Magnum's Peter van Agtmael on being a self-taught photographer

Magnum's Peter van Agtmael on being a self-taught photographer

By Clémentine Schneidermann 30/04/14

Peter van Agtmael has covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and their impact in the USA. After being voted in as a full member at last year’s Magnum AGM, Peter talks to Clémentine Schneidermann about photography schools, small cameras and conceptual documentary...

You didn’t study photography. What’s your position on photo schools?  

There are some good schools but I’m a bit suspicious because it seems that the personality of the professors can be too influential. I haven’t studied photography, but I thought about it. In America it requires a lot of money and the money I would have spent on studies, I was able to spend on taking pictures. That was helpful in some ways, less helpful in others. My photo school was being at Magnum around all these guys. Even if they judge you harshly, it’s in a useful way. They force you to justify your decisions. 


Image © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos


How does your photographic approach influence your choice of camera? 

I use small digital cameras: a Sony RX1, which is full frame, and an Olympus OM-D, which is good for speed and flexibility. I hate big cameras. They’re too loud, too intrusive, too noticeable. I feel more spontaneous with small ones, I can always carry them with me. You want to be invisible as much as possible. 

What’s your working method? Do you have any assistants? 

For me photography is an excuse to do things I’m interested in. And I’m interested in traveling all around America, meeting all sorts of people from every race, every background, every socioeconomic class. I like travelling on my own or sometimes with my girlfriend or with friends. I prefer doing things like the editing or the printing on my own but sometimes I use assistants for the lighting during commissions because I know how I want the light to look, but I don’t know how to do it. As I’m finishing a book [of photographs] from seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan, I showed it to a dozen people to get their opinions. And more recently I’ve been working with filmmakers, because I want to do short documentaries.


Image © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos


There’s a move among some photographers, such as last year’s Deutsche Börse winners Broomberg & Chanarin and nominees Cristina De Middel and Mishka Henner, towards conceptual documentary work that questions the truthfulness of photography. How do you feel about this? 

I think it’s interesting but I prefer traditional documentary photography because you can keep exploring it, whereas I usually only find the more conceptual work interesting in the short term. [Deutsche Börse nominee] Chris Killip’s work I can keep looking at again and again, but do I want to look at Cristina De Middel’s Afronauts again and again? No. These conceptual photographers are trying to kill the traditions, but they’ve been informed by them; the institutions they’re criticising aren’t going away. It’s good that they push its limits, but documentary photography is always going to exist. Even if it can sometimes be clichéd, there’s always a core of it that is going to be great. 


Image © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos


What’s the most difficult situation you’ve had to face in your work?

War zones are usually the hardest because there are so many things you need to be careful about. Who you go with, for instance. It’s not just a question of getting the picture, it’s also a question of getting to the place where you can get the picture and then get out.

Do you have some advice for young photographers starting out? 

Be careful to not to listen too much to anyone. Trust yourself more than others. I’ve seen people really messed up in their heads because of teachers who think they know exactly what they’re talking about and are imposing their view, which is not necessary positive for growth. Look at as many types of work as possible. Look at the whole history of photography. People think that photography is a romantic job but if you want to succeed you have to be completely obsessed with it.

 Image © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos


Read more insights and advice from Peter van Agtmael and other Magnum photographers in our special zine. 


For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit out Photography hub.

All images © Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos.

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