Pin It
Peter van Agtmael’s Buzzing At The Sill
"New Orleans, Louisiana", 2012, © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum PhotosPhotography Peter van Agtmael, courtesy of Magnum

Living on America’s margins in a 9/11 shadow

Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael’s new photo book looks at how the US’s contribution to global wars affects its marginal communities back home

Acclaimed photobook Disco Night Sept 11 saw Peter van Agtmael capturing America’s role in global conflict between 2006-2013, chronicling the lives of the soldiers he met in the field. Three years later, its follow up, Buzzing at the Sill, continues to tackle the country’s troubled relationship with war, exploring the US in the shadow of post-9/11 society.

Unlike previous work in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book deals with the aftermath of 21st-century interventionism in America itself, seeking to understand how the country’s role in the world has affected, shaped and informed its own communities domestically. From a KKK rally in Maryland, to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Peter’s images explore the various idiosyncrasies of the United States, focusing on tensions of race, class, and power. Buzzing At The Sill reverberates rage and vulnerability in equal measure, presenting America as a wounded beast as a result of its political climate.   

Following the book’s release, we spoke to van Agtmael about isolation, rhetoric and how his journey helped him form a better understanding of his country.

Why did you decide to explore themes and issues deriving from conflict from a domestic, American perspective?

Peter van Agtmael: The book basically came from work I’d been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for quite a few years – I got to know America through these wars. I set out to do work travelling through America, touching upon all the themes that I encountered in war and later began encountering while travelling through America. 

Why did you choose Buzzing at the Sill as the title?

Peter van Agtmael: It was seeing a science fiction play called The Nether. There was a line from a Theodore Roethke poem called In Dark Time, so after the play, I went back and read the poem. Something made me feel that this poem was important to me. I kept going back to it, over 18 months or so – at that point I was looking for a title for the book. Something, subconsciously, told me that it was buried in that poem. By process of elimination, I ended up with Buzzing at the Sill.

“The result of that is a pretty deromanticised, demystified, demythologised version of America. There’s a certain relief in having one’s eyes open to more kinds of honest truths” – Peter van Agtmael

For the book, you spent time with lots of different marginal communities. What are your favourite memories from doing so?

Peter van Agtmael: There were two that I probably enjoyed the most. One is the Kentucky Derby. I’d go down with a good friend of mine, Christian Hansen, whom the book is dedicated to. He’s one of these figures who can – with great sincerity, fearlessness and credible eccentricity – just talk to any stranger he so pleases, in a way that is often kind of bizarre yet, somehow, charming. We went to the derby like seven times. It combined a particular friendship and landscape with a lot of powerful moments, in a tiny little radius.

The other most fulfilling part was spending time with Lyniece Nelson and her family in Detroit. I met them through an assignment after her transgender daughter was murdered after she became a confidential informant. For whatever reason, I clicked with them from the first minute. We just became friends and comfortable quickly, so I kept going back there and documenting their experience of living in these margins. 

Considering the book deals with the aftermath of American interventionism, many of the images themselves are isolated and distant. Did you find that juxtaposition interesting?

Peter van Agtmael: The book is kind of a chapter in one much larger book that is essentially about those questions. A big part of my identity was drawn from covering Iraq and Afghanistan – this book is about processing those experiences and processing the things that led us, as a country, into these conflicts. The photos in the book are as you say. On the one hand, they’re a window into these worlds and on the other, they’re a mirror up to myself. 

How has your relationship with America and conflict altered as a result of your work?

Peter van Agtmael: I was reading a lot of history to get a context of what I was saying. The result of that is a pretty deromanticised, demystified, demythologised version of America. There’s a certain relief in having one’s eyes open to more kinds of honest truths. I’m at the point where I think I see things pretty clearly, and with some pretty deep fears about America’s role in the future. It’s not just about America, but the nature of humanity and conflict. 

If a country that has a great history, and not a particularly interventionist one, can devolve into these senseless conflicts despite its internal, robust democracy – a flawed but robust democracy – then what does that mean for the future of humanity? These are the things that scare the hell out of me. 

Is Buzzing at the Sill a response to the idea of a grand, national narrative that populist movements utilise?

Peter van Agtmael: I think populist rhetoric plays on people’s ignorance. It’s very consciously propaganda, it’s just not always recognised as such. It infects you, no matter how much you try. It affected me, and I had a good education. The mist of American exceptionalism in some ways took hold of me – what I thought was a nuanced perspective was still very much infected by these strains of nationalism. 

I still admire America in many ways but I’m also utterly appalled by aspects of our history and unbelievable contradictions and our lack of critical self-analysis about who we are and why we are what we are and what we are to the rest of the world.

Is there a way to confront such a narrative?

Peter van Agtmael: It’s hard to say. How do you change? It means changing society also. It means changing the rhetoric of all these different institutions that rely on fantasy, and on the commodification of fantasy to exist and drive. At the end of that, what are you left with? I’m not sure. You just hope individuals confront the lies they’ve been told and try to work towards the alternative.