Disco Night Sept 11 by Peter Van Agtmael, reviewed by John Darwell

Every once in a while a book comes along that is so powerful, it defies the bland description of ‘photography book’. In a world full of cleverly designed and intellectually rigorous, but often emotionally dry, publications this book stands out like a howl in the night.

The book, whose stark black cover, with the found image ‘Disco Night Sept 11’ inlaid, immediately sets the tone for what follows: stories, told in words and pictures, of men and women as members of the US army and their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stories tell of intense and devastating brutality combined with moments of naivety, of soldiers fighting wars with little or no idea as to the why or wherefore of their being there, of homeland jingoism from those who never have to face the horrendous consequences of their actions (think Robert Frank’s ‘young man in straw boater with his ‘Bomb Hanoi’ badge of 60 plus years earlier…do we never learn?).

The book is heavy on text and it takes some considerable time to read the tales of soldiers caught up in a ‘war’ where the enemy becomes everyone who isn’t in an army uniform (and sometimes they are too) of body shattering injuries and the psychological devastation they bring, of alcohol abuse on a grand scale and broken relationships back home, the ongoing ripple consequences of being in Iraq or Afghanistan resonating back to families in the USA. We see families awaiting the return of sons, husbands, fathers, mothers, sometimes to be buried in their hometowns, sometimes with horrendous injuries that lead to drug and alcohol problems and marriages that shatter under the pressures. And we read about wounded individuals let down by their country (government) who refuse them access to medical treatment or to benefits. Apparently the loss of a leg to an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) is insufficient reason to receive disability support.

As we move through the book the boundaries of place begin to blur and Iraq, Afghanistan or some place America start to fuse together though loss and despair.

In this book of photographs, and this may seen like heresy, it is not the images (as powerful as they are) that stay with me, but the stories that accompany them. Poignantly, we engage with the same characters at various points throughout the book, such as Raymond Hubbard, who we first encounter as we hear his story:

“ Raymond Hubbard was injured in Baghdad on July 4, 206, when a Russian-made 122mm rocket crashed twenty feet from the guard post where he was stationed. Shrapnel tore into his body. One fragment entered below his knee, severing the leg. Another cartwheeled through his neck, cutting his carotid artery. He was still conscious as he hit the ground.”

We reconnect with Raymond at various points through the book as he returns home, gets “drunk as hell”, encounters individuals who have no sense of, or, it appears, empathy for his experiences; one young woman even points a toy rifle at him in a bar! Later we see Raymond with his boys, playing Star Wars and then at Ground Zero where the poignancy of his situation is heightened by the events of 9/11, a point in the past where his future was changed forever.

The deadpan description of events and horrors, the majority of us cannot begin to imagine, is the heart of the book. They are not stories of gung-ho derring-do but of individuals finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances and attempting to deal with them through a mixture of appalling gallows humour, extreme brutality (some of the actions of the soldiers leaves you gasping in horror) combined with a sense of the ridiculous of the situation and of horrors shared.

The book also shows story of other people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, of broken homes, carnage, dead loved ones and lost families, but this time they are the inhabitants of the towns and villages of Iraq and Afghanistan. People faced with an army of occupation, of kicked in doors and the threat of death and destruction as a daily event; everyone, soldiers and indigenous population alike, victims of someone else’s war.

Amongst the many outstanding photographs in the book some of the most evocative for me were not the images of blood and carnage but the quieter moments that revealed the underlying tensions that were a part of everyday life: a soldier manhandles a teenage boy for “smirking” at him as he passed, the boy “uncomprehending and shaking” unable to understand what was happening to him. Or the Iraqi family lined up outside their home watching, with stoical incomprehension, a large soldier riding their small donkey, whilst other troops out of frame wait their turn (an image as metaphor for rape?). The family’s expressionless faces reflect the sense of detached puzzlement at an army of strangers, from a country they have no sense of, occupying their land to save them from an unknown fate.

This book does not make for easy reading (or viewing). The often tragic and evocative stories (and equally evocative images) left me angry and appalled at the vested interests that allow young men and women to be put in such situations, fighting unwinnable wars.

Disco Night Sept 11 is without doubt one of the most powerful anti war books I have encountered and should be compulsory reading for every politician who advocates war as a justifiable and acceptable means to an end.

Paul Seawright’s book ‘Volunteer’ that could be regarded as a prequel to Disco Night. It features the recruiting centres and the cynical methods used by the U.S. army to recruit people from poor areas, with little or no job prospects, who very quickly find themselves on the front line fighting a war they don’t fully understand, leading to the desperate and horrific experiences as vividly described in Van Agtmael’s book.

Disco Night Sept 11 can be purchased here.


John Darwell is an independent photographer working on long-term projects that reflect his interest in social and industrial change, concern for the environment and issues around the depiction of mental health.

To date he has had seventeen books of his work published, of which the most recent are a number of collaborations with Cafe Royal Books and the Velvet Cell including: : ‘Sheffield: In Transition’ (Cafe Royal Books 2014) ‘Chernobyl’ volumes 1 and 2 (the Velvet Cell 2014) ‘Things Seen Whilst Wandering Around Attercliffe’ (Cafe Royal 2014),  ‘Desert States’, images from the South West United States (the Velvet Cell 2014) and ‘Grangemouth and the Forth Estuary’ (Cafe Royal Books 2014).  Other recent books include: ‘Sheffield: Hyde Park, Meadowhall and Ponds Forge (Cafe Royal Books 2013) ‘DDSBs’ (mynewtpress 2013) and ‘Sheffield: Tinsley Viaduct’ (Cafe Royal Books 2013).   Previous books include ‘Dark Days’ (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2007) documenting the impact of foot and mouth disease around his home in north Cumbria, and a twenty five year retrospective ‘Committed to Memory’ (Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery 2007),  ‘Legacy’ (Dewi Lewis 2001) an exploration of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and ‘Jimmy Jock, Albert & the Six Sided Clock’ on the Port of Liverpool (Cornerhouse 1993).

His work has been exhibited, and published, widely both nationally and internationally, including numerous exhibitions in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, the USA, (Houston Foto Fest, New York and San Francisco) Mexico, South America and the Canary Islands, and is featured in a number of important collections including the National Museum of Media/Sun Life Collection, Bradford; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  In 2008 he gained his PhD for research into the visualisation of depression for his work entitled ‘A Black Dog Came Calling’. He is currently Reader in Photography at the University of Cumbria in Carlisle.

Disco Night Sept 11

Disco Night Sept 11