A war photographer's world
Ashley Gilbertson’s life has been irrevocably marked by his experiences as a war photographer – and by the recent deaths of two of his colleagues in Libya, writes JOE BREEN
DEATH AND REGRET have left their marks on Ashley Gilbertson. His experience as a war photographer in Iraq has left him with a daily dose of guilt brought on, he believes, by the fact that a US marine died in his place in the ferocious 2004 battle for Falluja.
And now two of his close friends and colleagues, the film-maker and photographer Tim Hetherington and the Getty photographer Chris Hondros, have been killed in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata.
The loss of someone you know and admire is always a shock, even in a business where death is ever present. The 33-year-old, now a thriving photographer in New York, is clearly still coming to terms with it when we speak on the phone, two days after the death of his friends.
“We will never know what they might have achieved, but I do believe these two men were giants in their field. Chris was one of the best combat photographers working today. The reason he was so good was he had a deep connection with his subject. That sort of passion, that sort of honesty, is what we need in photography to keep these conflicts in the public eye.
“In Tim’s case he had begun approaching conflict in a fresh way. There must be hundreds of books of war photography, and there doesn’t seem to be any difference in what they are doing. Tim began trying to redefine that. In his film [ Restrepo], his photography and his multimedia presentations . . . he reached out to people in a different way.”
Even though photographers who work in conflict zones are faced daily with war’s grim toll, there is an almost unspoken belief that the worst won’t happen to them. They have to believe that. Otherwise, how could they face carrying their cameras into the kind of bloody chaos of war-ravaged cities such as Misrata?
Reading and viewing Gilbertson’s acclaimed book of recollections and photographs from the Iraq war, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – the phrase is military slang for “what the f**k” – it is clear that he too could have ended up a casualty; he has the scars to prove it. Today, he says, he suffers from post- traumatic stress disorder, similar in kind, if not intensity, to thousands of combat veterans who struggle with it each day.
Indeed, this has become something of a cause for him, working on post-conflict projects such as Bedrooms of the Fallen, a series of stark and telling images of bedrooms of dead soldiers, and joining the campaign to highlight the chronic incidence of PTSD in Iraq-war veterans.
“There are,” he says, “on average 18 vets a day killing themselves, which is a much higher number than in the civilian population.” US authorities set up a suicide hotline; in six months last year they received 300,000 phone calls.
Gilbertson’s book is a graphic answer for anybody who still believes in the glory or romance of war. There is an honesty in the images and text as the photographer goes through his journey from youthful idealism to the edge of despair.
“I think that is right. I think I started losing faith in my very mission as a photographer, which is to make people understand the things I have learned. I just felt it was having such little impact at home.
“Every photographer’s experience is different, but my war is Iraq – and always will be. That conflict has and continues to span a very long period. People become fatigued hearing about it. But even when I tried to package things differently, when I’d shoot differently, whatever it was I tried, people just didn’t seem to want to engage any more . . . I felt like I wasn’t making a difference.
“So as far as the role of the photographer in conflict – and when I say conflict I speak very broadly: it could be the lead-up to war, to intervention, people working in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia or Libya for that matter – there is the role of the photographer as truth-teller, as witness.
“Our primary role is to have a sense of responsibility and honesty to the situation and the subject. To get that message out, try to show people what is happening. I don’t think it is our job to go in and start or stop the war, but I do think it is our responsibility to shed light on what, thankfully, very few people get an opportunity to see.”
Conflict photographers are often depicted as thrill-seekers, but Gilbertson argues for a deeper truth. “Growing up in Australia, I read every book I could get my hands on about Vietnam and Korea and press coverage of them. I was fascinated by the stories, and I wanted to be there. And I think a large part of that was the thrill.
“But when things started getting really bad – and it happens very quickly – as soon as you step into combat, you realise it is beyond thrill-seeking. There is a very good chance you will get killed.
“It is a serious business, yet there is always going to be something thrilling about combat. If you get out alive then you’ve done your job. It’s one of the beauties of war: you have one job, and that is to stay alive. To those of us who go back repeatedly there is something much deeper, something that drives you . . . You have to believe in what you are doing to risk your life like that.”
In Iraq he worked for the New York Timesand was embedded with American forces. He is dismissive of fears that embedding can lead to loss of journalistic objectivity but then tells a story of how, unconsciously, he protected a military unit he was with by not photographing an incident of brutality.
“Now that, to me, was such a shock, because to this day I thought I had pressed the button. I saw it happen. I turned to the lieutenant and I lied to him when he asked did I shoot the picture. From that point on I made the conscious decision to shoot first and ask those moral questions later.”
He believes the reason the still image continues to work is distillation. “If you give people too much information, they are not going to use their intellect in order to find the truth of what you are actually presenting. But if you have the talent and the opportunity to distil that opportunity into a powerful photograph, people will engage.”
It was the search for that vital image that led to an incident that has had a marked effect on Gilbertson. It was the photographer who wanted to climb the minaret to photograph the apparently dead sniper, but Lance Corporal William Miller insisted on leading the way. “Not a day goes by,” Gilbertson writes in his book, “that I don’t think of that minaret and Miller’s crumpled, bloodied body.”
For Gilbertson the world is a difficult place and memories are still very raw. “My mind is very messed up, but there are huge portions of that book I can’t remember photographing. I wrote the book, and I had to go through the pictures frame by frame to try to remember what I’d done.
“This is something I live with every day of my life. I wake up and know that the reason I am here with my two-year-old kid and my wife is because a marine died in place of me. I live with that sense of responsibility. So I think anybody who experiences that comes home with it . . . It’s something one is always wrestling with, trying to find meaning in, trying to resolve, but it is not something that can be fixed. It never goes away; it is something you learn to live with.”