An Interview with Peter van Agtmael, Photographer for "Return to the Marsh"

Van Agtmael spoke with Ben Block by phone from the American base Fort Apache in Adhamiyah, outside Baghdad.

In only three years since you graduated from college, you've traveled the world, from Africa to China, taking photographs. What has been your most interesting assignment?

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My time in Iraq, while not my favorite assignment, has certainly been my most interesting and meaningful. It's a lot more immediate than what I've done before. I'm 25, so I'm the same age as the soldiers, and I feel like I can relate to them in a way I can't necessarily relate to a woman in South Africa with AIDS or a Chinese farmer losing his home to the Three Gorges Dam. I can certainly sympathize with their situation, but I can really empathize with the guys here because any risk they take I'm taking myself. An IED doesn't know the difference between a soldier or a journalist.

Why did you want to go to Iraq?

This is one of the main, defining events of my generation. It's going to be hugely influential for American foreign policy for now and in the future. It's partially just to have a record, to convey to people how horrible a thing war is so it's not taken lightly in the future.

Do you think you're getting the whole story as an embedded photographer?

Since I've come out here, the embedded process has seen some criticism, with people saying that you become too sympathetic, so you won't tell any objective story. But I haven't felt that constraint myself. A lot of my photographs are images that most militaries in the world would constrain a photographer from taking, and in my case they have invited me to take them. With the embedded system, they allow you to join up with a unit and do whatever they do, go on all of the patrols and see the war from an unfiltered, ground-eye perspective.

What was it like to travel with the Royal Air Force?

It's pretty great actually. They didn't have any specific patrol planned or helicopter flyover, but the Smithsonian photo editor, Molly Roberts, had let them know I was coming beforehand, and they managed to set up a helicopter to fly over the marshes. They didn't have any patrols scheduled for some of these places, but because a journalist was coming they went far out of their way to make sure we could get what we needed out of the story. With the Americans they say you can do whatever you want as long as we're already doing it. The British are different in that regard, and I wouldn't have been able to get any of those pictures otherwise.

In your photography, what aspects of the Marsh Arabs did you try to capture?

With them, as with anyone I photograph, I try to retain their dignity. I try not to do pictures that are compromising or offensive or insulting. They are people with a very stoic bearing that have been through a lot. While that's difficult to translate in a short period, and in most situations, I try to capture that in my photographs, to capture the great dignity surrounding them. Like all people out here, they carry themselves with quite a bit of grandeur.

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