By Nicholas Adams-Dzierzba
At the Australian Center for Photography in Sydney’s Paddington, an exhibition about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has a different point of view from the sort of shots you would usually see.
Having spent the better part of a decade on the front lines embedded with American troops, Australian conflict photographer Ashley Gilbertson turned his focus to what was left behind when soldiers were Killed In Action. The bereaved families, too distraught to disturb the bedroom of their fallen child. Of almost seven thousand American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan more than half were under 24 years old.
Gilbertson’s method was to search the Washington Post’s data journalism website Faces of the Fallen, looking for specific details of families that had lost a son or daughter who was young, unmarried and had lived at home with their parents. He would get in touch If there was a contact number, visiting a couple times before taking a single photo.
The black and white photographs depict rooms filled with stuffed toys, sporting trophies. The United States flag folded twelve times symbolising their sacrifice is the only give away that a bedroom belonged to a soldier who had died. Each photograph along with the caption reads like an epitaph encapsulates a story of before and after. “In 1998, Zachary Clouser won the championship with his home town Little League team. Nine years later, while serving with the US Army in Baghdad, he was killed by a bomb detonated by remote control. The three other soldiers in his armoured vehicle died with him.”
In the post script of the accompanying book to the exhibition Gilbertson wrote, “”Composing a frame in Zach’s bedroom, I felt, for the first time in 10 years of covering battles and uprisings, that I was photographing war.” The dedication for the book “To Billy Miller, who died in my place” according the The Sydney Morning Herald Miller was shot in the head as they climbed a minaret to get a photo.
Dexter Filkins, the New York Times reporter who was embedded with Gilbertson, described the aftermath in his book, The Forever War: “[Ashley’s] shoulders were heaving. ‘My fault’, he was saying, ‘my fault’. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. ‘My fault’.”
Gilbertson was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and several years on continues to see a therapist.
SMH reported that Gilbertson went back to Iraq, but “the change in US military policy meant he could only photograph dead or injured soldiers with their prior consent, a farcical condition expressly designed to sanitise images of the war.”
It was his wife’s idea that he take on the Bedrooms of the Fallen project to prevent him from redeploying and for his own catharsis as well as that of the families who welcomed him into their homes.
Part of him wants to return to the Middle-East with the current struggle with Islamic State militants, but he told SMH his editors would want “bang bang stuff” and sees no point in repeating himself, on the photos his colleagues are taking of the conflict he remarks, “I would like to see more alternative angles and approaches. More like Tim Hetherington would have been trying to do.”
(Related – Which ways is the front line from here?)