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Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen

Ashley Gilbertson at work, shooting Bedrooms of the Fallen.

Ashley Gilbertson at work, shooting Bedrooms of the Fallen.

Published in the Age on October 15, 2014.

All photographs courtesy of Ashley Gilbertson. To see more of his work, click here.

The leaflet on the doctor’s desk listed eight common symptoms of the Ebola virus. Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson had five of them. He had come to the hospital on the outskirts of Monrovia to get tested. After working her way down the list, the doctor left the room. When she returned, she was wearing a mask and gloves. “You don’t have Ebola,” she said. “You can leave.”

Gilbertson protested. He was about to return from Liberia to New York, to his wife and his son and eight million other people. “You could go to the Ebola clinic,” the doctor suggested, but there was only one in the city and it was a place for quarantined patients to die. So after collecting his negative test results for Malaria and Typhoid, he went back to his hotel and got into bed, hoping his fever would subside.

Two months have passed. Gilbertson is smoking Gauloises Blondes and drinking espresso outside the Third Rail Cafe in Greenwich Village. Although he plainly did not contract the virus, every television reporter in Manhattan wants to interview him, having read the bare details of his story in yesterday’s New York Times. His experience in Monrovia, and then at a walk-in clinic back home, where the doctor laughed, then Googled Ebola, then told him to call the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, has confirmed the panic industry’s worst suspicions.

Gilbertson was not in Liberia to cover the pandemic (he can’t say what he was doing until the story is published). But it’s something out of Graham Greene nonetheless, or Ernest Hemingway: our foreign correspondent, sweating and shaking, alone in a dangerous place. This is how we imagine photojournalists, on the front lines of history, documenting human tragedies at great personal risk and immeasurable emotional cost. It is a myth Gilbertson wants no part of any more.

His whole adult life, he has photographed death and its shadow. He has huddled with Peshmerga militia men fighting Ansar al-Islam for control of a Kurdish mountain top, and been smuggled through West Papua, pursued by Indonesian intelligence, in a cargo plane full of chickens. He has seen corpses being eaten by dogs, civilians blown to pieces by tank shells and soldiers torn open by roadside bombs. He has run across a motorway in Falluja, through intense sniper fire, Marines hitting the tarmac left and right.

But until he set up his tripod in a bedroom in Dover, Pennsylvania, with sports trophies lining the windowsill and a framed photo of a young boy holding a baseball bat over the bed, he had never captured an image that conveyed what he had come to understand about war: what it is, what it does and what it leaves behind.

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 postscript to Bedrooms of the Fallen, Gilbertson writes: “Composing a frame in Zach’s bedroom, I felt, for the first time in ten years of covering battles and uprisings, that I was photographing war.”

Zachary Clouser's bedroom.

Zachary Clouser’s bedroom.

It took seven years to finish the book. Maybe a thousand phone calls. Gilbertson would scan the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen website, looking for families with a listed number. Sometimes he would visit twice before asking to take a photograph. He met a father who kept a hamper of dirty clothes so he could remember his son’s smell. Another who wrapped Christmas presents for his dead son each year. Often, parents told him they had considered suicide. In a series of monochrome, panoramic prints, Bedrooms of the Fallen depicts the black holes in the centre of forty families, left by soldiers who fought and died for their country.

Almost seven thousand American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half of them were under twenty-four years old. Gilbertson’s sample is skewed, because he chose unmarried soldiers who lived with their parents, but it’s shocking to be confronted with the stuffed raccoons and teddy bears, piggy banks and pin-ups, cuddly monkeys and United States flags, folded twelve times with ritual solemnity.

He began to travel with an assistant, to share the emotional load. Gilbertson suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result of his experiences in combat. “I had to keep myself together, because I can’t go into a family atmosphere that’s going through so much grief, and add to it,” he says. Once, on the journey home, he saw a family sending their son off to war at the airport. He broke down and wept.

Is he anti-war? “Yeah, of course.” But this is an opinion he’s been careful not to express bluntly, to avoid alienating the parents of soldiers. “In America, to be anti-war is a political statement,” he says. “Bedrooms of the Fallen is, as best as it possibly can be, an apolitical book, but an anti-war book, in that I want people to read it before they vote to invade a country.”

I ask Gilbertson what his own bedroom would contain, if his parents had preserved it. “Cameras, negatives, a black and white TV. Punk rock records,” he says. “A bong under the bed.” His first pictures were of the skaters he hung around with, near his home in Canterbury. One day he had no money to buy film, so he sold his skateboard to a friend. He knew then that he was a photographer.

When he was seventeen, students at RMIT University went on strike, locking themselves in and throwing the adults out. Gilbertson stayed, shooting surreptitiously from the hip. Once he had what he needed, he climbed out of the window, telling the police he was a press photographer. “They let me through and I thought: ‘This press thing is a scam. I love it,’” he says. The photographs were published on page three of the Saturday Age.

His mentors, Emmanuel Santos and Hwa Goh, shared a studio in Balaclava. Gilbertson shot graffiti artists tagging the Lilydale line, and urban explorers the Cave Clan, before aiming his lens at heroin addicts squatting in Melbourne’s business district, behind the central court. He studied the work of Robert Capa and the great Vietnam war correspondents and came to revere the photographer as witness. So he travelled to Indonesia, with the Free Papua Movement, and to Kosovo, with returning refugees, and came back angry, out of sync with his old rhythms.

When he went to Kurdistan in 2002, Gilbertson didn’t consider himself a war photographer, but after coalition troops invaded the following year, he was drawn to the action. A photograph of a soldier sliding down the banisters of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Tikrit brought him to the attention of American newspaper editors, and he was soon given a chance to embed with Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment.

It helped that he was almost as young as the soldiers. It helped that he smoked and swore. It helped that he was Australian. “They would see on the form that there’s a reporter coming: Ashley Gilbertson from the New York Times. They’re expecting some chick from New York that’s super liberal and hates soldiers. Then I turn up.”

A break in the fighting in Falluja. Marines rest in the Grand Mosque. Lance Corporal Billy Miller is far right.

A break in the fighting in Falluja. Marines rest in the Grand Mosque. Lance Corporal Billy Miller is far right.

During the assault on Falluja in 2004, Bravo Company were “the tip of the spear,” fighting their way through the city, five miles in nine days. One hundred and seven coalition soldiers died in the battle, almost all of them American. The Red Cross estimates that eight hundred civilians were killed. Perhaps fifteen hundred enemy combatants. Sixty percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Gilbertson’s images of Marines, insurgents and ordinary Iraqis, the living, dead and wounded, photographed up close as war rages around them, won the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award from the Overseas Press Club.

Bedrooms of the Fallen is dedicated “To Billy Miller, who died in my place” – 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.” In shock, Gilbertson was airlifted out of Falluja and sent home.

For a while, he saw three different shrinks, to cope with the PTSD. “I never said ‘you weren’t there, man’ but I certainly acted like it,” he says. He hung out exclusively with Iraq veterans, drank too much and started fights with bankers who jumped in front of him in the taxi line and drivers who cut him off in traffic. He still sees a therapist.

Gilbertson went back to Iraq, but felt like he was getting diminishing returns. A change in 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. Part of him wants to return to Kurdistan, where the Peshmerga is engaged in a desperate struggle with ISIS, but he knows his editors would want “bang bang stuff” and sees no point in repeating himself.

When I ask what he makes of the photojournalism coming out of Syria and Iraq at the moment, he is silent for a long thirty seconds. “It’s relevant and necessary for a handful of people,” he says. “I would like to see more alternative angles and approaches. More like Tim Hetherington would have been trying to do.” But Hetherington is dead, killed by a rocket propelled grenade in Libya three years ago. Forty-six journalists have been killed in Syria in the last two years.

Gilbertson has constructed a rationale for his reluctance to go back to war. “For us as reporters to keep showing a brown guy with an AK-47 shooting another brown guy with an AK-47, I don’t understand how we can expect readers to engage with that,” he says, and it’s true enough. But having a five year old son surely has something to do with it too. His wife Joanna came up with the idea for Bedrooms of the Fallen, partly to keep him out of Iraq.

He has recently been receiving lots of requests for photographs from the Marines he met in Falluja. He gave them all copies at the time, but those have been lost, or thrown away, or filed somewhere their owners would never have to face them. “As time passes they’re realising that they want to revisit it and see what happened. And I’m happy that maybe the pictures can help them come to terms with that month in their lives,” Gilbertson says. He expects to shoot stories about returning soldiers, documenting war’s physical and emotional toll, for the rest of his career.

A few months ago, he received a package himself: a flat oblong, postmarked Melbourne. The boy who bought his skateboard had sent it back, twenty years later. Gilbertson tried it out, but he kept falling off. “I seem to have lost my balance,” he says. So he took his son for a ride instead, around the West Village in the autumn sunshine.