Ashley Gilbertson, pictured, was born in Australia and lives in New York City.
Ashley Gilbertson, pictured, was born in Australia and lives in New York City. Edward Wong
A young boy welcomes Gilbertson to the neighborhood with a plastic gun.
A young boy welcomes Gilbertson to the neighborhood with a plastic gun. Ashley Gilbertson
A mosque, which was being used as a weapons cache, erupts in flames after Special Forces throw grenades inside. Gilbertson tore his quad while shooting this photo.
A mosque, which was being used as a weapons cache, erupts in flames after Special Forces throw grenades inside. Gilbertson tore his quad while shooting this photo. Ashley Gilbertson
Photographer Ashley Gilbertson arrived in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion, unclear what he was doing there.
Years after he left the country, he is still figuring it out. His experience documenting civilians and soldiers inverted his perceptions of himself, war and the role of the photographer, he says.
Gilbertson talks with Alex Chadwick about the dramatic images and stories featured in his book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War.
Adjusting to Iraq
During Gilbertson's first few months in Iraq he was unaffiliated with any particular news agency. Sometimes, he picked up cash by shooting potentially dangerous locations where other journalists' contracts did not permit them to go.
"I was incredibly young. Being a 25-year-old when the war started, I was, I would say, stupid," he says. "I mean, I would certainly not take the risks that I took back then had I known the actual risks that were involved."
Whereas he'd always been more interested in people affected by war than those fighting it, he found himself captivated by the men on the front lines, he says.
"I started hanging out with American troops and I realized these guys weren't this massive American war machine in uniform. They were kids, like me, and I really related to them," Gilbertson says.
The photo that launched his career emerged while he was coming to this realization. It is an image of young Marine, sliding down a banister in one of Saddam Hussein's captured palaces.
"It was a picture where I was enjoying myself just as much as those guys were. I was laughing when I was shooting the image," he says.
Gilbertson says he didn't think he had anything important, but a few days after filing it to an agency, he discovered that it was given a two-page spread in Time Magazine: a young photographer's dream.
Life in Iraq, for Gilbertson as well as many of his subjects, entailed layers of contradictions. This is particularly clear in one of his better known photos— an image of a young boy with "hello" embroidered on his jacket, smiling widely and pointing a toy gun at the camera.
"While it struck me as a funny picture when I took it, it started becoming more important to me as an image of a time because it really said a lot about what took place in Iraq at the beginning of the war," he says. "Here's this big smile: Welcome! But at the same time we've got our eyes on you we're watching you and here's the [other] welcome that you will receive [with a gun] should this enterprise go badly."
The Challenges of Staying Removed
During his time in Iraq, Gilbertson says, he made a concerted effort not to change anyone's course with his project.
"I come from a long line of very purist photographers and our job, as I've been trained as and as I understand it, is to make sure that we're as non-interventionist as possible," he says. Even though he avoided asking people for favors — like accompanying him to a scene or posing for a shot — he says he began to realize, "You're always going to have some influence by the very fact of ... you're standing there with a camera."
On one occasion, he says, he crossed the line and he's still regretting his decision. He was determined to get a shot of a foreign fighter who'd been killed in a minaret in Fallujah.
"It's only a hundred yards away, I'll run up the street get the picture and come back," he recalls telling the captain, but he insisted on sending a squad. "I said yes."
Inside the pitch black minaret, he heard a shot and felt something wet. It was the blood of one of the squad members, Lance Cpl. William Miller.
"As soon as I got out the door of the minaret staircase, I saw what was all over me was actually, was actually Miller's blood. The first time I broke my rule about non-interventionist photography, my absolute worst nightmare had taken place," Gilbertson says.
Miller died on his way to the first aid station.
"At that moment I wanted to die," he says. "You know I wanted to take one of those machine gun bullets in my back ... I didn't know how I could continue to live feeling the responsibility of another man's death."
Gilbertson says he believes that most people who work or live in Iraq have a "minaret moment" which "haunts them for the rest of their life."
Coping Upon Return
Shortly after the incident, Gilbertson returned to New York, to the offices of his employer, The New York Times. His editor urged him to see a therapist, but counseling did not ease his turmoil.
"I hope that in some way this will open a wider discussion about post-traumatic stress disorder. While I'm the guy who actually says I had it and here's how it felt, there's a lot of people don't want to talk about it," Gilbertson says.
Although he originally planned to write his book as an "objective" and "factual" account of what he saw in Iraq, with the help of his wife, Gilbertson says he came to see that was not possible. His book explores his struggle to cope with what he documented, his observations and inner-struggles.
"I told my story as I understand it," he says. "The more time I spend studying Iraq and working in Iraq the more confused I become. So I tried to give readers a sense of that through the musings of a madman. That's the text. I'm just lucky that I actually live in a city where, you know, every second person is a shrink."