November 24, 2014 4:00 AM EST

Peter van Agtmael spent the last Gaza war taking pictures on the Israeli side. But when the fighting ended he made the surreal journey across the Erez Crossing from Israel into the Strip, home to some 1.8 million Palestinians. What he encountered changed the way he worked.

“When you’re confronted with that degree of destruction, you can’t shy away from it,” van Agtmael says. “I can’t go looking for my quirky little images in flattened neighborhoods.”

Van Agtmael’s particular gift, on rich display in his book Disco Night Sept 11, assembled from work in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the home front, was in finding the telling image outside the main frame of daily photojournalism. And if that image was often off-balance or a bit odd, it was also immediately recognizable as where life is actually lived, even during wartime.

But a woman camping in the ruins of her home – one of 600 buildings crushed by Israeli bombs in a single neighborhood – did not lend itself to eliding understatement. That will have to come in time. Van Agtmael sees his next book in the region, and aims to spend a substantial amount of time there in the next few years. It has what he looks for in a subject. “I guess the kind of thing I keep coming back with is something kind of complex and contradictory,” he says. “Everything you learn from one picture kind of gets denied by the next picture, and you circle back around with the third.

“The end result is a cohesive mass but a perplexing one as well. In the end, photography isn’t very good at telling narratives, it’s a series of fragments. But to make a polemic, that’s not my interest.”

Van Agtmael, a Washington DC native who studied history at Yale, knows the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has not lacked documentation. But “something clicked into place” during a 2013 assignment for the New York Times Magazine on the West Bank. He spent weeks with Palestinian activists in the village of Nabi Saleh, but also popped across the highway to visit Israelis in Halamish, the Jewish settlement the Palestinians gathered to each Friday. “I’m fascinated by the way those two worlds are incredibly intertwined, and how it easy it is to flip-flop between them, especially if you’re a journalist,” van Agtmael says. “That kind of dissonance attracts me as a photographer.”


Peter van Agtmael is a conflict photographer and member of Magnum.

Karl Vick is a TIME journalist based in New York. He spent four years as TIME’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief.


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