Recognizing the Next Generation: Peter van Agtmael at the Infinity Awards

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum
Hitchhikers going to New Orleans. Florida, 2010.

Last night, Peter van Agtmael was awarded the prestigious Infinity Award for Young Photographer of the Year by the International Center of Photography. Kira Pollack, Director of Photography at TIME, reflects on the importance of his work as an editor firmly committed to his vision.

Peter’s photographs reveal a deep framework of intellectual and emotional layering that defines his distinctive and original signature. In last night’s video presentation of his work at the Infinity Awards ceremony, Peter stated that “Good work comes from humility, not presumption.” It is this innate perspective that reveals deep meaning and sensitivity in his pictures, whether documenting soldiers at war and at home, the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill or the poignant moments of daily life.

His photographic journey gained focus in 2006, when, at the age of 25, Peter set off on the first of four trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. The photographs he produced were eventually published in his first book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die. Peter, writing in the prologue, describes the challenges of documenting the conflicted nature of war:

“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.”

Aside from the truly remarkable photographs, the book’s heartbeat resonates in Peter’s writing. It is rare that a photographer can articulate so thoughtfully in words a layer not immediately evident in the pictures — a layer that adds deeper meaning to the work. Readers are presented with a series of pictures and text that underscore the complexities and confusion of war by an author coming of age with the soldiers he is photographing.

“A number of strays hung around Patrol Base California, waiting for food and company. Usually the soldiers welcomed them. But I was told that a few weeks earlier, when one of the dogs urinated on a soldier’s cot, he and his buddies shot the dog to pieces.” Peter van Agtmael—Magnum

Sergeant Russell in VPB California, a small U.S. outpost in the Pech Valley. Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2007.

Although many of his pictures reveal a personal awareness for the human condition, Peter strives for even greater empathy. “I wish these pictures could convey more of what I experienced. They are only my interpretation, and an agonizingly limited one, a shred of all that has been utterly, unfathomably lost,” he states.

Peter is a regular contributor to both TIME and LightBox. Last spring, TIME commissioned Peter to document the journey of a soldier killed in action in Afghanistan as he traveled to his final resting place. The most poignant photograph was made at twilight — hours after the funeral ended, family members returned unexpectedly to the cemetery for a final goodbye. Long after most photographers would have left the family, Peter’s tenacity enabled him to capture a photograph that the boy will not understand until he is much older. The heartbreaking significance of the intimate moment resonates, a private farewell unobtrusively recorded.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME

Aiden Ricketts, the son of William 'Seth' Ricketts, poses for a picture at his father's grave after his funeral. Aiden's grandmother takes his picture.

More than five years after his first trip to the Middle East, Peter continues to build on a deeply personal and resonant body of work. His artful eye and his sharp mind make him one of the most exciting young photographers working today. He is undoubtedly deserving of such a significant award, whose previous recipients include Lynsey Addario, Ryan McGinley, Lauren Greenfield, and Paul Graham, among others. TIME is proud to be able to support his vision.

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