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Shooting in Wartime - A Photographer in Iraq

New America Media, Q&A,Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Nov 23, 2007

Editors Note: Remember the naked little girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam? When it comes to the war in Iraq whats the emblematic image that haunts you? Ashley Gilbertsons photographs made it to the front page of The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune and won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his images of the battle of Falluja. Amidst the many newspaper reports, books and documentaries coming out of the war in Iraq, still photographs can capture a moment in war like nothing else can. Gilbertson has just written a book Whisky Tango Foxtrot which is photographers chronicle of the Iraq war. He spoke to Sandip Roy on UpFront about being a war photographer.

Did you always intend to embed with the U.S. troops in Iraq?

Soldier in mosqueSoldier in Karbala mosque
I had no idea. I was just a kid hanging out in Iraq trying to really tell the story of the civilians that were caught there. I didnt plan to embed. But the war started getting so dangerous and I am such a white guy traveling around with a camera, I couldnt get away with traveling around on the street for a very long time. When it got to the point when they started shooting Italian reporters on the side of the road and putting their videos online, thats when I started almost exclusively embedding. Otherwise the risk rarely pays off. You have to go out with all these armed guards. And you have to call in advance. You have to call Moqtada al Sadrs guys and say Listen we are coming to this neighborhood, can we come in? If you dont, you can be detained by the Mahdi army.

You say you got a contract with the New York Times easily because it was hard to find photographers willing to go to Iraq. Why was that?

Photographers felt that Iraq was ugly. The payoff is so small and the risk is so great very few photographers want to go, especially if you are going to come back with a set of very ugly photographs. I have a book full of the things. But I think they are important pictures because they are addressing issues that will scar this entire generation.SoldierMarine in Saddam's Tikrit Palace

You say one of the other problems was that most operations took place at night.

If photographers could plan operations they would all be at dawn or dusk because the light is beautiful. And you cant use a flash because you will give away the position and you will blind all these men wearing the night vision goggles.

Did the American soldiers like having a photographer embedded?

No. At the outset there was immense distrust. They think you are some left wing nut who will make them all look bad. But once they realize you want to go out on to the street with them, you get hit by a couple of roadside bombs, they start to trust you. Relationships build quickly in war zones.

Did the relationships ever get in the way of taking photographs?

Kurdish boyKurdish boy with toy gun

People have often said Dont take the picture. Normally I will go ahead and take the picture. But there have been times I will put down my camera. Legally I can make an image of a wounded soldier. Sometimes its so emotional I cant do it. I dont want to add to the trauma. So yes, my objectivity has been clouded.
On one occasion it really affected my coverage. An Iraqi national guard lieutenant named Mike was acting as a translator with the Americans. He started beating a suspect in whose home they had found a booklet with Osama bin Laden on the cover. He started bashing this guy with a nightstick. Finally Mike pulls out a bayonet and goes to stab the guy. From behind, the American lieutenant goes Mike put the knife away, I have to be frank, theres a reporter here.
If photographers could plan operations they would all be at dawn or dusk because the light is beautiful. I thought I had taken the picture. That was the image I was going to send to the newspaper the next day. But that night I sat down and went through my computer and it wasnt there. And I started thinking (someone) had gone through my camera and deleted the image. But I hadnt taken the photograph. I was protecting the platoon I was with. And it made me feel sick to my stomach. And it was the first and last time that embedding really clouded my objectivity. In the future I have always taken the picture first and decided later. And the decision has always been the same publish. But every time I look at the book I want that picture there.

What about taking photographs of Iraqis, especially ones being interrogated and in humiliating situations? What did that feel like?

Sometimes you feel really guilty because they are in humiliating positions and completely powerless. They have no free will in whether or not I can take their picture. I am being protected by a guy with a gun. I feel like I am adding to the trauma of the civilians in some cases.InterrogationWounded man in Falluja
But I have to keep thinking there is a greater truth here, there is a greater story I am trying to tell. The emotional side -you dont think about it when you are in Iraq. Its only after you come back, that you look at these pictures and feel like you exploited them in some way. I know its not true but I have enormous guilt about every aspect of this war.

You yourself came back really scarred by the death of a particular American soldier. What happened?

We had seen a photograph of a dead foreign fighter inside a minaret. I said I needed this picture as a piece of evidence because there werent images of insurgents who had clearly been fighting from mosques. And I wanted to take this picture to show insurgents were disrespecting the temple. And the captain said we could only go with a squad. Normally I would say no. But I thought the picture was so important I said yes.
Dominguez and Miller, who were escorting me, demanded they go up there first to clear it. It was pitch-dark. And we got up a few flights of stairs and shots rang out and I felt something wet on my face and Dominguez started screaming Run. We tumbled down the stairs and I realized I had blood all over me. I broke down. I felt Miller wouldnt have been at the minaret that day had I not requested that I go there. (The fighter) should have killed me. I dont know who else would have died if Miller had not gone there. Or if anyone would have died. And these are the questions that haunt me everyday.

How has it been talking to the families of the soldiers? Your book has many photos of soldiers who were subsequently killed?

Soldier in mosqueRemembering a fallen soldier in Karbala

Ive been in touch with quite a few of the families. They get very little information from the military. They get a cold report. I have pictures of (the soldiers) moments before they died. They can see where their son was. They hear your son was killed in an alleyway in Ramadi. But what does it mean? What does an alleyway in Iraq look like? I am now photographing the bedrooms of fallen soldiers and marines now. I hope thats going to really humanize these deaths.

What is the war like now for a photographer?

It is difficult because a lot of what you shoot now is Groundhog Day. Its guys kicking in doors, guys looking down the barrel with Iraqi civilians walking in the background its images we have seen. I think editors are getting tired of those pictures 5 years of car bombs, 5 years of door kicking. How many times can you put them on the front page?
My last trip, six months ago, I had a lot more play on the front page. I witnessed close up a sectarian killing. I have photographs of a Sunni woman celebrating the fact that Shiite militia didnt throw her out of the house. And then I have pictures of her dentures on the street after she was assassinated. Then I have pictures of her family mourning. We usually dont get to humanize sectarian violence like that. Normally at the end of the day you just get the wrap up eighteen bodies were found in different places in Baghdad.

What for you is the emblematic photograph to come out of Iraq?

The man standing on top of the box in Abu Ghraib threatened with electrocution. The iconic images of this war have been shot by amateur photographer soldiers.

Listen to Ashley Gilbertson discuss his work on UpFront
Ashley GilbertsonAshley Gilbertson (with camera)


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