"2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die"

The chaos and humanity of war, as chronicled by the 2012 winner of the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography.
"2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die"

Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael recently won the 2012 W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography, one of the top awards for photojournalism. He will receive $30,000 to work on his project "Disco Nights September 11," which continues the work van Agtmael started with "2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die." The new project explores effects of the wars on people from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as on refugees in the US, Europe, and especially in other countries in the Middle East. Herein is a review of his first book, "2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die," published on MotherJones.com in 2009. (WARNING: contains some graphic images.)

"This is how I saw America's wars from January 2006 until December of 2008. I wanted to make pictures that reflected my complex and often contradictory experiences, where the line was continuously blurred between perpetrator and victim, between hero and villain. In time, the labels that had heretofore defined my perceptions of the world became meaningless. If I found any truth in war, I found that in the end everyone has their own truth."

Peter van Agtmael


Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael followed the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as an embedded photojournalist from 2006 to 2008. Sure, his unflinching work captures the brutality, chaos, and carnage of war. But van Agtmael's photos also deliver the extreme tedium, the moments of tranquility, the humanity, and the utter confusion—in ways that stir those of us here, safely at home.

That's hard to do. The repetition of images from these wars, year after year, has numbed many of us to the story. Our eyes reflexively glaze over when we see photos of people buried under the camo helmets, packs, guns, and sunglasses.

In his book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die, van Agtmael's photos crack the jaded glaze we've all developed. Part of what mezmerizes are the captions and other written parts of the book. Here, van Agtmael connects the reader to the place before/during/after the shutter closed. What led up to a bloodied boy against a wall scowling at the camera? What happened to the soldier in the ER, staring directly through the camera at you, the viewer? It's this dimension of backstory that makes van Agtmael's work so exceptional. That, and his commitment to to following the story back to the United States, where it continues.

Van Agtmael won the prestigious Photolucida Critical Mass Award in 2008 for this work. 2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die is the end result of that award.  –Mark Murrmann