Ashley Gilbertson never set out to be a combat photographer. But he did spend six years in Iraq, mostly for the New York Times, documenting the war and daily life of the country. Then he switched gears, feeling frustrated and disenchanted with war coverage, and wanting a new way to look at war. In his project, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” Gilbertson photographs the empty, intact rooms of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan – rooms that are filled with emotion, sorrow and promise. (Last week he won a National Magazine Award for “The Shrine Down the Hall,” an essay published in the Times Magazine.) Here, he talked with us about the project.
How did you first come upon the idea of “Bedrooms of the Fallen”?
It was my wife’s idea. I’d been working a lot on issues about fallen soldiers and about death. We were sitting together one day and she said, “You need to shoot their bedrooms.” And, as usual, she was right.
How do you find the bedrooms?
Searching the Washington Post’s faces of the fallen, local newspapers, White Pages, Facebook. And then it’s just a question of speaking to each family.
Is it difficult to make the initial phone call to the families? What has been the reaction overall?
It changes from day to day. And is it difficult? Of course, but I see it as a minor difficulty. Every time, I just imagine the intense pain and grief that family is going through.
Do you get a sense the families will ever change the bedrooms, or will they be shrines forever?
Again, it changes from family to family. I have a sense some of these rooms will be shrines forever, yes, and I know others have been boxed up.
You were able to get the final funding for the project through Kickstarter. More and more photographers are turning to it, from Tomas can Houtryve to Bruce Gilden. What are your thoughts on it as a new model for funding photojournalism?
I think it’s totally inspiring to work with our audience so directly. I hope it’s something which is sustainable, but we’ll see.
Do any of the bedrooms you’ve photographed belong to soldiers you met or traveled with in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Yes, Kirk Bosselman. I knew him from Falluja.
Why did you choose to do the series in black and white?
So that the viewer had an even playing field to explore the objects in the room. I didn’t want colours to lead you away from things in their bedrooms that might connect with a viewer.
Can one be anything but a pessimist when covering war?
Yes. I always have faith in the human spirit.
You’ve said you had PTSD after working in Iraq. Has that subsided over time, or do you think that will be with you always?
I think PTSD is something you’ll always have, but you learn how to carry.
Is it essential to have colleagues with similar experience that you can talk with?
Yes, it helps a lot, as does seeing a shrink.
Despite the obvious dangers in the job, the recent deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were still very shocking. Do combat photographers feel the risk every day, do they ignore it, how does that work?
If you don’t feel the risk involved, or ignore it, you’re not doing your job properly. One needs to be very aware of everything happening around him at any given time.
Do you ever get burnt out, and how do you deal with that?
Of course I get burnt out. The greatest thing in my life is that I have a wonderful wife and son. I come home to them after an assignment, or a long day, and I can unwind and recharge. And of course, sometimes we take a holiday.
What is your work process like — do you operate on instincts or careful planning?
It’s all a mix of planning and instinct. You need to have done your research about any story you immerse yourself into. I’ll find out who/what/where, etc., before embarking on any trip, but once there, you have to trust your instincts to ensure you find a powerful image.
What is next for you?
More PTSD, suicide and other issues of war on the home front.