Shooting War Changes Photographer 'Dramatically' Ashley Gilbertson says that documenting life in Iraq inverted his perceptions of war and the role of the photographer. He discusses his book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and the experiences that still haunt him.
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Shooting War Changes Photographer 'Dramatically'

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Shooting War Changes Photographer 'Dramatically'

Shooting War Changes Photographer 'Dramatically'

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As many loyal listeners know, we have an occasional feature on the program called Photo Op, a conversation with a photographer about photography. But every once in a while one of those conversations goes to a much deeper and unexpected place.


I've just had one of those experiences with Ashley Gilbertson, who has a new book called "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War." He was only 25 years old when he got to Iraq. Since then he's captured some of the most memorable images of the war there, some of joy, many more of pain.

COHEN: If you'd like to see some of those photos while you listen, you can go to our Web site. That's

CHADWICK: Ashley and I started talking about one image early in the book - it's from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. A young boy smiling with a very real-looking gun pointing directly into the camera.

Mr. ASHLEY GILBERTSON (Photographer) Every kid in war zone seems to have toy guns and firecrackers which - I think it's safe to say I'm not the only one who that freaks out. Everywhere you go is just, you know, snapping of firecrackers you think are weapons and these kids with toy guns. And you know, I took that picture and it's, I mean it's kind of a strange picture because the kid's like really smiling and looking straight at me with his gun pointed down the barrel of my lens. And then on his pocket it's sewed in English: hello.

And the picture, 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, and as it got worse and worse, the Americans will be welcomed. And here's this big smile, welcome, but at the same time we've got our eyes and we're watching you. And here's the welcome that you will receive should this enterprise go badly, and that they are receiving today.

CHADWICK: You know, there is only one picture in this book, I think, of an American smiling like that. It's of an American Marine. He's sliding down this marble banister in one of Saddam's captured palaces, and this a huge grin on his face, looks like he's going about 30 miles an hour too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILBERTSON: Yeah. I started hanging out with American troops and I realized these guys weren't this massive American war machine in uniforms. They were kids like me, and I really related to him. So they were exploring the palace and I walked around the palace with him and, you know, they picked up the telephone in the elevator and pretended to call home, and you know, these two guys slid down the banister in the middle of the palace.

And you know, again, I shot the picture and didn't think I had anything important. I mean, it was a picture where I was enjoying myself as much as those guys were. I mean, I was laughing while I was shooting the image. But three days later, I filed that picture back to my agency and then I found out a few days later that it ran two pages in Time magazine, and it was really the picture that, I hate to say it, except it launched my career.

CHADWICK: You were very young to start out doing this, it seems to me.

Mr. GILBERTSON: Yeah, I was incredibly young. I - you know, I really came of age while I was covering Iraq. I mean, everybody has their own, you know, sort of passage that they take before they become a man, and I felt like I had gone through that. You know, I'd been working with refugees on issues of displacement around the world, you know, since I was 18 years old, except, you know, a lot of that didn't really encompass actual combat and war, as it were. It was always skirting, you know, all of these issues that were around it.

And when I went to Iraq, I realized that I was, you know, changing very dramatically and it wasn't until two years later when I was in Fallujah that I really got to the core of what war is, and that is, you know, I realized that it was death, and that's all it meant. I mean, the only - you know, there's that Plato line: the only soldier who's seen the end of war is the dead soldier. And you know, I understood that as a concept, except I only felt that when a Marine was killed, you know, my Marine escort was killed in front of me.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: We're speaking with Ashley Gilbertson, who spent much of the last five years photographing the war in Iraq, and we'll hear the story about the death of his Marine escort when our conversation continues after this break from DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

COHEN: And I'm Alex Cohen.

We now continue our conversation with Ashley Gilbertson. His new book of photographs is called "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War." Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian who arrived in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion. He's been there off and on for nearly five years, on the battlefields, in occupied Baghdad, during the insurgency, and through Iraq's first national election.

CHADWICK: Three years ago, Ashley joined up with a Marine battalion based at Camp Fallujah, five miles east of the city. The offensive known as Operation Phantom Fury was underway.

This turns out to be one of the great battles of Iraq. You have a terrible time there because you're embedded with these Marines and you can't get any photographs.

Mr. GILBERTSON: You can't use a flash at nighttime when you're, when you're, you know, hanging around on a military embed, so at nighttime - you know, more than half of the time that I was out there taking pictures, I couldn't make an image because it was pitch black and I couldn't light anything. You know, I couldn't use a flash; I couldn't use a torch, anything. So it was just running from house to house, from street to street while people were getting shot around me and I couldn't work.

CHADWICK: And then in Fallujah there comes this moment where, as you say, you crossed the line because you want to photograph what is happening, you want to have nothing to do with what is happening. No photographs set up, nobody doing anything for you, you just shoot what's there. What happened?

Mr. GILBERTSON: I come from, you know, a long line of very purist photographers, and our job is to make sure that we have as little impact as we possibly can on a story that's taking place around us. You're always going to have some influence just by your very presence, but I would never ask anybody to do anything special for me. I would never ask somebody to take me over there and see something because I was always scared that something might happen. Like what if I ask somebody to take me over there and see this thing and somebody dies?

And so I never asked for it, but I, you know, Alex Saxby(ph), one of the Marines, came back and he, you know, told us about this insurgent fighter, a foreign fighter who'd have been killed in a minaret in Fallujah. This is after, I think, seven days of combat. And you know, I really needed to see the foreign fighter in the rubble of his minaret because it would produce a piece of evidence to show the Americans and, more importantly, the Middle East that insurgents were using minarets and mosques as staging grounds to attack the Marines going through Fallujah.

Now, I spoke to the captain and he said, yeah, I'm going to send a squad of Marines with you, and I felt, you know, terrible. I was like don't do that. I'm going to run up the street by myself; it's only a hundred yards away. I run up the street, get the picture and come back. Just tell your guys not to shoot at me. I've done it before, and I thought it would be fine to do it again. But, you know, he insisted on sending a squad. So I - that's when I felt like I crossed the line. I mean, I said yes.

CHADWICK: When you did, the squad didn't look like they thought this was a great idea.

Mr. GILBERTSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, I - they swore. They were like, is this a joke? But they did it. I mean, they're Marines and they did their job. They did exactly what was asked of them. And we got up to the minaret and Miller, Dominguez, and then me went up the stairs. There's rubble everywhere; it's pitch black inside the minaret. And after a few flights of stairs, shots rang out, and then I felt something on my face and on my body and it was wet. You know, I thought maybe something - somebody had accidentally discharged their M16 and like shot the camel back, you know, which is the water pouches that they carry on their back. And but then Dominguez started screaming - run, run, run.

So we tumble down the minaret through all this rubble and darkness and got out in the bottom. And as soon as I got out the door, the minaret staircase, I saw what was all over me was actually Miller's blood. And I realized that my worse nightmare had come true. The first time I broke my rule of non-interventionist photography my absolute worse nightmare had taken place.

So they, you know, the Marines then mounted this enormous operation. I mean they're like thematic about never leading anybody behind. So they went up there over and over again while the insurgents were rolling grenades down and shooting at them as they tried to come up the stairs. And they got Miller out. They put him into an amtrack(ph). He was sent off to a first aid station. He died on the way to the first aid station. We got back to the (unintelligible) base, and this is all of this stuff, all of, you know, them trying to get Miller out, them taking him out and putting him onto amtrack, and then like running back to the (unintelligible) base.

This is stuff that I should have photographed but I couldn't, because the second I got out and I saw the blood on me and I realized what had taken place, I completely broke down. I mean, I collapsed. I - you know, my legs couldn't hold me up. I didn't know whether - I didn't - I didn't know whether I could cry, whether I could scream. I didn't - I stopped functioning as a human being. I mean, I just didn't know what to do. And it was at that moment I wanted to die. And I think that this is the case for anybody that's worked in Iraq.

I didn't know how I could continue to live, feeling the responsibility of another man's death. And rightly or wrongly, I think that a huge amount of Marine soldiers, Iraqis, reporters, anybody who works over in that place, has that minaret. You know, they all have Lance Corporal Miller, they all have that minaret where it was that moment that crystallized what war is, and that haunts you for the rest of your life.

CHADWICK: We need to see these pictures, you know?


CHADWICK: We do need to see these pictures. But then you think about what in the hell is the value of a photograph?

Mr. GILBERTSON: Yeah, I know. I mean, I think - I really hope that everybody reads and looks at these pictures, because what actually exists in those pictures is exactly what I saw. And I really hope that it does in some way open a wider discussion about post traumatic stress disorder because, you know, while I'm the guy who actually says, yeah, I had it and, you know, here is how it felt, I - there's a lot of people who don't want to talk about it. And I'm just lucky that I actually have - I live in a city where like every second person is a shrink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: So what are you shooting now?

Mr. GILBERTSON: I should be shooting like cheerleaders and puppies, but I'm actually - I'm photographing the bedrooms of these Marines and soldiers who are never coming home. You know, studying these spaces that will never be slept in or lived in again, except that it had been kept, you know, so often by the families as a shrine to their child. It's a very, very quiet, meditative set of pictures, except I think when you start to study it and you see these grid iron helmets with a message from their girlfriends - stay safe, babe - you know, the plastic tanks that they would keep by the side of their bed and they'd play with, because they were so young, an 18-year-old, you know, going off to Iraq and never coming home. I mean, it's these little details in their lives, these things that they surrounded themselves with that really makes them so much more human than just a name in a newspaper. That's the book that I'm working on at the moment.

CHADWICK: Ashley Gilbertson's book, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War," is just out.

Ashley Gilbertson, thank you.

Mr. GILBERTSON: Thank you very much, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: We have a slideshow of images by Ashley Gilbertson, nearly two dozen in all. That's at our Web site. Go to

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