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Photographs of war, at home and abroad

Like many a young American boy, Peter van Agtmael ’03 wanted to join the army when he grew up. He was in fifth grade during the Gulf War, and the quick triumph of a superior American military left a lasting impression. Ten years after the Gulf War, van Agtmael was a junior at Yale when the September 11 attacks took place. Van Agtmael told The New Yorker, “my life was profoundly changed that day.” A few days after the towers fell, he went down to Ground Zero to photograph the area. Though he ultimately majored in history, he knew after September 11 that he would be a photographer. “My generation’s history would be defined by that day, and I wanted to play a role in creating the historical record,” says van Agtmael.

Now, van Agtmael has published the culmination of that artistic mission, a collection of photographs titled Disco Night Sept 11. Though he didn’t join the military like he planned to when he was 11, he found a way to be a part of the war. After three years training to photograph conflict settings, van Agtmael was embedded with the US Army in 2006. He documented what he saw at home and abroad for the next seven years.

The resulting collection is subtle yet powerful; van Agtmael’s photographs emphasize drama and violence by revealing their absence elsewhere. The title image, Disco Night Sept 11, comes from a photo of a lonely parking lot illuminated by a neon sign advertising “Disco Night.” The attacks are so far removed, and yet they somehow dominate the image, lurking in the empty space. There’s a similar effect in the other shots, like a picture of the National Mall several hours after President Obama’s inauguration, or a wounded veteran playing with his sons. The images range from casual to graphic, but they all carry an aloof poignancy.

Following this seven year project, van Agtmael intends to focus on the other side of the conflicts he’s examined: Iraqi and Afghan war refugees. In the meantime, you can check out Disco Night Sept 11 at Magnum Photos here.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Iraq, Afghanistan, photography
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