About halfway through America’s decade-long intervention in Iraq, Ashley Gilbertson sensed war fatigue. The celebrated VII photographer, who won the 2004 Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club for his coverage of the battle for Fallujah, noticed a difference, as the years accumulated, between the conflict he knew firsthand and the country as depicted in American public discourse.
“I was working a lot in Iraq,” he says, “and I would come home to find that as the war dragged on, people were less and less engaged with what was happening over there.”
By 2007, Gilbertson felt compelled to portray the suffering he thought Americans weren’t seeing, so he took his camera to soldiers’ funerals, to American cemeteries, and local memorials. But even those pictures didn’t grab what Gilbertson wanted to convey about whom America had lost in the conflict. “That was about the people who were living, rather than the absence of those who had died,” he says.
Gilbertson struggled to find a language for the intimacy and depth of of loss. His wife Joanna, a writer, struggled with him. “I always felt like no matter what pictures anybody was shooting of war, they were shooting soldiers. I can’t identify with a soldier,” she says. One day, as the two looked at soldiers’ portraits in The New York Times, his wife hit on the idea he would ultimately pursue. “You need to photograph their bedrooms,” she told Gilbertson.
So he spent the next six years traveling around the country, visiting with the parents of soldiers who died, documenting their private spaces in Bedrooms of the Fallen, which will appear next spring, on Memorial Day, as a book. “You find something in each of these rooms that relates to you and your understanding of life,” Gilbertson says. “And through that object or point in the room, the rest of the room”—and, he hopes, the life of the lost soldier who lived in it—“will open up to you.”
Gilbertson is not the only photojournalist to experiment with new ways of opening up the war for an allegedly beleaguered American public that thinks it knows the war story: more than 6,700 dead, over nearly 12 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among photojournalists’ new books, exhibitions, and public engagement projects, there’s a critical commonality: the desire to establish a new visual vocabulary of conflict.
Photojournalist Michael Kamber, who covered the war in Iraq from start to finish for The New York Times, felt the war was in fact uglier and more difficult than the images he was able to bring back home.
“I was butting heads constantly with the US military, and they were trying to stop myself and my colleagues from getting access from certain situations, [from] publishing photos of wounded and dead soldiers,” Kamber says. “I felt like a number of institutions, for lack of a better word, came together to prevent the American people from understanding what that war looked and felt like.”
Kamber includes news outlets and their photo editors among those institutions. “I think photo editors were absolutely crucial in shaping the narrative in the image of the Iraq war in the public’s mind, and frankly I feel that many of them failed,” he said. Kamber spent years feeling censored by the stylistic choices of mainstream publications.”When [news outlets] published pictures of wounded soldiers, they were generally limping off the field of battle as if they were at a football game or something, and that’s not what the war looked like.”
In May, Kamber released Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq, a visual and narrative oral history of photography from the 10-year fight in Iraq, published by the University of Texas Press. Kamber interviewed 39 of his colleagues and published images their employers never had. The result is a visual and written document that shows the war as it hasn’t been seen before this.
“I think I was trying to tell, in a nutshell, the truth about the Iraq war; I felt like it was a truth that… really wasn’t out there,” Kamber says. But it’s not a truth readers necessarily want to hear—or pay for. “We’ve gotten incredible press on the book, dozens and dozens of articles—we’ve been on television repeatedly—and yet the book doesn’t sell at all,” he says.