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.