Against the backdrop of turmoil in modern Iraq, the work of Australian photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson takes on new poignance, writes
like many veterans, frustration with society’s apathy towards the wars.
In 2007, the idea to document the bedrooms came from his wife, Joanna, after they saw a series of headshots of the soldiers who had died.
“It was my terrible, brilliant idea,” says Joanna, explaining the project’s emotional toll.
“For Ash, the process of finding the bedrooms was time-consuming and excruciating. It was cold-calling these families who were in various stages of bereavement. It took months to find, and he wouldn’t just go and shoot, he would go and talk to them,” she says.
“He was acting essentially how a therapist acts, just by listening to so much grief. When he came home he was completely wrecked.”
Gilbertson concedes the project took a toll. “I’d come home and be flipping out a little bit, trying to work out what I was doing and how to deal with it,” he acknowledges.
“It was hard. I thought on the 40th bedroom, it might be easier, but the last one was so f..king hard, it was awful.”
For Gilbertson, professional therapy and an assistant helped him cope with his own grief.
“I obviously started seeing a therapist after Iraq, and then with the bedrooms I would see the therapist more regularly to understand what I was hearing but also to share the stories,” he says.
All the families who allowed access to their home had to be convinced he was doing the work for honest reasons, he says, and that he would not politicise the deaths of their children. “All they want to do is talk,” says Gilbertson. He ended up shooting bedrooms in the US, Britain, Canada, France, Italy and Germany.
While the rooms are often vacuumed and cleaned by the family, Gilbertson found that most were “pre-edited” by the soldiers and marines themselves.
“They realise there’s a chance they’ll die when they’re away, so they clean out the bongs and the girlie magazines,” he says.
While the project was initially self-funded, Gilbertson received some support from The New York Times Magazine after it published a series of the photos under the title ‘ The Shrine Down the Hall’ in 2010. The feature won a National Magazine Award the following year, and Gilbertson received funding from the Aaron Siskind Foundation, a Kickstarter campaign and the University of Chicago Press.
He wanted to include the bedrooms of fallen Australian soldiers, but says he was unable to secure funding.
“I would like to have a show at the Australian War Memorial,” he says, reflectively.
“The longer I’m away, the more I miss (Australia). The more I feel Australian, strangely enough, but today, the only place to tell the stories that I want to, and then communicate them effectively, is New York.”
Gilbertson recently has turned his attention to Africa, working in Ethiopia and Liberia, but says he will continue to work on veteran issues.
“Part of me feels like I want to leave that story alone because I’ve been working on it for so long, but I keep getting drawn back to the veteran story,” he says.
“It’s such an important story.”
The bedroom of Brandon M. Craig, 25, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Husayniyah, Iraq, in 2007
A soldier searches houses in Samarra, Iraq, 2004
Karina S. Lau’s bedroom. She died, age 20, in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003
A US marine slides down the balustrade in Saddam Hussein’s palace
in Tikrit, 2003