Peter van Agtmael’s new book Buzzing at the Sill, published recently by Kehrer Verlag, follows up on his acclaimed 2014 book Disco Night Sept 11. Like the earlier title, Buzzing at the Sill compares the violence of war with the violence of everyday life in America. Where Disco Night paired images van Agtmael made in the U.S. with images he took in Iraq and Afghanistan, the new book is set almost entirely in this country. In scattered first person texts and long captions at the book’s end, van Agtmael describes the events that turned him towards photography, and the tragic stories behind some images. Among these are several showing a Detroit family who lost two children in quick succession, first a transgender daughter who was murdered after turning in her drug dealer rather than face time in a male prison, and then her teenage brother, who committed suicide. Other images were made all over the country—the settings include a Brooklyn cemetery, a New Orleans Second Line parade, a ride-along with police from the reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the drunken aftermath of the Kentucky Derby and the Aurora, Illinois engagement party for a couple who are refugees from Syria and Iraq. While some pictures are dark, others find moments of transcendence in nature—a girl in pink pajamas rests on a red horse at dawn, a pensive baby overlooks a parking lot topped by thunderheads.
In his texts, van Agtmael draws connections between historical injustice and present-day problems. He also explores his own attraction to war, describing himself as a kid obsessed with toy soldiers and guns who became a photographer drawn to conflict zones. As he writes, “I knew more than enough to be utterly repelled by conflict, yet I was undeniably drawn to it. I thought that by photographing it, specializing in it, I could prove myself to myself, for whatever naive reasons. Today, I think it’s terribly shameful and absurd, but only because I’ve done it. It’s only now that I feel the things I should have been feeling then.”