The temptation to go bravely forth and document exotic places is a strong one for photographers. But what happens when they decide to stay at home? US photographer Peter van Agtmael’s book Buzzing at the Sill turns a critical eye upon his own country. It is a sequel to his 2014 work Disco Night Sept 11, an award winning examination of a post 9/11 America, seen as its inhabitants watch the resultant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Buzzing at the Sill picks up where this last book left off, forming a compendium of 72 photographs that span as far back as 2007. The title is taken from a poem written by Theodore Roethke called In a Dark Time, a deeply personal expression of the poet’s struggle with mental illness.
“Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill.”
Throughout van Agtmael’s work, America remains firmly in the shadow of the two wars. The dark light that he evokes is perhaps not as personal as Roethke’s, but instead gestures towards a wider malaise in American society. Its seen in the pressure caused by these conflicts, and its expression in the race and class boundaries that define US identity.
Rather than, as in his previous book, accompanying the photographs with captions, small texts on each photograph are in a small booklet at the back. As a result, the images stand on their own, blending disparate locations and subjects, forming a broad, inclusive depiction of the USA. The captions are personable and engaging, as seen in this excerpt quoted at length:
“While on a road trip with my friend Justin, we met a couple of guys and started chatting. They invited us to check out a spot where they had a rope swing, and on the way we picked up some beer. Dusk was falling and it became a little party; we lit a fire while some of their younger cousins swung over a deep chasm, with just a thin rope around their waist to secure them to the tree.
“As the beer ran out and the night began to get colder, they invited us back to their home. Upon arrival, their sister (the matriarch of the family) smelled their breath and became furious. She asked us what possessed us to give them beer. She told us there was rampant alcoholism on the reservation and declared we were just another in a long line of white men exploiting the Lakota. We were filled with tremendous shame and apologised profusely.”
A passage such as this - although van Agtmael explains it was resolved amicably - demonstrates the unpredictability of his American experience. Indeed, there is an underlying darkness to much of the imagery. In one photograph, only torn clothes and wallpaper remain of a Choctaw allotment after their forced expulsion to Oklahoma; even though it was taken in 2014, it remains relevant today after the continuing persecution of the Native American people around the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In another image, a member of the KKK emerges triumphantly from the forest, decked out in full regalia. Next, the family of Shelly (‘Treasure’) Hilliard mourn, for she was murdered by her drug dealer, after being forced to set up a transaction by the police to after being caught with a small amount of marijuana. A heartbreaking caption accompanies it: “One of her sisters said, ‘I don’t know if Treasure is asleep, or up. Because her pictures . . . every time I move around . . . they look like they are following me’.”
At this time of political turmoil in America, taking a long, hard, inward-facing look is more essential than ever. The other option? The futile buzzing of an overheated fly.
Buzzing at the Sill by Peter van Agtmael is published by Kehrer Verlag, December 2016 in English. Hardcover with open spine. 160 pages + 32 pages booklet.