MISS­ING PER­SONS

Against the back­drop of tur­moil in mod­ern Iraq, the work of Aus­tralian pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ash­ley Gil­bert­son takes on new poignance, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - ESSAY -

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

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