The strange tenderness of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
The media bombards us with images from Iraq on a daily basis, but as the New Yorker‘s George Packer notes in his blog Interesting Times, “Iraq has not been a photographer’s war.” The iconic images of the war have come from amateurs (Abu Ghraib, videos of beheadings) that have “turned documentary photography into a leering form of humiliation and a potent weapon in the information campaign that is the core strategy of contemporary insurgencies, based on the terrifying principle of can-you-top-this.”
In Ashley Gilbertson’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War, Packer finds photographs that have not been drained of humanity.
An Australian freelancer in his twenties, [Ashley Gilbertson] went to northern Iraq before the war and has been going back ever since, mostly on contract for the Times. His new book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, just published by the University of Chicago, collects Gilbertson’s four years of work from Iraq, with an introduction by his Times colleague Dexter Filkins, and a colloquial, self-revealing text beautifully written by the photographer himself. The pictures chart the descent of Iraq from the initial post-invasion euphoria into the extreme violence of the battles for Karbala, Samarra, and Falluja. They also show a young photojournalist, who “wasn’t interested in covering combat,” learning his craft, proving his mettle, forcing himself into situations that nearly destroy him morally as well as physically, and finally discovering, amid the inferno of Falluja in November, 2004, the strange tenderness that characterizes the very greatest war photography. Gilbertson’s pictures from the battle of Falluja perform the opposite function of the war pornography that Abu Ghraib and Zarqawi gave the world: they give back to their subjects the humanity that the war is taking away.