Peter Van Agtmael‘s Disco Night Sept 11 was on the shortlist for Aperture’s Book of the Year back in 2014. I missed it at the time, and I picked this copy up, if I recall, during a Magnum book sale in 2019 or 2020. I botched the unboxing video, lost track of the book, and it wound up on the “already reviewed” shelves somehow.
Van Agtmael is a Magnum photographer, and so you know the work is solid. But more than that, Disco Night Sept 11 is, on one hand, devastating, and on the other, (and even more devastating) it’s a bit ho hum, for me, anyway, and ymmv.
It’s devastating because it’s 2021, the book came out 7 years ago, and we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan… Sure, we’re not really “at war” with either country, not since 2011 and 2020 (respectively), but we still have soldiers and bases in both, and probably will for awhile.
And it’s ho hum because, well, after the Abu Ghraib torture program photographs came out, I no longer feel much of anything when I look at pictures of war or the costs of war or the wages of war or the homeland during war or veterans or anything. Yes, I’m callous; shame on me and may God, the Turner of Hearts, soften my heart and guide me to better. This callous, laissez faire attitude to the wars is part of Van Agtmael’s project, and, yes, I’m as complicit and implicated in it all as anyone.
Brief texts, one or two paragraphs, accompany each image, and Van Agtmael talks about the scene, the people in it, and his memories of making the image and spending time with the soldiers and their families. The texts are largely reportage, though Van Agtmael, as an embedded journalist, has his own view and political leanings and all, and there is a bit of color to some of the language. He talks some about his gung ho start, about the adrenaline of combat giving way to depression, about the relative banality of civilian life, and about acknowledging this in himself, which is something that some of the other veterans, off duty, and active soldiers don’t seem particularly conscious of.
The photography too has a color: images from Van Agmael’s “Oops!!!” series of photographs of on-base graffiti (latrinalia) punctuate the book, often appearing just after one of the many gatefolds that come up in the book like leave or deployments, and portray the schizophrenia of the Armed Forces, as regards racism and sexism, sure, but also sensitivity and machismo. The initial author expresses some longing for home; later writers mock them. An initial author makes a racist remark; someone calls them out on it; others rain down racist insults. It’s not particularly revealing, especially in 2021 after January 6, after 4 years of 45, after being married to a Bengali-British-American for nearly 8 years.
I know these people. They’re racist and sexist and fucking bigots, and, I assume, some of them are nice people.
But, then, I have some bias and baggage, as do we all.
Van Agtmael, professional as he is, manages to capture something of the personality of many of his subjects, and he obviously has some sympathy and simpatico with them. He wasn’t just parachuting in, snapping a few frames, and going back home; he lived with and went on patrols with and huddled under fire with the soldiers. He went to funerals, got to know parents and spouses, grieved with, drank with, cried and laughed with them. Even when he disagrees with their politics, he shows the humanity of the soldiers and the Afghan and Iraqi citizens, makes them visible and human.
Maybe I can try to remember that some.
At the end of his Introduction, Van Agtmael writes more eloquently than I have…
Despite all the death and confusion and isolation and impotence these pictures represent, I know they can only be a slender document. There are so many simultaneous existence and we can only be present in one. 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.Van Agtmael, Peter. Disco Night Sept 11. Red Hook Editions, Brooklyn, 2014. p. 3
I’ll just leave it at that.
The binding on my copy failed a bit near the back of the book, and that may be why I got it for a good price from Magnum… I don’t recall. But the book is really… well, “beautiful” is the wrong word, but it’s well printed and well designed and well edited, as a book by a Magnum photographer should be.
Overall, I give it a solid 4 stars.
Disco Night Sept 11 is available direct from Mass Books (as are most of Van Agtmael’s other books) and elsewhere, and Van Agtmael’s website is worth a look. He knows what he’s doing, has a project, and it’s clear from his output. We could all learn something from it, or I could, anyway.