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.

(Jaime Morales (Clickability client services))
smithsonian.com

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?

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.

Judging by the photos, the helicopter ride looks like it was fun—was it?

It was great. It was a small helicopter called a Lynx. It's just a pilot, co-pilot, gunner and two little seats behind the gunner. They strapped me in by an open door, flew low, flew high over the areas that were interesting. They basically let me do whatever I wanted. It was better than any roller coaster that I've gone on. In a roller coaster you can only see the back of people's heads, but on this you could see beautiful marshlands.

Were you worried about being shot at from the ground?

No, in the marshes they've had no problems with incursion activity. When I was patrolling with the British, we wore body armor, but we didn't even wear helmets, which is really unheard of. You'd really be taking your life in your hands if you didn't wear a helmet around Baghdad or Ramadhi.

How was morale among the British troops?

They seem to be doing pretty good. They don't really have a lot of incursion activity in the sector they're working in. They've started some construction activity and they're greeted with great fanfare by the people in their area, which is really different than most areas where the Americans are working, so they have much higher morale for the most part. They're a little bored and frustrated but they certainly weren't questioning why they're here or what they're doing. It might just be because they were in front of an American.

What about among the Marsh Arabs?

They're living a pretty traditional lifestyle, more or less how they always have, with the exception of a few pick-up trucks lying around. It's kind of like reed huts, canoes and attending the water buffalo and harvesting the rice and going fishing. They live more or less how they always have for a very long time. The Marsh Arabs had a lot to gain with the war. They were able to return to their lifestyle and they're no longer persecuted. So of the groups in Iraq, they're some of the happiest. That's just a superficial impression.

Were they friendly?

When I came in with the second patrol I was on, they were sitting down for their weekly feast. It was a pretty festive occasion, there wasn't any singing or dancing, but everyone was happy. They were bringing out these huge plates with a river fish that had to be three feet long and a foot wide, fresh bread, fried rice, watermelon and all sorts of delicacies. They were sitting around as the sun went down, eating this big feast, drinking Pepsi and stuffing themselves to their hearts' content—I should say the men were stuffing themselves, while the women served the food and ate the leftovers, I guess. As I understood, the feast was weekly, but this was coming third-hand from a translator who wasn't a Marsh Arab himself. It could have been a special event. It could very well have been that they were expecting the British patrol to come. The patrols come with some frequency, and they were maybe planning to ask them for something the next time. That's often what I've noticed in Iraq, if you're served lavishly in Iraq there's usually an ulterior motive. I really don't know, but from what I heard it was a weekly thing. It certainly wasn't a special holiday that day.

Were the British invited to eat too?

Everyone sat down to eat.

How was the food?

It was delicious. The flat bread they have out here, when it comes right out of the oven, it's some of the best bread you could ever hope to eat. It's like a very fresh pita bread. And the fish was charcoaled on the fire with seasoning. It was a delicacy really, it was really moist. It was a really nice meal. I stayed away from the uncooked vegetables in fear of my stomach reacting, but the rest was really good. It was a nice change of pace. At the American military bases, the food has been very good and plentiful and pretty varied, but in the end it's the same variation of hamburgers, hot dog, steak, chicken, potato salad, and cole slaw every month. After a while it can be tiresome. So it's good to get some ethnic food once in a while.

What was the most surprising thing you've learned in Iraq?

It's surprising that there are a lot of moments when it doesn't necessarily feel like you're in a war. The big American bases are trailer parks almost. You have a mattress and a bed, air conditioning, three meals a day, hot food and a lot of variety. Even when you're traveling, most of the time you get a lot of uncomfortable stares, but there's no constant violence anywhere in the city. Right now I'm in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods, but most of the times it's pretty quiet. A lot of the places where you expect violence, it comes very suddenly, which I guess is the nature of guerilla warfare because the insurgency is always calling the shots. It's been brief violence balanced by coddling living conditions. It's a weird living condition here, you don't feel like you're in a war but when you do, you really do.

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