June 13th, 2011

LOOK3 2011: Ashley Gilbertson’s Exhibition About Dead Soldiers Defaced

The public had a strong reaction to the exhibition at the LOOK3 Festival of Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen photographs, which show the bedrooms of soldiers who died as a result of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The photographs are being exhibited outdoors on Main Street in Charlottesville, VA. Hours after the photos were put up, Gilbertson tells PDN, dozens of pairs of military issue boots were placed underneath the images to represent soldiers lost in the nation’s wars. Pairs of civilian shoes were also placed under the images; Gilbertson speculates they were meant to represent civilian deaths.

A couple of days later, the day before the festival was to begin, Gilbertson received an email telling him that an image of PFC. Richard P Langenbrunner’s bedroom had been defaced. Langenbrunner committed suicide at age 19 on April 17, 2007 in Rustimayah, Iraq. Someone had cut the word “suicide” out of the caption under the photograph, and had carved the word “hero” into the bed depicted in the photo.

After Gilbertson conferred with festival organizers and curator Scott Thode, the image was replaced.

“It was really violent in my opinion,” Gilbertson told PDN. “It was just a really aggressive and disrespectful response. Not everyone agrees with me on this, the fact that it was disrespectful,” says Gilbertson, “but I feel that it was disrespectful to the content, to Richard and to his family. The family hasn’t been public about the fact that their son shot himself in Baghdad up until this point, and he killed himself after accidentally firing on a civilian car and killing some of those who were inside of it. The Army opened an investigation and he ended up shooting himself at his base in Baghdad.”

He added, “I don’t know who [defaced the print]. I guess that they were so affected by this that they needed some way to express what they were feeling. This is the way that they chose to do that.”

Gilbertson’s Master’s Talk was one of the highlights of the Look3 festival for many photographers who attended. During his heartfelt speech about war, post-traumatic stress disorder and his Bedrooms of the Fallen project, he spoke about how his anger over certain issues, like inadequate treatment for soldiers with PTSD, drove him to create bodies of work that would engage the public.

Though he doesn’t agree with the reaction, Gilbertson is glad that someone reacted strongly to the images.

“That to me is evidence that people are engaging, it’s just that some of the people must have difficulties expressing what they’re feeling in a civil manner. If this is how deeply affected people are by this work it’s a sign that something about it is successful,” Gilberston says. “This is a very deep feeling of loss that people are experiencing. Why hasn’t this been happening when they publish the names of the dead in the newspaper? It’s too foreign, it’s too hard to understand and connect with, but when you’re confronted by a space as personal, as intimate and familiar as a bedroom, I think that people are really engaging. Maybe going forward when I show this work there needs to be some way that people can express what they’re feeling because these are very intense images. But I’m glad that people are connecting in any way. I just hope that the content of the pictures is respected and not defaced.”

Related: LOOK3 2011: Ashley Gilbertson On War, PTSD and His Project Bedrooms of the Fallen

June 10th, 2011

LOOK3 2011: Ashley Gilbertson On War, PTSD and His Project Bedrooms of the Fallen

At a Master’s Talk this afternoon at the LOOK3 festival in Charlottesville, VA, Ashley Gilbertson talked passionately about his project, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which depicts the rooms of soldiers from coalition countries such as the United States, France and Scotland who were killed at war.

He credited a talk Eugene Richards gave three years ago at LOOK3 with giving him the idea for the project. Richards had shown photographs he’d taken of his dying father; one in particular, of a dress shirt hanging in his father’s bedroom, stood out to both Gilbertson and to his wife, who also heard Richards’ talk.

After working on assignments in Iraq, Gilbertson had been “dwelling on death and what it meant to die at war,” partly because he felt responsible for a soldier who had been killed while escorting Gilbertson to make a photograph in a minaret during the siege of Fallujah. The “Bedrooms of the Fallen” project gave him a way to connect viewers to the lives of the young men and women lost in war, and to glimpse some of the impact those losses have on the families left behind.

Gilbertson also spoke forcefully and eloquently about post-traumatic stress and the country’s need to do more for the 2.5 million people among us who have been to war and come home. His grandfather suffered from PTSD and it destroyed mother’s family, he told the crowd. Understanding how war does this to people was the reason he wanted to photograph war. Gilbertson says he got his answer, but adds, “I wish I had never gone.”

Gilbertson says he often works from a feeling of anger. His strong feelings about how the government is taking care of soldiers with PTSD led him to create a body of work about a Colorado town that was particularly hard hit when soldiers who had returned from war hurt and killed several citizens and other soldiers. He shot landscape images at locations where the crimes were committed. He also showed portraits of people who had lost children or spouses to PTSD-related suicides.

He also showed portraits of soldiers in their civilian clothing, a project he developed to illustrate how they live among us.

A television network, he said, had told him never to pitch them stories about PTSD again, because viewers change the channel when the subject is addressed. Photographers “have to find ways to tell stories in a way that people will pay attention to,” he said.