained the history of the tribe she mellowed and invited us to spend the night. We awoke in the morning to a beautiful dawn, and the youngest children tending to the horses.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
On the outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana. 2009. Hunting rabbits with BB guns.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Detroit, Michigan. 2012. After dinner at Lyniece’s house.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
Portland, Oregon. 2015. Iraqi refugees in a low income housing community in Portland. The area is home to several thousand Iraqi refugees. One of the main community organizers is Dr. Baher Butti, who fled Baghdad in 2006, after his community activism made him the target of local militias. A psychiatrist, activist and writer, Dr. Butti spends much of his free time helping the recent immigrants adapt to life in America. Many of them don’t speak much English and don't understand their rights within the web of bureaucracy. Although he is constantly overworked, he sees it as his responsibility to help his people get on their feet as fast as possible.© Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
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