Being a war photographer is dangerous, gruelling, and emotionally taxing work. It puts you on the front line with the soldiers, witnessing pain and violence while documenting it all, making the horror of war that much more difficult to shake off. But many war photographers hope that their work will help people to confront and understand the gravity of conflict.
After covering the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for years, Ashley Gilbertson, one of journalism’s most respected war photographers, started to think that maybe that understanding wasn’t happening as he’d hoped. “I realised people in the United States weren’t really engaging with what was taking place there,” he tells Slate. After returning to the United States, Gilbertson began looking for a new, potentially more effective way to depict the losses sustained during war.
It was Gilbertson’s wife who came up with the idea to photograph fallen soldier’s bedrooms, many of which had been preserved by the soldiers’ grieving families. “I felt I was in some historic memorial. I would never touch anything. I would rarely even touch the light switch. I felt bad putting my tripod on the carpet because I felt I was disturbing something,” Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson photographed 40 rooms — the same number of soldiers in a platoon — in the US, Canada, and Europe, creating a body of work which later became the book “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” published this year.
The soldiers whose rooms Gilbertson photographed ranged in age from 18 to 27. Many Gilbertson had never met, though some he did. He dedicated the book to Marine Lance Corporal Billy Miller, a soldier who was escorting Gilbertson in Fallujah when he was shot at close range by an enemy. “I came home…Billy Miller didn’t. I needed to photograph his absence,” Gilbertson said to Time.
Gilbertson decided to document the rooms in black and white to minimize distraction created by colour, allowing the viewer to notice all the details, like the posters and teddy bears, signs of the soldier’s age at the time of deployment. “That is who we send to fight our wars for us, our children,” says Gilbertson.
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