Journalistic Inspiration: Ashley Gilbertson

Just finished reading a very stark, dispiriting and honest portrayal of the gruesome war that was the Iraq war and the ingrate task of chronicling it by Ashley Gilbertson.

It is combination text/photography, rare in how each carries equal weight and depth.

Like his photographs, Gilbertson is extremely honest and logical in his writings. Like his photographs, he does not hide behind artifice. He goes from an idealist to an embedded photographer, who is given a squadron to protect him at one point to take a photograph the military wants him to get, a sniper from a minaret in Falluja, which ends up creating more conflict and getting a U.S. soldier killed.

It is amazing how much war photographers sacrifice, putting their lives at risk over and over, as well as their overall sanity. Is war really worth it? In a sense they remind us how horrible each war is in its own way. Do we need the reminder?

Here is an interview that my wife Kari Barber did with Gilbertson as one of her school assignments for American University.

1. Can you talk about what motivated you to go to Iraq and how you got there.

I went to Iraq in 2002 as part of a larger project I had been working on for about five years that concerned displaced peoples and refugees. The Kurds in the north of the country had almost all at some point been forced from their homelands and into neighboring countries during uprisings and wars. I fell in love with them while I was there, and was inspired by their drive to create their own homeland and their willingness to fight in the face of almost certain defeat.

In 2003 I returned to cover the invasion from the standpoint of the north, an Australian view on what happened to the Kurds. I planned to cover their plight in the case they were betrayed again by the invading US forces, but what actually happened was completely different. If the US enterprise in Iraq worked anywhere, it was in Kurdistan, and eventually I moved to Baghdad to work for the NY Times to cover the ongoing war and beginning of the insurgency. That kept me busy until 2008, after the end of the surge.

2. How did you become a photographer?

I started taking photographs because I wanted photos of myself skateboarding, when I was 13 years old. I realized in half a roll of film I could never do my tricks at the same time as the shutter went off on self timer, and started photographing my friends. I loved the results and it instantly became a passion.

3. Can you talk about one photograph of yours that you feel strongly about.

The image of the insurgent the marines captured in Falluja during the 2004 offensive with a gunshot wound in his side and his head covered with a jersey, and the marine guards' shadow towering over him captured the war as I understood it. The man's frame, meek almost, and just downtrodden, powerless, said so much to me about Iraq and the insurgency. They are less equipped, but still chose to fight. The image of the stronger force, the American's shadow, said much about how the US was then fighting the war. The faceless nature of the image is what spoke loudest to me though -- the Americans never got to see the faces of the insurgents, they were ghostlike in their tactics. On the flip side, the insurgents were not looking at the American's they fought as young men and women, people's sons and husbands, they simply saw them as an extension of this country's foreign policy, of Bush and Cheney. The war, like almost all wars, was being fought by groups that hated one another with no thought of the human costs or elements.

4. We hear a lot of negative news about the industry, what advice would you give college students who want to become photographers?

Photographers are born whiners. According to them, the industry has been dying since the beginning of photography. It's always been under appreciated, under funded etc etc etc. There is always a way to find a path in it. You need to be exceptionally passionate and dedicated to the craft, and be prepared to work second rate jobs for many many years before it starts paying off.

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