Ashley Gilbertson

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

Ashley Gilbertson is a photojournalist with the VII Network photo agency. Gilbertson's photographs from Iraq where he worked from 2002 until 2008, gained him recognition from the Overseas Press Club who awarded Gilbertson the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal for his 2004 work in Falluja. His first book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, was released in 2007. Since then, Gilbertson has been working on Bedrooms Of The Fallen, a collection of photographs depicting the intact bedrooms of service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, a substantial part of the project was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine and published in March of 2010. Gilbertson meanwhile continues to concentrate on the two wars by examining veterans issues including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide for Time Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife and child in New York City.

SB. In an interview with John Bailey you said: "It was never my intention to become a war photographer."- How did you become war photographer?

AG. By being close to war, photographing civilians and refugees. My interest turned from those caught in the middle to those actually firing the bullets. I wanted to know why, and how they could do that, intentionally try to kill one another.

SB. After 10 years of covering war and conflicts, now you have stopped photographing combat zones, because in your words, the American public isn't responding anymore. Do you know why?

AG. I think the public is fatigued and that we're not doing enough to create a different approach to war photography. Things used to change more, stories moved faster, and that was enough to keep the public interested because the scenes at least, would change a little. We've been in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost 10 years now, and it's starting to all blends together.

SB. ”Bedrooms of the Fallen" seems to be another way to bring the war home. Was this your motivation or where did the idea for this project come from?

AG. My wife, Joanna, who is the brains of the family, conceived the project one day. My motivation is to humanize the dead, make it personal to people. It's very hard to understand who these people are when the story is so foreign, but we can all relate to the bedrooms.
Richard Langenbrunner's Bedroom
Karina Lau's Bedroom
Nils Thompson's Bedroom

SB. What is the difference between photographing casualties in combat zones and entering the bedrooms, left behind by soldiers who won't ever return?

AG. In combat is high stress and one is working. It's easier for me to disengage somewhat emotionally when I'm photographing wounded or dying soldiers. Its part of the job and emotions are sidelined to be dealt with later. In the bedrooms there is no way to disengage. You're just overcome by the absence.

SB. Did you discover anything unexpected about the young soldiers when you visited their families and photographed their bedrooms?

AG. That no families I've come across have politicized this in any way, shape or form. All they want, each and every one of them, is that their son or daughter is remembered.

SB. You have been criticized by some people for focusing only on American casualties in the "Bedrooms of the Fallen". Do you think this is fair criticism?

AG. The criticism is that the project does not cover Iraqis or Afghans. That said, this is my project, and I'll shoot it as I see it. If you don't like it, go and shoot your own story.

SB. Are the images from this project your judgment about the war in Iraq?

AG. They're my judgment on all wars.

SB. Many soldiers after returning home suffer from PTSD. Many of them will never forget, what they have witnessed. In my own experience photojournalists also don't forget. What images come back to you again and again?

AG. I don't know. I don't remember shooting most of the work I've done. The bedrooms are all vivid though. Particularly sitting at the table before I shoot, and listening to parents talk about their children.

SB. Do you consider your work as a photojournalist a mission?

AG. Very much so. My sense of purpose and mission far outweighs my sense of strong photography. The story always comes first (which explains why I'm not a great photographer or that I choose subjects that are no good to photograph).