Snapshots of America with Peter Van Agtmael

Photo journalist, Peter Van Agtmael, started his career in Iraq and Afghanistan taking pictures of American’s presence there. Questions about US history, power, foreign policy led to questions about America now. That led to seven trips across America. He went, simply, to photograph what he saw.

He was surprised at the difference between who we are here versus how we are abroad. How could it be that America is both brutal, violent and ignorant, and good, loving and welcoming? He realized that this was perhaps, more a point about humanity than America alone. His book is his own truth, not a fundamental truth. Photography is done “right then.”

Compelling and Mysterious Draws You In

All of Peter’s pictures must be good and have content, however, they must also draw you in. As he captures the story of life in America on multiple levels, he shows you that not one idea is America or Americaness. Photos are moments frozen in time and in time they become the “ghosts of time.”

Peter was left with a “more rich understanding of the place” and on another level, was left “wondering what this place is at all.”

He also came away believing that language or narratives can be dangerous. We tend to create narratives that project our ideas and perceptions. Photos, on the hand, are done in the moment and are non-narrative. Still, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Interview Transcript:

– Hey hey, welcome to the Urban Monk. Dr. Pedram Shojai hanging out doing something slightly different today. We’re gonna be looking at a picture book together. My guest, Peter Van Agtmael, has traveled extensively across the country, over about seven trips. Really trying to understand the heart and the soul of this country and the people. He’s got a new book called Buzzing at the Sill out and he’s got these wonderful photos that all have stories behind them. And it’s very visually compelling and I want to do a story by going through a picture book today and just kind of finding what it is that this very talented photographer found while traveling through the country. So hey, welcome to the show.

– Thanks glad to be here.

– So what inspired the project in the first place? Like what, were you already kind of cruising around the country doing things on assignment? Or was this kind of a side thing? Or were you commissioned to do work like this?

– Well it’s sort of a combination. But the basic lineage of the work was kind of born from working in Iraq and Afghanistan where I started working when I was about 24, looking at the nature of the American occupation there which led to questions about American history, about American power, about American foreign policy which over time led to questions about America itself. What was it about? This place that had led us into these conflicts that were having a pretty kind of formative effect on my young life, so. And I’d realized by being in Iraq and Afghanistan and working with the American military that I kind of hardly knew that much about my own country. So I determined after about three years of that work to start traveling through the US and trying to do it without any particular expectations or kind of preconditions and just see what I could see.

– And you did this over a number of trips like we mentioned and you I’m sure had an amazing experience doing so. What was the most surprising to you as you started kind of seeing what you didn’t know you were gonna see?

– The most. It’s tough, the most surprising I mean. A lot of things that are surprising now seem… Surprising then seem obvious now. One thing I would say that I was grappling with a lot at the time was how a place that I was from and related to and kind of had a general respect for the sort of sanctity of its history could in some ways be so brutal and violent and ignorant in its operations abroad. And so and it was in getting home and trying to understand kind of the core of who we were that led me to realize that this it’s really more of a fundamental point about humanity. But we can be very good and loving and welcoming to those kind of close to us, even strangers, but that that kind of empathy almost never translates kind of beyond this very very narrow framework of kind of community and like immediate engagement. So despite the fact that a lot of the folks I met when I was working in Iraq and in Afghanistan, at their core you know didn’t differ from the Americans I was dealing with at home. You know, they were such worlds apart. And it was that gulf that and their perceptions. And it was that gulf that you know is very obvious in retrospect but kind of was painful and contradictory to realize at the time.

– It’s hard when you’re in a world no matter how big you think it is, it’s still tiny right. Like I grew up in metro LA area. It’s a big place, there’s always something going on. There’s cars buzzing. You’re at the center of stuff right. Until you get on a plane and go to Bangkok or Shanghai or any of these other places where you realize there’s this whole other world that’s spinning and buzzing everywhere that you know is just doing its thing. And your world is what you thought it was and it was big then. And so I’m sure you went into all these smaller communities seeing all these kind of insular pockets of thinking and belief systems that were different. I mean you’re in Brooklyn. Are you kind of born and raised in the bay, in the Bay Area, in the New York area?

– No in Maryland in the DC suburbs originally.

– And so how much of the trip put you into small town America?

– Wouldn’t be sure exactly the percentages. But quite a few in quite a bit of the trip insofar as it’s oftentimes the easiest way to engage with people. In a city, everyone’s moving from one place to another. There’s so many people around. There’s like a general wariness of outsiders. You know, when you’re in a smaller place there’s maybe like more of a veneer of wariness on the surface. But underlying that there is a general curiosity that as a photographer I found easier to work with. Because photography’s very social in that way, you know and a lot of the time you have to act with kind of in collaboration with the consent of the people you’re photographing. And so I was spending time in those places. Also I was spending time in those places because those were the kinds of places where a lot of the Soldiers I’d been meeting in Iraq and Afghanistan were from. And so it felt important to kind of understand the nature of those communities. You know, it’s hard to draw general conclusions and photography. I like photography because it’s so fragmentary in its way. And it’s so non-narrative in its way. So the book can’t ever be any decisive accounting but just very much explicitly my own accounting. So I caution any kind of general judgements with the kind of underlying notion that this was all about kind of you know hopefully perceptions that are superficial on the one hand and run deep on others, but are my own truths, not some sort of fundamental truth.

– Sure, well let’s unpack these truths one frame at a time. And let’s walk through some of this journey with you. Here in front of me I have a picture of looks like some people dancing underwater with an American flag. And then as I do this, Lorenzo will share the photo with our viewers. And for those of you who are just listening to this, I highly recommend checking it out on the well.org page so you can see the pictures that go along with this. So what’s going on here, Peter?

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

– That picture was actually from my very first trip out and I did a lot of these trips with a friend of mine, Christian Hansen, who’s a photographer from Louisville, Kentucky, living in Brooklyn many years too. And I’d say I went out with him partly because I tend to have a natural kind of reticence you know on the road and towards people. And he’s one of these characters that without any regard for you know politeness or discretion will talk to strangers. And so he seemed like the best and engaged very intimately with them very quickly. And so he was the great guy to go out on the road with and he’d heard of this place. We were in Florida, near St. Petersburg, a place called Weeki Wachee land which had been a roadside stop that was popular in the 1950s and ’60s and had kind of gone slightly to seed since then. And what’s happening there is there’s this fresh water, it’s a natural fresh water spring. And there was a performance of these women in mermaid costumes who would take periodic kind of sucks of air from these tubes that had been kind of discretely placed at different points in the spring. And the culmination of this routine was an American flag rising from the depths while the mermaids kind of swam in patterns around it. And over the loudspeakers, the song Proud to Be an American was playing. And to me it was a very metaphorical image for kind of starting off this project. And I like the picture now and it was also kind of important symbolically to me as the beginning point in many ways of this journey.

– Amazing, amazing. And they had discretely placed little oxygen thingies so they could just stay down there and do their thing?

– Exactly yeah. But you also had to hold your breath for a long time. It was very impressive.

– No kidding.

– Of course they were working kind of minimum wage jobs simultaneously. So that night you know eating a cheeseburger at the Applebee’s, it was many of the same mermaids, so it was. Serving us and so it was an interesting thing like already the mystique of or the veneer of this kind of fantasy land was taken away by the setting itself. Even though it was quite an impressive performance. And kind of reduced even further by seeing them kind of then out in the real world.

– Who knew mermaids ate cheeseburgers? Look at that.

– Well everybody eats cheeseburgers.

– Someone’s gotta eat cheeseburgers, right. I got this next one over here. It’s this triangular cemetery it looks like. Fascinating, really cool shot. What’s happening here?

– That was on the way. Actually I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment in Brooklyn. I remember that was taken close to home. Because I’d severed a tendon in my finger after falling off a wall in Jerusalem about a month before that. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. And I take my camera everywhere. And I just happened upon that scene and later on I looked into the details behind the cemetery, its history. And the guy that had founded the cemetery was this kind of very eclectic character that was trying to be an inventor and had once made one of his employees jump off the office of the cemetery administration with a pair of wings he’d constructed. He made him jump off at gunpoint, apparently. Because he’d refused to do it initially. And he fell and broke both his legs. So that’s, I’m sure there are a lot of other stories in there. A Yelp review I remember complained about walking through there at night and finding people having sex by the tombstones and things and whatever million stories that its 150 year history you’d want to uncover. I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. But that’s just two of them.

– That’s amazing. Hey what camera do you use by the way for this type of work?

– It’s all sorts of different cameras. I think everything from a medium format camera to sort of full frame SLRs you’d call them to point and shoots. I think there might even be an iPhone picture or two in there. I’m pretty flexible. I use the tool depending on what I have on hand and what the circumstance calls for.

– And so you cruise with a kit with all kinds of tools that you need at the time or?

– Yeah when I’m out going to a doctor’s appointment I’ll just be cruising around with just a little you know a little mirrorless camera, something small and discrete I can take everywhere. But if I’m out on the road, I’ll be traveling. I was just out in Iraq and I was probably about six cameras and a drone out there with me so, you know. It really depends on the circumstances.

– Yeah, no kidding. This one I found to be very very interesting and compelling. Who knows, I have no idea what the story is here but I got the guy who took it.

– Yeah, that’s in New Orleans. That’s a second line. And for those of you who’ve been down to New Orleans this is something that occurs a lot of Sundays during the year. And it was an interesting history behind them, you know. As a basic ritual it’s like a street parade. And people are going through their bands. There’s a crowd just following around. There’s people you know riding their horses through the streets and it’s all kind of a remarkable thing to see in a big populated city like that to just have whole big avenues shut down for this parade that’s happening all the time.

– [Dr. Shojai] As people were walking through this, how the heck did? So what’s this horse doing amongst the pedestrians?

– It’s just riding on through. I mean if you’d been able to have a 360 degree view of that scene you know, there was much the same going on to my right, going onto my left, and going on behind me. But the point I was gonna point out was that what’s interesting about these parades is that they kind of originated in the wake of the Civil War as part of the social aid and pleasure clubs which are created in the south because insurance companies wouldn’t give insurance to ex-slaves. So they kind of created their own. The now ex-slaves created their own system which included, that gave kind of limited health insurance and as part of that there were bands that were playing at funerals and that kind of migrated over time into these second line parades, which are pretty unique to the New Orleans area.

– Amazing. Yeah there’s another piece of American history for you huh? That’s incredible.

– [Peter] It’s endless layers.

– Well that’s just it right. People are complicated and people together is that much more complication. This one’s kind of fun. I can’t quite figure out what’s happening which makes it even more fun. YOu’ve got the dude with the mask.

– Yeah this is the Kentucky Derby a few years ago and I go down there just about every year since 2009. And it’s just a, to me it’s a fascinating place ’cause you’re getting all these people from all different walks of life kind of together in this one very narrow space. And there’s this… You know it’s a lot of drinking and it’s a lot of kind of carousing. But it’s also an interesting kind of microscope almost on society. And a lot of the time this friend of mine, Christian, who I mentioned who I’ve done a lot of this work with, we just kind of cruise around the outskirts of the Derby. And we just kind of encountered this guy with his, what I believe were his grandchildren. And we kind of exchanged a few words and asked to photograph him and as these things often go, some people are just receptive to this idea that a stranger with a camera suddenly appears and is gonna kind of follow them around. And so we sort of followed him around photographing him as he rolled through with his grandkids through this scene of people partying the Derby at sunset. So it’s a very kind of surreal sight and you know one of many that kind of like it that didn’t even make it into the book because you know in this otherwise kind of cookie cutter country, there’s a lot of weird stuff just below the surface.

– Yeah, you know what’s funny is I spent a lot of time in India traveling. And it seems like every day in India is some festival. And there’s just street parades and festivals all the time and people live for that because it’s their social engagement. It’s their social life. It’s a lot of things. And we forget that there’s a lot of this that still happens on main street USA. It happens a lot. We need an excuse to hang out and you know this guy’s partying, man. He’s wearing a chromed out skeleton mask and he’s got the grandkids in tow. And it’s just, what a character, right? And you normally don’t get to meet this person unless you’re out on the street as well which makes it fun. This next picture my wife was hoping was a sleeping bear and not a dead bear.

– Yeah, I’m afraid it is a dead bear. And that was at a taxidermist shop. And that was during a kind of a bear culling that they do in New Jersey every few years. And I just happened to be there with a friend of mine who I think had an assignment to photograph it. And you know at that moment I was very struck. I mean a lot this work in this book is kind of born from these experiences I’ve had in this conflict zones. And so there’s, you know there is you know meditation on death throughout. And I remember when I saw the bear, I was struck to some degree by the innocuousness of the setting and kind of in some degree by the humanness of the body. And then there was this kind of beautiful light at the same time. And so it was this kind of combination of factors that attracted me to that scene.

– Yeah, that’s fascinating. It’s very somber. You know part of me wishes he had a bottle in his hand and he just drank himself to sleep that night, but.

– [Peter] Yeah.

– Not quite there. And so you said this is in Jersey. I didn’t even know they had bears in Jersey to the degree where they had to cull them, so.

– Well, I mean whether or not they have to cull them, that’s subject to interpretation.

– Right, right. Who are these guys?

– This is Kentucky Derby again. This is again after the Derby which is kind of where a lot of the work kind of seems to bear fruit. And these are just some folks, looked like pretty well heeled folks coming out of the Derby and I just happened upon this scene, I remember with Christian, and he was kind of messing with them a little bit. Because he’s from Kentucky and he tends to not be particularly, find particularly appealing the real preppy folks. And so I remember him, he was messing with them a little bit. And at that moment I took a photograph. And to me this picture it’s of real people but it’s like, and it’s factual, but it’s fictional at the same time in that it’s an expression in a lot of ways of what my interest and feelings were in kind of these issues of class and race that kind of came to the forefront a lot in these travels through America. You know you can’t avoid those two ideas as kind of two of the defining terms of how we live in this place.

– Any idea where these kids were from?

– Not the faintest clue. The picture in many ways you never know if it utterly is misrepresenting them too. I mean photography you know a lot of the time as you see in the book, there’s a pretty deep dive into the context and the individuals. You know I’m very, I’m both familiar with the individuals and the place where they’re coming from. And then there are moments that just happen spontaneously in a 1/250th of a second that I’m not aware. So in those cases there’s, you know, there’s artistic license that comes into account which is always, you know, which is an ethical question in a way that’s dogged photography since the very beginning.

– These girls look pissed. So whatever he said got ’em to set off.

– They were pissed I think. Well he shifted into kind of trying to charm them to try and alienate them within a breath. And I think it was in that breath that I captured that photograph.

– That’s a hell of a pivot.

– [Peter] I wish I’d had the audio of it actually. Well, you know that’s how he is. That’s what makes him an interesting person.

– Yeah exactly. Well he’s a good catalyst for photography. This next one is the most fascinating of the lot. And I’m dying to hear where and how and what came of this and where it went from there, to me.

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

– Well this is part of a extensive series on the Ku Klux Klan. That was part of multiple trips. This is actually the only one in the book. There’s quite a bit of other work but that’s more gonna be a part of another project. A book project down the road. So what had happened there was, I linked up with this Norwegian journalist, Vegas Tenold, who’s been looking at far right groups in the United States for the last kind of half decade. And he established a pretty good relationship with this chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that was based out of Maryland but had members from kind of around the region. And they’d invited him down there for kind of a barbecue. And it was a swearing in ceremony for a new member. And then there was kind of extended rant about ISIS traning camps in the US being run by the UN with the kind of collusion of Barrack Obama or Barry Soetoro as they called him. Soetoro being the name of his mother’s second husband. And so there was a lot of interesting pictures, a lot of kind of good pictures in this scene. But this happened just at the end as the clan member was emerging from the woods in this kind of ghostly, strange scene greeted me. And that’s when I took the photo. And it kind of visually kind of represented that event in many ways better than the other parts of the narrative. Which I prefer just to write in the book to give people the context for which the picture was taken.

– What was it like being at this meeting? Like I mean, are you scared? Are you fine? I mean you’re a white guy. You’re fine being there? What’s happening in your head as you’re sitting there listening to this banter?

– Well if I had been just wandering in there I certainly wouldn’t have been welcome but I was with someone who’d established a relationship with them over a long period of time. So I felt safe, relatively speaking. There was no booze or drugs around. So that always helps. And frankly, I’ve been around so many strange characters and so many difficult circumstances from kind of you know Hamas and Islamic Jihad who are a lot easier to deal with frankly than the KKK. You know I’ve been throughout the world in difficult circumstances. And so this is just one more difficult circumstance. And you know it’s just kind of your gut that tells you when things are okay and when things may be escalating to a point that you’re gonna have to leave. In this case, you know, things went pretty smoothly. But it was all very kind of choreographed for us as well. Not this moment per se. But other moments of it were certainly choreographed for our presence.

– So what makes the KKK harder to deal with than Hamas?

– They’re a bit more unpredictable I would say. You know. So in you know, take Gaza where I’ve been. Take a Islamic Jihad group. You know once you make, at least in my cases, when I’ve made appointments to kind of meet and photograph some of their combatants. It all proceeds very formally, very bureaucratically almost, very politely in all cases. And it’s very professional, frankly. You know with the guys from the Ku Klux Klan, you know my, the writer I’d been working with had had cases of having guns pointed in his face. You know there’s the unpredictability of certain members who were maybe slightly mentally unstable that… Or that just really don’t want journalists around or maybe have been sipping on something you know behind the scenes that complicate things. You know there’s, there’s an unpredictability to the chain of command I guess you could say that makes people a lot more difficult to be under control.

– Interesting. And that’s like across the board thing that he’s experienced in all his stuff with the KKK as well? Are they just kind of renegade cowboys at their heart or something?

– I think some are and I think some aren’t. Like any other group of people it’s made up of disparate parts. It’s just that some of those disparate parts are a lot more unpredictable than in most kind of organizations of people. So you know, but he’s been doing it for years. And he’s still going so. You know he’s been able to ultimately negotiate you know with them to the point that he hasn’t gotten hurt.

– Yeah, well that’s good survival skills. Speaking of cowboys, this looks like a Latino cowboy ranchero ball of some sort. What’s happening here?

– Yeah this was a rodeo out in Molalla, Oregon. And it was, yeah it was after a concert. The tail end of a concert. And if I remember correctly, some kind of hits had just come on on the radio after the band finished up. And everyone was getting in their last dance. And there was kind of beautiful woman with the bright red lipstick you see in the frame. And… I just was kind of very struck and intrigued by her in the midst of that whole group. And so I was waiting for that moment in my head when she would be looking at me and no one else would and finally that moment came about after a few dozen attempts. Probably at some point she was looking at me because she was wondering who the hell this white guy was that kept kind of following her around taking her picture. So… I’m sure that was it.

– Why are you stalking me?

– As much as anything else but at the same time she was okay with it. I mean if people don’t want their photograph taken, you can find out pretty quickly. I’m not hiding what I’m doing. And there’s a funny, unspoken relationship that often goes on between photographer and subject.

– Oh no she’s looking through your lens. I mean you can just look away. You cover your face. Like she’s looking right back through your lens at this.

– Yeah, exactly. Yeah she’s looking right at me. But I’m not looking through the viewfinder either. I’m looking at her with my eyes and my camera is down kind of around my neck.

– [Dr. Shojai] Ah interesting.

– I’m looking down at the viewfinder. I used an LCD viewfinder where I’m not looking through with blocking my face. But my face is always visible which always helps with that process of engaging with people, when you don’t have a camera hiding your face.

– Right, it’s less Paparazzi. I only have time for a couple more. You know they say a picture’s worth a thousand words. This is, it’s so much fun getting stories out of pictures. It really is. This next one’s really fascinating to me as these two guys I want to say wrestling, dancing. I don’t know what the hell’s going on here?

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

– Well that was J’ouvert which is this West Indian day parade that happens every labor day weekend in New York and throughout the Caribbean. There’s a big population of folks from the Caribbean there and it’s an all night parade. And this was just one of those moments. Again it’s something I’ve gone to quite a bit the last few years ’cause I have a friend that lives right by there and we’ll usually kind of, we’ll usually have a party at his place the night before and then out late we’ll go out and people are kind of covered in motor oil and paint.

– That’s motor oil that’s on these guys?

– That’s motor oil, yes that’s motor oil on those guys and people cover themselves in paint and costumes and parade through the streets. And it was just one of those moments again about the kind of serendipity of photography where these two guys just… I just kind of heard a sound. Or maybe I felt a certain instinct and I saw these guys kind of run past me. This guy, one guy carrying the other. And I just turned around and snapped a frame. And it happened to turn out kind of you know perfectly as I’d hoped for. And that was that. And then I never saw them again.

– Epic, motor oil. Don’t try this at home kids. Motor oil does not absorb well through your skin the way you want.

– Well combined with what was probably plenty of booze as well, it was…

– Yeah I guess at that point it doesn’t really matter what’s absorbing through your skin. This next one, I’m gonna go a little faster just because there’s a couple more I want to cover.

– Sure.

– This next one here is fascinating. I have no idea what’s going on here. But this guy is an amazing elaborate looking character.

– Yeah that was. So that was on the fourth of July about seven years ago I guess, 2010. And I remember. You know it was another one of those moments. I bring a camera everywhere I go. And in fact, I remember the previous week I’d had some kind of disappointing news from this agency I was in the process of joining that had called into question to some degree my faith in my own kind of talent I guess as a photographer. And I remember that was the first good picture I took after that where I found this guy in the street and we had this kind of, again just a very brief engagement you know. I just said, as I often do say to people who I’m intrigued by and want to photograph that I thought you know that there was something amazing and beautiful about him and could I take his photograph. And he kind of turned around and said yes and I took one or two frames and that was it. And that’s how a lot of those engagements go. You know I try and capture the spontaneity of the moment and not let it get too, people get too self conscious with the camera in front of them.

– Yeah and that’s an art. That’s an art in and of itself is that engagement right. ‘Cause yeah this is a moment in time that you know is beautifully captured. This kid looks like he’s in trouble. And are you sitting in your car trying to figure out what the heck’s going on here?

– No that was on, that was at Pine Ridge, Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and I was actually on a ride along with that police officer who you can see on the left holding the taser. And there’s a lot of crime on the Reservation and we had been kind of responding. I had been with him as he responded to to one thing or another, mostly alcohol fueled. All night, I mean there’s no, there’s no industry or economy, really jobs around the reservation. And liquor itself is banned. But a small town with about eight residents has been set up just across the state line specifically to sort of sell booze to the Lakota Sioux at inflated prices. And so a lot of this crime is alcohol related and at this particular point I remember there’d been a call that’d come in that some people were getting beat up. We drove up to the scene. There were two guys lying unconscious at the scene badly beaten up and kind of at that moment as the officer was searching with a flashlight we saw this kid take off running. And the police officer, I don’t know how he did it. You know he took off running after him, wasn’t able to catch him, jumped in the car and drove with his lights off around the series of streets to I guess head off where he thought he was coming from. And you know I’d gotten a good eye on this guy. He had these very distinctive cowboy boots and sure enough, we came out just where this guy was emerging from the bushes and those same distinctive cowboy boots. And at that moment the officer jumped out of the truck with the taser and arrested him.

– [Dr. Shojai] Wow, he looks young.

– [Peter] I bet he couldn’t have been older than 14 or 15 would be my guess.

– [Dr. Shojai] Was he involved in the beating?

– Yeah he was brought to the hospital and identified by the two men as the perpetrator of the beating. And a baseball bat was found.

– [Dr. Shojai] Man, man.

– [Peter] Looks like a sweet kid in a lot of ways.

– [Dr. Shojai] He really does.

– [Peter] But it sound pretty likely that he was the one that did the damage.

– Where is the reservation here for the Lakota Sioux?

– South Dakota.

– South Dakota.

– This kid, like iconic farm country farmer boy. Where’d you take this?

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

– That’s out in Darien, Wisconsin. And that’s the son of a friend of mine, Raymond Hubbard, who I met originally in my kind of documentation of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His father had bene a Soldier in the Wisconsin National Guard and had been hit by a rocket on his base in Baghdad on July 4th, 2006, and had lost a leg and received really bad shrapnel wounds throughout his body and was in a coma for a month. And I’d met him just when he was at the end process of his treatment at Walter Reed Hospital which is near where I grew up in Maryland. And we became friends and at some point I went out to Wisconsin to kind of try and further the story I was doing about him and that’s where I met his son and took that photograph. And actually that was about 10 years ago now. And that son has a son of his own now.

– [Dr. Shojai] Wow. Wow, it’s amazing how that happens huh?

– Yeah, I mean photographs are like the ghosts, you know. Ghosts of time.

– Speaking of ghosts. You remember this night?

– Oh very much so. Well that’s my buddy Christian and his girlfriend and you know they’re both characters and I don’t know what they were doing. That was late at night. I mean we weren’t even in bad shape or anything. We were just having kind of a like our own impromptu dance party with a few people in the parking lot of a… I don’t even know what it was, late at night and they started dancing and twisting and twirling. And that’s where that picture came from.

– Amazing. That’s a great snapshot right. It’s like this perfect moment in time.

– Yeah it was a beautiful moment.

– This one right here is one of my favorites of the batch. I can only assume what’s happening. But you tell me what’s happening here.

– Well these are some guys that again I met outside the Derby. It’s interesting that you’re picking a lot of the Kentucky Derby related photos. And they… You know I was with Christian again and just kind of encountered them on the street and just started chatting with them and they were flushed with cash. I’m not sure if they won it on the horses or there’s a lot of kind of folks from the community that like are selling water and beer and hot dogs and chips and stuff to people going in or coming out of the Kentucky Derby. And like a lot of these interactions, one thing just kind of led to another and they’re like hey can you take our picture for Facebook. You know and so we started setting up these different photos. It was like a collaboration with them about how they wanted their photo to look for Facebook. And eventually, you know this is the pose that we settled on and they enjoyed it, loved the picture, scooped up their money and kind of went on their way. So you know how… And that all happened in the space of about two minutes. And that’s again one of the funny things about photography is like… You know if people see you with a camera and it provokes all sorts of unexpected circumstances.

– I like how the dude on the right’s wearing loafers. That’s a strong look.

– Yeah they were pretty cool guys I gotta say. We had a good time.

– They look it. Okay, last photo we have time for. What is happening here?

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael (@pvanagtmael)

– So this is a picture, this is in Detroit. And I was riding in a car actually with another friend of mine. And we just kind of drove past this scene you know. It was the dead of winter, not a lot of people on the streets. Hard to take photos, frankly. And kind of at that moment, you know we passed by these two what looked like you know people dressed in Statue of Liberty costumes, obviously from the Liberty Tax service. Looked like they were almost conspiring with this kind of amazing collection of colors and the white of the snow. And on the one hand it was aesthetic because all these pictures have to be good, fundamentally compelling and mysterious photos to have inclusion in the book. You know they have to have but they have to have to my mind content as well. And that picture in some ways was a reflection of like you know these, this ambivalent relationship I have with all these like these kind of sanctified symbols of America that then become like weirdly twisted and used in like in a case like this as you know costumes for a tax company in the dead of winter in the bleakest of possible surroundings. So… So it was those layers of meaning that attracted me.

– Well and Detroit which is such an iconic American city that’s taken a nose dive, you know, and is trying to make it back. Sitting parked between a liquor store and a check cashing bench with some people who look like they’re you know probably not happy standing out there in the cold in the first place. So this begs the question, what did you learn about America? Like what have you learned about these experiences from your travel that you would like to share with my audience after you know seven trips and multiple photo tours. And there’s so many more pictures you all. So like if you, you know if you’re at all interested in continuing to go, his book is you know filled with these pictures. It’s called Buzzing at the Sill. But so, yeah. Tell me what you learned. Like what did this cook inside of you? How did it shift your perspective on this place we call home?

– Well, you know there’s the tendency I think in the US to try, from the outside world and internally, to have kind of… To create narratives. And oftentimes the kind of monolithic narrative of what this place is and what its people are and what we mean to ourselves, and what we mean to the rest of the world. And to be honest what I found was every level of that narrative dismantled. You know it’s not that the core ideas that are kind of promoted by you know to some degree by our educational system by our cultural institutions. You know sometimes the kind of myths that are propagated through, you know the class or the race you’re from. I mean all these ideas… By politics. All these ideas get thoroughly deconstructed for me when I had the opportunity to kind of engage with all these diverse range of communities through the place. But there was certainly not one idea of America or American-ness. And every experience I had in some ways contradicted the next. So in a way it left me with a much more rich understanding of the place. But on another level it really left me wondering what this place is at all. You know it’s so many millions of places simultaneously and it made me realize almost the dangers of language and of narratives at all. And in a way, since I’ve been doing a lot of this work, I’ve tried to, you know dive as deep into the histories of this place and the other places I work as possible to try and form as an objective an understanding as I can away from all the kind of sanctimony of the sloganeering that kind of is so commonplace in most societies and is really superficial. So that’s the long answer and maybe the incomplete answer to your question. But it’s the best I got.

– I don’t know if there is an answer right. It’s complicated. We’re people, we’re infinitely complicated, and putting us together makes it that much more complicated and you know a national identify for a country full of immigrants that came and you know parked up and took over land from people who lived here earlier, I mean it’s just really frickin’ complicated. This place, these people. But I mean you’ve captured the story of life on multiple fronts which is really fascinating to me and you know I’m assuming you’re still gonna be on the road, you’re still gonna keep doing work like this, I mean. You know when would it end? I mean, it seems like something that’s almost like an addiction, a bug that bites you huh?

– Well there is no end because the story is constantly ongoing. And in reflecting on the present and thinking about the future, it’s a lot about reflecting on the past as well. And you know I’ve been doing this kind of work now for about 12 years in total. This is my third book, you know. There’s another I’m working on now. And a lot of ideas yet and my hope and expectation is that I keep kind of diving into these questions because they’re endless and I want to form an understanding for myself and hopefully in the process, you know create a thoughtful kind of perspective on this place for other people as well who don’t necessarily have the same opportunities to go around as I have and do my work as a photographer and as a photojournalist.

– Yeah, you’re lucky in that way. And we’re lucky to have you bringing all this work back for us to enjoy. So it’s good. So my guest, Peter Van Agtmael, has been traveling the country and the world. And the book that I’m looking at now is called Buzzing at the Sill. And man, thank you so much for doing this work. Thanks for being on the show. And I wish you the best. Keep sending notes back when you’re back from your trips or you got a nice book out or something, I’d love to see it.

– Been a pleasure, thanks so much for having me on the show. Sorry about the technical issues.

– All good. Some things are out of our hands.

– Let me know.

– Indeed, indeed.

– Let me know what you think. I will see you next time.

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