Peter van Agtmael: Look at the USA
New YORK CITYBronx Documentary Center
Look at the USA
April 14 – June 26, 2022
Look at the USA. It’s the title of photographer Peter van Agtmael’s exhibition, but it’s an instruction too. Look at it, do not turn away, do not obfuscate, do not insist on nuance, do not flinch: look at the USA.
Agtmael has been looking at the USA for quite some time now, first making his name as a war photographer after joining American troops in Iraq in 2006. The exhibition features photographs made by Agtmael between 2006–21, representing a significant portion of Agtmael’s output. What does he see?
He sees a country collapsing, a country overladen with overt and overtly false symbols, a migrant’s look of terror as she attempts to cross the border, a soldier’s blood soaked uniform, a white hand grasping over the barricades at the Capitol, a desperation and despair thinly cloaked by a pitch black irony, a sign reading “Disco Night 9/11” illuminated in the loneliest parking lot in existence, a vision of purgatory as a flyover state on the way to hell, let’s dance.
Agtmael’s strength as a photographer is that he approaches this vision on its own terms, mining the symbols and aesthetic sensibilities of America as it sees itself in order to undercut that same fantasy. His photographs are filled with Ghirri-esque touches—most notably fabricated backgrounds standing in for natural scenes—calling attention to the artificiality of the image. In one, a group of soldiers perform mock field-medic exercises before a background image of soldiers marching through a mountainous landscape (likely intended to evoke the mountains of Afghanistan), complete with helicopters swarming in the distance, the fake blood pooling beneath, well why not call them ‘crisis actors,’ as their slumped bodies suggest lethargy more than morbidity. In another photograph, a soldier covered in blood and dirt sits alone in a series of four chairs against a wall topped with barbed wire, the three empty chairs all emblazoned with text, “CAST.” The photograph was taken on the set of a US war propaganda film called The Outpost, about a purportedly heroic battle against insurgents in Afghanistan. Agtmael’s text, however, points out that the battle was actually “a prime example of strategic incompetence,” a phrase that applies with equal force to the entire war effort. Thus we learn that the blood and dirt on the “soldier’s” uniform is fake, the uniform a costume, the soldier an actor. But the look on the actor’s face is anguished, his eyes a perfect example of the thousand yard stare. While the situation itself is artificial, there is still something harrowing about the photograph—the very artificiality of playing at war is, after all, a part of the war effort.
Even in photographs of actual fighting, Agtmael has a propensity to make soldiers appear as either toys or actors—calling attention as much to the fungibility of human lives in conflict as to the ways in which militarism and masculinity are both aesthetic performances. The performance extends to the civilians who participate in the charade as well. Again, the artifice is unavoidable: pyrotechnics (stand-ins for the real bombs seen in the war-photographs) are set off amid a sea of American flags in a ceremony honoring the military at a Jets game at MetLife Stadium. Three women are seen against a display at the 9/11 museum, an image of the first tower oozing black smoke. The artifice here, as in the war-images, highlights the way in which these public displays of militarism are also images, are also a quotidian backdrop to life in this country, are also constructed, not more-so, but equally-so, all a part of the same closed-system of signification.
Often, Agtmael’s images are, like the propagandizing they critique, so literal and unavoidable in their meaning that they become almost comically on-the-nose. But this is a strength, rather than a shortcoming. That is, if the imagery is too on the nose (a fighter jet flying over a homeless encampment, a drone hanging like a star above a Christmas tree, a Christmas tree farm half charred by wildfires) it is only because America is a pornographic country, a country increasingly devoid of subtext, a country comprised entirely of surfaces without depth, a country which nakedly exhibits its worst obsessions and impulses and asks you to desire and love them too like a parent cooing “mmm food” and miming pleasure to induce a reluctant child to eat. This is good, the USA says, because it is good.
As inescapable as this circular logic may be, its rottenness is equally unavoidable. In one photograph we see a soldier’s arm. On the lower bicep is a tattoo of Jesus’s face bleeding from a crown of thorns. Just above, an abyssal wound, a sinkhole in the flesh. Caught between the permanent injunction to positivity and the accelerating horror of American life, morbid symptoms begin to develop. A prayer for absolution scrawled by a US soldier on a bathroom stall in Iraq; another soldier’s reply: “FAG!!!” A woman measuring a coffin for her husband, killed in one of this country’s many ongoing wars. A wedding in Tennessee between two klan members, their gaudy costumes burnished by Agtmael’s flash, their bodies center-image backed by the hypnotic swirls of some haystacks, a small, fragile, unkempt white dog in its own klan outfit, a man (the officiant?) split in half behind a bone white beam, and there in the foreground, a rope like a noose dangling from the ceiling. The ordinary drama, gravitas, and pathos of documentary photography is eschewed for an ironic humor that reveals a different kind of drama, the drama of a generation ruined by war, the terror of the terrifying rip-tide nihilism running through two decades of destruction that we see reflected on sites like 4-chan and in the live-streamed mass shootings that are the product and genesis of the decay and falsity of America’s stories about itself.
Agtmael’s viewpoint becomes particularly clear when viewing the photographs made outside the immediate context of the so-called “war on terror,” photographs for which the war-images work, in many ways, as a foil. Replacing the soldiers and war zones are images corpse-crowded rooms from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump rallies, urban poverty, and the January 6th riot. These images stand alone as a powerful testament to the degradation of American life, of the ways in which the fabric of society is crumbling beneath us, of the ways in which the contradictions of empire and capital are leading to increasingly violent and wild conflagrations, both literal and metaphorical. But the juxtaposition also drives home the violence inherent in an image of a barbed wire covered border checkpoint between the US and Mexico (recalling the barbed wire fencing seen in the image of the movie set), it drives home the desperation seen on the faces of the migrants, a desperation seen almost identically on the faces of Iraqi civilians as their home is raided by US soldiers. The interplay between the two creates a feedback loop, which is to say, the violence of the war is the violence of poverty is the violence of the border is the violence of military propaganda is the violence of political disintegration is the violence of war and so on and so on. Which is to say, it’s all violence all the way down. Which is to say that the US militarism, which in the end no more than a celebration of the capacity for domination, is the only unifying myth America has left.
Some look at the USA obliquely, seeing ambiguity where there is none—Agtmael looks straight on, and is thus able to enter into the American system of signification. Instead of merely problematizing it, imbuing it with an unearned complexity, Agtmael’s directness enables him to provide an immanent critique, to erode the system’s mythos with its own vocabulary.
Looking through Agtmael’s eyes, looking at these photographs, at the images of soldiers and civilians damaged by war, of people damaged by daily life, of the celebrations and myths that persist despite their apparent falsity, an unavoidable question bubbles to the surface: is this it? Is this what it’s all for?