In the unassuming gallery area of the Bronx Documentary Center’s annex are 128 photographs—unframed and held up by magnets—by Peter van Agtmael that, in whole, characterize the most ambitious presentation of documentary pictures I have encountered in current memory. Van Agtmael, who often functions in a photojournalistic mode and is a member of cooperative Magnum Shots, endeavors to interweave a lot of of the political threads that have outlined the past number of a long time in America, each of which could have simply been the emphasis of an whole exhibition: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the veterans’ working experience of coming household, the increase of Donald Trump and the alt-proper, the opioid crisis, the Mexican-American border, September 11, January 6, police brutality, systemic racism, white privilege, and so a lot extra. This type of unwieldy thematic scope could very easily render “Look at the United states of america,” messy or superficial. But, since the images are paired with considerate texts by van Agtmael, and due to the fact the whole present is undergirded by his personal tale of expanding up as a boy fascinated by and drawn to war, the exhibition does not just attain coherence—it transcends its pretty style.
The de facto master vital to examining this numerous range of pictures as a one overall body of operate is current in nearly every graphic of the exhibition, but there are a several where by it’s illustrated most obviously, this kind of as van Agtmael’s photograph of an Iraq War veteran’s toy light saber struggle with his little ones. Right here we obtain simulated violence freighted with the cost of authentic violence—the veteran has a prosthetic leg, the consequence of a rocket attack in Baghdad on the Fourth of July, 2006. In this article we locate the vicious cycle of the American war machine, a community of brutality overseas propping up a society of brutality at household. And, probably most importantly, below we find the pathetic banality of our individual barbarousness, the everydayness of our national bloodlust.
In short, “Look at the USA” appropriately forces us to do just that. And what you are going to see is van Agtmael’s evenhanded perspective of a country that fetishizes violence in its bones, where by the line in between cosplay war and true war is blurred further than apprehension and efficacy.
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