Peter van Agtmael was 20 on September 11, 2001. Like many Americans who came of age at the time, the attacks shook his worldview. He spent the next decade thinking about questions of race, nationality, history, and class. As a photographer, he was first embedded with U.S. troops on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, then back home following the lives and the families of soldiers wounded in battle.
But van Agtmael realized that if he wanted to dig deeper into how America has changed in the years since 9/11, he needed to look beyond the insular world of the military.
In 2009, van Agtmael continued his search, this time within the 50 states. He and a friend embarked on what would be the first of many road trips to meet people and tell their stories. Van Agtmael's approach was loose; he didn't want to confine himself to a prescribed plan but to be open to chance, to be spontaneous and raw. And in the process, he hoped to express with images the complex emotions he was experiencing. He was relieved at being outside of a war zone but dismayed about the melancholy he was seeing at the margins of society.
“What I encountered time and time again, which I found most troubling, was how disconnected the average American was from the world at large,” he says, and how people’s views on politics, celebrity, and the media were radically different from his own experience.
A man rides a horse during a Second Line parade. New Orleans, Louisiana. 2012
Some people he photographed after getting to know them. Others he captured quickly as they passed by on the street. He refers to his images as "love letters to America," each one a different landscape of serenity or a portrait of a fractured country.
The result of these trips is van Agtmael's new book, Buzzing at the Sill. The overall tone may be perceived as bleak, but his intention is show a country made up of disparate parts. Some moments are mundane, others comforting, comical, or disturbing. But all carry emotional weight, offering readers a slice of America they haven't seen in quite the same way.
"The work is a mosaic," he says. "Even if it's melancholy it is an homage to America."
Van Agtmael didn't get a definitive answer to his question of what America had become, but that in itself may be the answer. After finishing his travels, he is even less inclined to make generalizations than he was before he started. There is no one America. We are each driven by our own contradictory needs, perceptions, circumstances, and beliefs—in short, we are only human.