In the unassuming gallery space of the Bronx Documentary Center’s annex are 128 photographs—unframed and held up by magnets—by Peter van Agtmael that, in total, represent the most ambitious presentation of documentary photography I have encountered in recent memory. Van Agtmael, who often works in a photojournalistic mode and is a member of cooperative Magnum Photos, endeavors to interweave many of the political threads that have defined the past few decades in America, each of which could have easily been the focus of an entire exhibition: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the veterans’ experience of coming home, the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right, the opioid crisis, the Mexican-American border, September 11, January 6, police brutality, systemic racism, white privilege, and so much more. This kind of unwieldy thematic scope could easily render “Look at the USA,” messy or superficial. But, because the pictures are paired with thoughtful texts by van Agtmael, and because the entire show is undergirded by his personal story of growing up as a boy fascinated by and drawn to war, the exhibition doesn’t just achieve coherence—it transcends its very genre.
The de facto master key to reading this diverse range of pictures as a single body of work is present in almost every image of the exhibition, but there are a few where it’s illustrated most clearly, such as van Agtmael’s photograph of an Iraq War veteran’s toy light saber battle with his children. Here we find simulated violence freighted with the cost of real violence—the veteran has a prosthetic leg, the result of a rocket attack in Baghdad on the Fourth of July, 2006. Here we find the vicious cycle of the American war machine, a network of brutality abroad propping up a culture of brutality at home. And, maybe most importantly, here we find the pathetic banality of our own barbarousness, the everydayness of our national bloodlust.
In short, “Look at the USA” appropriately forces us to do just that. And what you’ll see is van Agtmael’s evenhanded perspective of a country that fetishizes violence in its bones, where the line between cosplay war and actual war is blurred beyond apprehension and efficacy.