Fragments toward Whole – Review of “Look at the U.S.A.” by Peter van Agtmael

Here is a simple truth. We want to put things together.

We see a bit of something over here, another bit over there, and even if they don’t exactly fit, we imagine the joining. We imagine the story that unfolds when the parts are all together.

Novels, plays, poetry have been working with braided narratives for a long time. They rely upon the sophistication and the curiosity of the reader. Subplots and minor characters inform the main narrative and sometimes explode into the story with unexpected relevance and importance.

“Look at the U.S.A.” by Peter van Agtmael
Published by Thames & Hudson, 2024
review by W. Scott Olsen

The magic of this approach is the intimate connection the audience has to the story. The real story is the audience’s imagination, in their head and heart, in the bridges they build between the evident parts.

Think of a symphony in several disparate movements. Think of a court case where widely ranging bits of evidence are collected into a clear and compelling argument.

Artistic forms, and especially a photography collection or series, have the power to invite a kind of bridge building.

When the audience has a larger than usual role in the creation of a narrative, in the how we get from A to B, the result is often deeply personal.

Raymond and his sons / © Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos 

Look at the U.S.A., by Peter van Agtmael, is billed as “a diary of war and home.” And like a diary, it is filled with brief entries, both photographs and text. Some of them join each other. Some of them are widely separate. Each is a personal expression of the moment they were created. They do not so much reveal a developing plotline as much as the collection of them shows a personality changing over time. The story is in parts. But the Story is evident in the whole.

Reading and viewing Look at the U.S.A. is a troubling experience—and I mean that in the very best way. This book troubles our easy generalizations and comfortable explanations. This is a diary of Agtmael’s experience with the post-9/11 war. In fragments it reveals a personal journey and invites us to build the connections from one to the next and others.

The book begins, inside the front cover, with an image of a soldier throwing a grenade. Backlit by the sun, he is in a classic action-hero pose. This is followed by a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty’s face, under attack, with the caption: “he’ll fight for freedom wherever there’s trouble GI Jos is there.” It’s the Romantic myth of war. However, things get a bit darker from there.

A Second Line parade. New Orleans, Louisiana, 2012 / © Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

A few pages in, Agtmael’s text begins,

“I was the grandchild of World War II who grew up hearing war stories with happy endings…I wanted to be a war photographer, and then 911 happened, followed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. My generation was doing the fighting, and I knew I needed to be there. It felt fated, and that’s how I treated it. I would become one of my heroes or die trying. It was all very romantic in a fucked-up kind of way.”

There is an image from childhood, Agtmael and his father eating a haul of candy on Halloween, and a bit of text, a conversation with his parents before his first trip to Iraq, and then this,

“The night before going to Iraq for the first time, I was staying in a hotel room in Kuwait. I walked around in my underwear in front of the mirror wearing my new body armor and helmet and felt like a real badass.”

Quotes like this are followed then by images of bullet holes in a wall, children who’ve been beaten, panicked family members, and bloody victims of some attack. The images and the text do not lay out a chronology or a well-defined narrative. The text and photographic entries are fragments. They are bits and pieces. Each one has a gut-punch power.

One, for example, reads in its entirety: “The women were huddled on the floor of the next room. shrinking in fear every time a flashlight passed over them.”

Another one reads, “A patrol from another base a few miles down the road encountered an IED. One of the soldiers was blown into a canal and disappeared. The rest of the platoon found parts of his body but not his torso. The search until well after midnight and began again at dawn to find the rest of the pieces.”

No context, no beginning or end. Just a little bit here, a little other bit there. The text entries are very much like the images: stand-alone moments. When you put them all together, though, the emotional gestalt is moving.

Burned out classroom, Mosul, Iraq, 2017 / © Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

It would be wrong to say this book is all about war in the Middle East. As the title says, it’s a diary of war and home. Agtmael does come home to look at America again, particularly the America of Trump, the insurrection, the discord. He looks at the America of George Floyd and Covid-19. And while there are touching images, too, such as Isabelle, his wife, on the night of their marriage, sitting alone at twilight and looking out over a lake, there are painfully ironic or sarcastic images, such as patrons in a movie theater watching a war movie about the Alamo.

In a conclusion dated 2023, he writes,

“I sometimes wish there was a story where I could find sanctuary. The myths I wanted to believe have largely been dismantled, but there’s nothing to take their place. It’s no wonder most people dig in their heels when their ideas are challenged. Clarity, however false, can be a salve.”

Peter van Agtmael has been a full member of Magnum Photos since 2013. He has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith grant, several World Press awards and a ICP Infinity Award. His images often contain ironies I would argue are both painful and true. Every one of them goes well beyond simple documentary content and reveals cultural narratives that are frayed and contradictory.

Booing the media at a Trump rally. Montoursville, Pennsylvania, 2019 / © Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

Look at the U.S.A. is a request, if not a demand. Perhaps the idea is that we’ve lost all sense of direction or purpose, and all we have left are fragments. Perhaps the idea is that the fragments are the evidence of what we have done and we need to do better.

Look at the U.S.A. is a morally and socially difficult book filled with insightful prose and sophisticated, necessary photographs. It is among the very best.

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