Photographing the War at Home

March 22, 2010
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On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured haunting photographs of the bedrooms young American soldiers killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The moving images, shot in stark black and white, represent a departure for the photographer Ashley Gilbertson, who is known for his striking combat imagery. On the Lens blog of Times, Miki Meek writes:

Although his coverage of Iraq has won awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club of America in 2004, Mr. Gilbertson, 32, said he has stopped photographing combat zones because the American public isn’t responding anymore. Now concentrating on showing the aftereffects of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Gilbertson looks at bedrooms as a way of memorializing the lives—rather than the deaths—of young combatants. “It’s powerful to look at where these kids lived, to see who they were as living, breathing human beings,” Mr. Gilbertson said. “Their bedrooms were the one place in the house where they could express themselves with all the things they loved.”

Indeed, these photographs affect the viewer differently than war images do: the absence and loss is palpable here. The holes left by the deceased soldiers are visible. In Gilbertson’s move away from the battlefield, he is interested in recording the “war at home,” as he puts it in this interview. This evolution of focus and technique comes after years spent in war zones; the images he captured there and the experiences he had are preserved in the book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gathers the best of Gilbertson’s photographs, chronicling America’s early battles in Iraq, the initial occupation of Baghdad, the insurgency that erupted shortly afterward, the dramatic battle to overtake Falluja, and ultimately, the country’s first national elections. No Western photojournalist has done as much sustained work in occupied Iraq as Gilbertson, and this wide-ranging treatment of the war from the viewpoint of a photographer is the first of its kind. Accompanying each section of the book is a personal account of Gilbertson’s experiences covering the conflict. Throughout, he conveys the exhilaration and terror of photographing war, as well as the challenges of photojournalism in our age of embedded reporting. But ultimately, and just as importantly, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot tells the story of Gilbertson’s own journey from hard-drinking bravado to the grave realism of a scarred survivor. Here he struggles with guilt over the death of a marine escort, tells candidly of his own experience with post-traumatic stress, and grapples with the reality that Iraq—despite the sacrifice in Iraqi and American lives—has descended into a civil war with no end in sight.
A searing account of the American experience in Iraq, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is sure to become one of the classic war photography books of our time.
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