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Photographing And Humanizing War From Bedrooms To The Battlefield

May 26, 2015

When Ashley Gilbertson was 13 years old, his parents bought him his first camera to photograph himself and his friends skateboarding. A year later, his photos were published in a skateboarding magazine.

“That feeling of seeing something happen, take a photograph of it, and then see it in a magazine … [it] was totally addictive. It’s magical,” said Gilbertson, who grew from photographing skateboarding to become a war photographer.

From 2002 to 2008, Gilbertson chronicled the war in Iraq, and much of his work focused on the dehumanizing effects of the war and depersonalization necessary to participate in war. His 2007 book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot [a common military euphemism using the NATO phonetic alphabet in place of "WTF?"] tries to understand how decisions in Washington affect Iraqi civilians, and military forces on both sides of the conflict.

"This is how men can fight, is when it's depersonalized, is when you're not looking at Johnny or Muhammad. When you're looking at a symbol," Gilbertson said. “My job as a photographer of these stories is to translate what foreign policy looks like on a ground level – trying to humanize those stories.”

An insurgent detained by U.S. forces in Iraq as a Marine stands guard over him.
Credit Ashley Gilbertson

His most recent work, Bedrooms of the Fallen, collects photographs he’s taken of where these soldiers and Marines grew up. It’s part of his effort to personalize the victims of war and pay tribute to how they lived, rather than how they died.

“The rooms are really just this beautiful expression of who there were,” Gilbertson said. “It’s like a doorway. And I think that once you find, in each of these rooms, that doorway, then you can start to really connect with who these people were.”

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Interview Highlights

On Building A Strong Photographic Narrative

Almost all of the work that I do now is part of a larger story. So quite often, yeah, you'll come across a scenario which is very compelling, and you think that there's going to be a great picture here, and you work as hard as you can to make the best picture you can. But I think the pictures really come to life when they're part of a narrative and part of a larger picture or series of photographs online or in a newspaper further on down the track. And what will often happen is you actually have to lose the strongest picture in order to create a stronger narrative because a strong picture will take so much attention away from the other photographs that you need to balance it out a little bit.

On Coping With The Traumatic Experiences Of War

I'm not sure that you can ever depersonalize what you're looking at. But you definitely need to separate yourself, your emotions, occasionally from what it is that you're taking pictures of. And I think that the brain usually does that automatically. When it's a really, really extreme situation like front-line combat, your brain will automatically go into a survival space, in which you don't process the emotional ramifications of what it is you're actually looking at. That's not to say that they're not there. You need, I think, in order for mental health, when you come back from these difficult, traumatic situations, you need to go back and re-explore them and find out how it is you're feeling about them, what you do need to still process. And that can take years because there's a good reason the brain shuts down and goes into survival mode during these times. So I think that, yeah you're right. And it sounds almost inhuman to shut down like that, except I don't think that you could continue working through these places if you were emotionally processing all of the stuff that happened. It's the same as a car crash victim; they'll forget what happened and they have to revisit it and find out what it was and then try to processes it and learn to live with it.

On The Inspiration For His Book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The title is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which stands for WTF. I actually didn't know what it meant when I was covering the war for the first couple of years; I would hear it in the radio occasionally. And I remember there was actually one situation in which a massive explosion went off and it started raining bricks and mortar and all this stuff down all over me and the unit I was with. And the lieutenant got on the radio and screamed, "Whiskey tango foxtrot," and I didn't think anything of it. But I came home and I googled it and I'm like, "Oh my God, he had no idea what was going on either" [laughs]. So it turned into something, which, for those of us that were actually on the ground – I think that people in Washington looking at this from 1,000 miles above and looking down, it was different. But for those of us that were on the ground in these little grounds around Iraq, sometimes it felt like WTF. Like, "What ... uhh ... what's going on here?"

On The Rooms In Bedrooms Of The Fallen

There's one room in there, which is Christopher Scherer's room, that I love. Chris apparently begged his dad for years, "Could I please put one sticker up on my wall?" And his dad was like, "No, no way. No stickers on the wall. You'll ruin the paint." Until finally, after two years, he said, "yeah, okay." And then, Chris's room just exploded. There's not an inch free on the wall anywhere. It's like Tyra Banks posters, it's shot glasses, it's a wanted poster of Bin Laden, it's "the leprechauns made me do it," it's a U.S. flag hanging from the roof, it's a charcoal rubbing of Christopher Scherer who died in the Vietnam War from the memorial. It's every single thing Chris seemed to have collected and stuck on his wall… I mean, his room, there's so many things in it. And the purpose of the book and of this work is that we learn who they were in their lives but we find an object in one of these rooms that relates to your life. Like maybe you played lacrosse as a child and you look at Chris's room and you see the Tyra Banks and you see the shot glasses and you see all of this stuff, but then you see the lacrosse sticks. And that's your connection to him. That's how you can start empathizing with his life through your life. It's like a doorway. And I think that once you find, in each of these rooms, that doorway, then you can start to really connect with who these people were. And there are 40 rooms, like you said, from our allies over in Europe, from Canada, and from the United States.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Ashley Gilbertson, welcome to World Views.

ASHLEY GILBERTSON: Thank you.

CRUISE: Well you are an internationally known photographer and I wanted to just start by asking you why you came to photography or how you came to photography. Is this something you came across as a child or something that came a little bit later in life? What is it about photography that really speaks to you as a medium of art and of expression and of telling a story?

GILBERTSON: I started shooting when I was 13, and like any thirteen-year-old, I was a self-obsessed teenager and I wanted pictures of myself skateboarding. So I bought – well actually, I begged my dad and my mom for a camera, and they bought me a little camera. And I realized immediately that I couldn't take pictures of myself doing tricks so I started photographing my friends – who happened to be really good. And it was about a year later that I published my first picture in a skateboarding magazine. And that feeling of seeing something happen, take a photograph of it, and then see it in a magazine and show thousands of people this thing that you had seen was totally addictive. It's magical. To be the messenger – like don't shoot me, haha – it's the best thing. It was absolutely satisfying. And it gave me permission from then on – once I was this sort of accredited photographer – to go into spaces that I wouldn't otherwise be allowed to go into. And in a skateboarding sense that might have been parks, it might have been people that I hung out with that were much, much better than I could ever be. Then in a broader sense, in the photographic world that I now inhabit, I get to be on the sidelines of history and watch all of these things that are taking place that, ordinarily, you would be reading about, hearing about in the radio. And I get to see with my eyes, try to interpret that, and then show people in this sort of truthful manner these things that I'm learning and witnessing. And that gives me a huge sense of purpose. But it's also amazingly cool. [Laughs].

CRUISE: Can you tell when you're looking at something or when you're thinking about something that "oh, this is going to be an awesome shot"? Or does that kind of come later when you're looking at the film? 

GILBERTSON: Almost all of the work that I do now is part of a larger story. So quite often, yeah, you'll come across a scenario which is very compelling, and you think that there's going to be a great picture here, and you work as hard as you can to make the best picture you can. But I think the pictures really come to life when they're part of a narrative and part of a larger picture or series of photographs online or in a newspaper further on down the track. And what will often happen is you actually have to lose the strongest picture in order to create a stronger narrative because a strong picture will take so much attention away from the other photographs that you need to balance it out a little bit. But there are certainly moments when everything comes together, when all the elements are in one frame. I remember, in Iraq – I'd been working there for years – the Marines had captured an insurgent. They had shot and captured him, he was wounded, and they were waiting for him to be evacuated and they covered his head with a sweater. And a Marine was standing next to him, guarding him, and his shadow was falling over the detainee. And I remember thinking, looking at this scene – it was dawn light, it was golden, it was really beautiful light and a moving scene – and I remember thinking that, for all the time that I've spent in conflict, this is what represents war to me: this faceless idea, this silhouette of the American Marine, the faceless insurgent. This is how men can fight, is when it's depersonalized, is when you're not looking at Johnny or Muhammad. When you're looking at a symbol. And it was a moment like that when I thought, "Okay, this is an image I have to make sure I shoot something very powerful of because this, to me, is what war looks like." 

CRUISE: Well that's interesting. I would assume that you too have to become not a person. You're not necessarily a spectator anymore. That you, too, have to become depersonalized to take some of these very, very powerful images or to see some of these moments of history in some of our hottest wars. 

GILBERTSON: I'm not sure that you can ever depersonalize what you're looking at. But you definitely need to separate yourself, your emotions, occasionally from what it is that you're taking pictures of. And I think that the brain usually does that automatically. When it's a really, really extreme situation like front-line combat, your brain will automatically go into a survival space, in which you don't process the emotional ramifications of what it is you're actually looking at. That's not to say that they're not there. You need, I think, in order for mental health, when you come back from these difficult, traumatic situations, you need to go back and re-explore them and find out how it is you're feeling about them, what you do need to still process. And that can take years because there's a good reason the brain shuts down and goes into survival mode during these times. So I think that, yeah you're right. And it sounds almost inhuman to shut down like that, except I don't think that you could continue working through these places if you were emotionally processing all of the stuff that happened. It's the same as a car crash victim; they'll forget what happened and they have to revisit it and find out what it was and then try to processes it and learn to live with it. 

CRUISE: And certainly for the soldiers that you have been recording as well and taking pictures of. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, I know, is something that you care a great deal about and have attempted to bring attention to. Let's talk about one of your works, published in 2007, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. So you talked earlier about kind of getting into these different spaces, being there for history, and you certainly were able to record that with these shots of the war in Iraq, looking at soldiers in Iraq. I'm curious as to where the title came from and if you maybe could explain what the stories that you're trying to share here are.

GILBERTSON: Well the title is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which stands for WTF. I actually didn't know what it meant when I was covering the war for the first couple of years; I would hear it in the radio occasionally. And I remember there was actually one situation in which a massive explosion went off and it started raining bricks and mortar and all this stuff down all over me and the unit I was with. And the lieutenant got on the radio and screamed, "Whiskey tango foxtrot," and I didn't think anything of it. But I came home and I googled it and I'm like, "Oh my god, he had no idea what was going on either" [laughs]. So it turned into something, which, for those of us that were actually on the ground – I think that people in Washington looking at this from 1,000 miles above and looking down, it was different. But for those of us that were on the ground in these little grounds around Iraq, sometimes it felt like WTF. Like, "What ... uhh ... what's going on here?" My job as a photographer is to translate – and I think this feeds into your second question – my job as a photographer of these stories is to translate what foreign policy looks like on a ground level. When somebody in Washington says, "Do this," how that's executed and what the ramifications of that are can be enormous. Except they're too often ignored. It’s looked at as policy rather than human. So my job is telling the stories of – in the case of Iraq, let's say – Iraqi civilians, Iraqi military, American military, and trying to humanize those stories to make decisions that we're making here in the United States and in Washington based around the idea of compassion and empathy and humanity rather than cold numbers.

CRUISE: There was a lot in this past Iraqi war in regards to embedded reporters, embedded photographers. Did you ever feel that your life was in danger? You were certainly in some very tricky situations.

GILBERTSON: I don't think that you can fairly go to war and not expect to be put into some pretty dramatic situations. So yeah, of course, it was remarkably dangerous at times. But that's part of the package that you're buying into.

CRUISE: Again, this idea of your obligation or your responsibility to share this story. Well a recent book that you have put together kind of takes the story to the aftermath. It's called Bedrooms of the Fallen. And just that name gives me chills. But your concept here was to go to the homes of fallen soldiers across the world, really – looking at U.S., Canadian, and our allies – and seeing what their bedrooms still looked like, the families that lost their soldiers. Where did this idea come from and what was this experience for you?

GILBERTSON: Well after a lot of coverage from Iraq, I started feeling like the public was not responding to the type of work, the type of photographs, that I was taking, because basically I was taking the same picture over and over again and expecting people to still care. So in my opinion, I wasn't meeting my responsibility as a photojournalist in engaging my readers. I was filling a space in a newspapers but I wasn't engaging. So I started looking at what I was missing in my photographs, which was the dead and wounded. That was very, very difficult to photograph in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I started trying to draw attention to those issues back home where there were less restrictions, where I had more access to a story like that. So I camped out at Arlington National Cemetery and I photographed families coming to visit their loved ones, I photographed memorials, I photographed funerals, I photographed a lot about post-traumatic stress and suicide. But after a couple of years this, my wife and I were looking at the New York Times when they published each thousand dead American soldiers and Marines. The New York Times would publish double page of all of their headshots and their names and where they were from. My wife turned to me and said, “You need to photograph their bedrooms." And for the next seven years until the book recently came out, it's what I've been doing. It's the most moving testament to who these men and women were – who they were in their lives rather than in their deaths. I realized that, in spending time looking at funerals and memorials in Arlington National Cemetery, I was looking at their death, and I was looking at what remained, which was the relatives and the friends. The reason they were sad is because they were grieving the absence of their loved one. And in these bedrooms is where we can feel that absence but we can also feel what their lives were, how rich their lives were, how they expressed themselves. I think as adults we have a whole home – an apartment, a house – in which we can fill it with things that we love, things that mean something to us. But our kids and the kids in this book – they're not kids, I know, they're grownups – the soldiers and Marines in the book, they have one room in the house through which they can express themselves. That's the one place in the world that is theirs. So the rooms are really just this beautiful expression of who they were. There's one room in there, which is Christopher Scherer's room, that I love. Chris apparently begged his dad for years, "could I please put one sticker up on my wall?" And his dad was like, "No, no way. No stickers on the wall. You'll ruin the paint." Until finally, after two years, he said, "yeah, okay." And then, Chris's room just exploded. There's not an inch free on the wall anywhere. It's like Tyra Banks posters, it's shot glasses, it's a wanted poster of Bin Laden, it's "the leprechauns made me do it," it's a U.S. flag hanging from the roof, it's a charcoal rubbing of Christopher Scherer who died in the Vietnam War from the memorial. It's every single thing Chris seemed to have collected and stuck on his wall.

CRUISE: His family kept the room as it was?

GILBERTSON: His family kept the room exactly as it was. It's still exactly the same as it was then, today. And then I saw them on the weekend, on Saturday, and they were saying that before he died he had called home and said, "How are things going?" and they said, "well, actually, you're dad's been offered a job down south. We're thinking about maybe taking it and moving down there." And he said, "That sound's great. But before you go, make sure you take a saw and cut my room out and bring it with you" [laughs]. I mean, his room, there's so many things in it. And the purpose of the book and of this work is that we learn who they were in their lives but we find an object in one of these rooms that relates to your life. Like maybe you played lacrosse as a child and you look at Chris's room and you see the Tyra Banks and you see the shot glasses and you see all of this stuff, but then you see the lacrosse sticks. And that's your connection to him. That's how you can start empathizing with his life through your life. It's like a doorway. And I think that once you find, in each of these rooms, that doorway, then you can start to really connect with who these people were. And there are 40 rooms, like you said, from our allies over in Europe, from Canada, and from the United States.

CRUISE: Well such a moving tribute and it's a way to humanize the situation, make us all feel attached to that. Well, always thinking about that responsibility that you feel to share these really, really important stories. Thank you so much for sharing them with us today and we'll look for your next project soon.

GILBERTSON: Thanks for having me.

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