On Wednesday night, Magnum photographer Peter van Agtmael received the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, joining a legion of photojournalists that includes James Nachtwey, Paolo Pellegrin and Brenda Ann Kenneally. Established in 1978, the W. Eugene Smith Grant is one of the most esteemed in the industry, named after the legendary photographer whose harrowing pictures of World War II gave an unparalleled and poignant view of the human toll of the conflict. In a fitting tribute, the annual grant aims to recognize a photographer who has “demonstrated an exemplary commitment to documenting the human condition in the spirit of Smith’s concerned photography and dedicated compassion.”
Van Agtmael has done that with his long-term project, “Disco Night September 11,” which focuses on the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their consequences within the United States. But it was his existing work along with his proposal—to show the side of the ongoing wars through Iraqi and Afghan perspectives—that earned him this year’s honor. An additional $5,000 fellowship was awarded to photographer Massimo Berruti for “The Dusty Path,” a combination of works examining victims of drone strikes, missing persons and the fight against militancy in Pakistani classrooms.
At 24—the same age as many of the soldiers he would go on to document—van Agtmael began the project during an embed with American troops engaged in heavy fighting around Mosul, Iraq. “As an American of the generation shouldering these wars, I feel a strong responsibility to document their cost," says the photographer, whose lens captured everything from violent firefights and days-long foot patrols to the rehabilitation of those maimed by war. "Over the course of my lifetime, I intend to keep returning to [these conflicts] to create a comprehensive document.”
To that end, van Agtmael, now 31, plans to use his grant to capture the other side of the conflict—to give face to our 'enemies' in the fight. "I’m ready to shift my focus to the other side of the war," he says. "The Iraqis and Afghans that have been most affected remain depersonalized and shadowy in our collective consciousness. We live in a self-absorbed culture—one largely unburdened by memory.”
Van Agtmael plans to return to Iraq and Afghanistan to follow these stories, but will also travel to the Middle East and Europe in hopes of documenting their diaspora. He's timed the conclusion of his project to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014—another reminder of the human sacrifice and cost of the war. He plans to use photographs, video, audio and text to share the entire range of what he’s witnessed over the last seven years; still, van Agtmael maintains it's a small shred of the whole. "Most stories will remain forever anonymous, and I'm very grateful to the W. Eugene Smith Grant for the opportunity to document the stories that would otherwise go unseen," he says. “I’ve seen a nasty and primal side of mankind, but it’s been balanced by enough displays of extraordinary humanity to give me hope."
The $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography is given once per year along with an additional $5000 fellowship to a second recipient. LightBox previously featured the work of 2011 Smith Grant Award winner Krisanne Johnson.