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Army Pfc. Nils G. Thompson, 19, was killed August 4, 2005 by a sniper in Mosul, Iraq. He was from Confluence, Pennsylvania. His bedroom was photographed in September, 2007. (Ashley Gilbertson / VII Photo)

War and absence

Covering the war in Iraq gave photographer Ashley Gilbertson a great sense of purpose, but his experiences there also left him scarred. Driven by a desire to humanize the war, Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen is a sorrowful reminder of how war reaches far beyond the battlefield

About the series

Photojournalists are vital witnesses to global events. Through their lenses, we, the reader safe at home, glean a sliver of visual reality from places torn by man-made or natural catastrophe. As recent events have shown, kidnap for ransom and murder to instill terror has made journalism increasingly hazardous. This in turn has challenged journalists as never before when it comes to their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor at the University of Toronto, is a world leader on the psychological effects of war on frontline journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running a year-long project: Conflict Photographers. Once a month we’ll feature a frank and intimate interview between Dr. Feinstein and a photojournalist. Each article will showcase an image that represents a seminal moment in their life and career, and which often presents a window to a much greater issue.

In this fourth instalment of Conflict Photographers, Dr. Feinstein speaks with Ashley Gilbertson, whose series Bedrooms of the Fallen shows the private, personal cost of war.

Bedrooms of the Fallen is a heartbreaking book. Forty photographs of bedrooms frozen in time, memorials to lost youth. Each room is mute testimony to the grief of their custodians, the parents whose children will not be coming home from war. Sons and daughters may have departed as warriors, but there is little evidence of this in their bedrooms, the most intimate of chambers. Instead, we see the mementos of childhood and adolescence lovingly preserved. Amid the sporting trophies, photographs, CD racks, toys, clothes and toiletries, the occasional teddy or favourite cuddly toy heightens the pathos, reminding us, lest we forget, of just how young these soldiers were.

The genesis of this book can be traced to what befell Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson. In November, 2004, he was on assignment in Iraq for The New York Times, embedded with American forces during their offensive to retake the city of Fallujah, which had been overrun by insurgents. Working with correspondent Dexter Filkins, Gilbertson recalls that they “were on the very, very tip of the spear, the most dangerous place to be,” as the U.S. Marines fought their way through the city, sustaining heavy casualties.

After a week of intense combat, the unit had reached the southern edge of Fallujah and paused, affording Gilbertson a chance to take some individual portraits during a lull in the fighting. While doing so, he was shown a photograph taken on a cheap point-and-shoot camera by a Marine. It was of an insurgent killed inside the minaret of a mosque from where he had been firing on the Marines. This was potentially important news. A mosque could no longer be considered a holy sanctuary under the Geneva Conventions if it was being used in this fashion. A confirmatory photograph was needed.

Gilbertson recollects telling the unit’s captain that he was leaving the base to go to photograph the dead insurgent inside the minaret, 200 metres back. The captain insisted that he take a squad with him. Gilbertson balked. The captain held firm, leaving the photographer no choice.

“We get to the mosque,” Gilbertson recalls. “William (Billy) Miller and another Marine, Christian Dominguez, wanted to go first. I said no, no, no, I’ll just go upstairs and get my picture and we’ll be out of there. I wanted to get it over with as fast as possible.”

Once more, he was overruled by his military minders. They entered the minaret, with Miller leading the way, and began climbing. Gilbertson remembers that it was pitch dark at first and the stairs were strewn with rubble. As they ascended, he saw some sunlight coming through a hole left by a tank shell and recollects thinking, “Great, this will be over soon and we can get out of here. But then there were gunshots … and I got covered in water. … My face, my camera, my body, everything was covered in water.”

Gilbertson’s initial thought that someone’s camelback had been shot was quickly dispelled by Dominguez’s scream exhorting them to run.

“We tumbled down the stairs,” he recalls. “… It was insane. … these three bodies tangled up, falling down the stairs. … We fell out the bottom of the minaret and I realized it was not water. It was blood and white matter. Billy had been shot point blank by an insurgent who, I guess, had backfilled the position.”

Gilbertson sat on the ground, rocking back and forth. “I remember thinking that my life was over … that I had dishonoured my profession, dishonoured my newspaper, dishonoured myself. And I didn’t know how to move. I didn’t know how to continue. I didn’t know how to get up. I felt like the world – my world – had stopped turning at that moment. … There was a fight going back up the minaret to get Billy out … another guy was wounded. … I remember sitting and watching that happening and just being absolutely horrified, thinking that more people were going to die as a result of that decision that I had made. … I know rationally that I didn’t pull the trigger. I know that I didn’t kill him. But I still believe that it’s my fault that he died. I made the decision.”

After Billy’s body had been retrieved, the squad had to retreat under raking machine gunfire. As Gilbertson ran, he remembers wishing that he would get shot, “because that would have absolved me of all this responsibility and I could just die.”

Sigmund Freud observed that individuals who have been exposed to grave danger can become fixated on their moment of trauma. By repeatedly revisiting, albeit unwillingly, involuntarily what has taken place, their psyche attempts to gain mastery of the traumatic event. On its own, this is often a forlorn quest. This re-experiencing phenomenon would in time come to be viewed as the quintessential feature of a condition we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Billy’s death was the catalyst for Gilbertson’s PTSD. “Never for a second did I mentally leave that Iraq space in my head,” he says. And thoughts and images of Billy, the dead Billy, “just kept coming back to me.”

The unforeseen consequences of Gilbertson’s determination to photograph a dead insurgent in the rubble of a minaret also illustrate what English philosopher Bernard Williams has termed moral luck. This refers to attributing moral blame or praise to a person for actions over which he has incomplete control.

Expanding on Williams’s theory, Thomas Nagel has described four types of moral luck, one of which, called Resultant (or consequential) Moral Luck, fits what took place in the minaret in Fallujah. When Gilbertson decided to photograph the insurgent, a constellation of permutations presented themselves, none of which were directly in his control, but each of which could have resulted in a different outcome. The captain could have agreed to let him proceed alone. Miller and Dominguez could have assented to let him ascend the minaret first. And so on. The episode’s tragic denouement came about not only because of Gilbertson’s desire to get the photograph – a desire that we must readily acknowledge as rational and understandable, given his status as an embedded photojournalist – but also because of decisions made by the captain and Miller, which were just as rational, given their military expertise and roles as Gilbertson’s protectors. In Gilbertson’s anguished analysis of his actions, we see the framework of moral luck starkly laid out.

When moral luck includes consequences, such as the death of Billy Miller, it invariably engenders regret. “I wish that I could go back and I wish that I could make decisions that didn’t lead to Billy dying,” Gilbertson laments.

Regret, in turn, can be the spur to actions that might have some reparative significance. For Gilbertson, this meant reaching out to Billy’s family. “I wanted to apologize,” he says. “I wanted to tell them that it’s as a result of their son that I am alive today.”

Gilbertson’s overture to Miller’s parents was well received. “They told me that Billy was just doing his job and that it wasn’t my fault.”

Although consoled to a degree by this response, Gilbertson could not initially face returning to Iraq and took a break from war photography. A grant allowed him to spend a year in the Italian countryside, reflecting on what his next project would be. His idyllic surroundings did little to lessen his morbid thoughts. “I spent a year thinking about death,” he recalls, “photographing ceremonies around death and corpses and bodies and undertakers and embalming and funerals and cemeteries and all that, and I realized that at the end of that year, what I really wanted to photograph was Billy and learn more about who he was.”

On his return to the United States, Gilbertson began visiting Arlington National Cemetery. “I spent weeks camped out at Section 60, which is where the Iraq and Afghan vets are buried,” he says. “I talked to all the families that came through. I talked to the girlfriends and comrades. I talked to the strangers that would come and read poetry to the dead that are laid out there. I went to memorial services for soldiers that would be held after their units came home. The pictures [I took] were okay, but I don’t think it really got to the heart of it.”

Gilbertson recalls showing the photographs to his wife and both concluded that they lacked something because they focused on how people grieve, not on what they grieve over. What Gilbertson was looking for instead was another way to capture absence. As his ideas evolved and his search for expression continued, he recalls photographing a woman in the bed that she used to share with her husband, who had come home from Iraq and killed himself.

However, it was while Gilbertson and his wife were looking at the headshots of dead soldiers in The New York Times, marking another casualty milestone, that his wife hit on the idea of photographing the bedrooms of the fallen soldiers. “Seven years later, it’s the best idea I’ve ever had the opportunity to work on,” Gilbertson reflects, “and the hardest.”

Gilbertson has always seen his role as a war photographer to humanize the story and Bedrooms of the Fallen afforded him an opportunity to do that. The idea may have originated as a debt of gratitude to Billy, but it soon expanded beyond that. Gilbertson became driven by a desire to understand who the fallen were and to convey this to a society more comfortable with brushing away the consequences of distant wars. The very nature of his project meant witnessing the loss of others and reflecting on it, not just photographing it. Immersing himself professionally in this way gave him that space to sit with his own painful memories and feelings. In time, he was able to see that “there’s no way to get away from these thoughts that occupy your mind, there’s no way to stop and cut that out, you just have to be there. … I think I have learned to carry a certain amount of that weight, but I have by no means processed it all.”

In Gilbertson’s long, painful road back from Fallujah, one can see the redemptive power of creative work. “Bedrooms of the Fallen is, as far as I am concerned, the most successful project I’ve ever worked on,” he says. “The saddest, the proudest without a doubt. … It was so, so difficult … I felt closer to war in those bedrooms than I did in Iraq. I know [that] getting the blood on you … being shot at … the adrenalin and heartbreak and trauma and losses that we feel over there are real, very real, but when that’s happening, you’re [focused on] survival. You are not dealing with the emotional aspects of what’s in front of you. … Working in the bedrooms, there was nothing like that. It’s the exact opposite. It was all about empathy. It’s all about engaging with the family and feeling their losses. … By deciding to go to war, this is what we created. It’s awful. These rooms. These absent rooms.”

Bedrooms of the Fallen is not an easy book to look at. This is what Gilbertson wants. No sugar-coating death. No feel-good message of heroism or sacrifice. His aim is to engage the viewer without providing the upbeat coda, the happy Hollywood ending to lives that have ended too soon. In these simple black and white photographs, we glimpse, away from the grand cenotaph and blandishments of politicians, the private, personal cost of war. The images force us to confront loss and the ineffable sorrow that fills the void.

In a hierarchy of grief, parents will always come first, but spare a thought for the photographer. His pain is there on these pages too. We feel it even before we get to the first bedroom.

“For Billy Miller,” the dedication reads, “who died in my place. I’m sorry.”

Ashley Gilbertson has been capturing images the world since his teens. The Melbourne, Australia-born photojournalist won recognition for his work in Iraq between 2002 and 2008, earning him a prestigious Robert Capa Gold medal. He’s the author of two books, including Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, which charts the descent of Iraq from the 2003 invasion to the violent aftermath, and Bedrooms of the Fallen. He lives with his wife and child in New York City.

More from the series

Joao Silva: Three Frames When photographer Joao Silva stepped on a landmine while embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010, he did what he’d done in conflict zones for 15 years – he took a picture.

Ron Haviv: Capturing a war crime As Yugoslavia crumbled, photographer Ron Haviv took a picture of a Serb paramilitary soldier kicking a Bosnian Muslim. The image became a symbol of outrage and resistance in Bosnia, but when the notorious paramilitary leader Arkan found out, he promised to drink Haviv’s blood.

David CHIM Seymour: Capturing an emotion with empathy David Seymour had a knack for setting his subjects at ease, an innate ability perhaps honed through his own unsettled past.

Bedrooms of the Fallen