September 28, 2007




(click for larger sizes)

Apparently, Ashley Gilbertson and I started to really figure out what we were doing about the same time.

While Ash was finding his legs as a war photographer for the NY Times, The BAG was practicing a visual analysis on the day-by-day images of the early period of the Iraq occupation.

Those paths first crossed in November ’04, when I took issue with an image of a smoking GI.  Not only did I think the photo romanticized the war, I discovered — via an email from a military mom — that the soldier in the pic had been misidentified by The Times.  Four days later, I highlighted another Gilbertson image, this one of U.S. soldiers battling from the living room couch of an Iraqi apartment.  In that case, I used the visual to emphasize my admittedly purist argument against the military making hard use of Iraqi domestic space.

Since then, however, I’ve had a chance to view the larger body of Gilbertson’s Iraq archive.  A few months back, if you recall, Ashley even provided The BAG with an evocative image that had been left out of a NYT slide show about Suaada Saadoun, an Iraqi widow who had been murdered by Sunni militia.

It might seem odd to say this, given the subject matter, but the quality that most characterizes Ashley’s Iraq testimony is innocence.

How else to understand work that is thoroughly reverential to the soldiers and the mission at one moment, then unselfconsciously revealing of its cruelty or ineptitude the next?  The explanation here is that Ashley — talented as he was with the tools of his trade — was professionally inexperienced through much of this experience.  As a result, what he produced was something usual, which were war pictures motivated primarily by a sense of open curiosity.

Not that Ashley’s work, and his feelings for the war, didn’t mature and harden as time went on.  At the outset, however, it was an unusual thing that this venomous campaign — built on  a boot-crushing neocon fantasy — might be captured by a man whose springtide sincerity allowed him to pass through doors both locked and unlocked, and sample everything.

Having spent more sustained time documenting the Iraq War than any other photojournalist, Ashley has created a wonderfully earnest account of his images and recollections.  In advance of the formal release of Whisky Tango Foxtrot, I plan to do several posts on particular images, focusing on those I think articulate key political, media and emotional “geography” of the war.

Purchase WTF here.

(The BAG’s Image Notes:  #1: Taken April 2003, in the opening weeks of the invasion, this photo provides the perfect corollary to what was happening in the streets.  Just like Iraqis were looting freely in Mosul and Baghdad, U.S. servicemen were riding the bannisters here in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Tikrit.  #2:  Taken in late 2003 at an amusement park in Baghdad celebrating the end of Ramadan, Gilbertson fixes on a Sunni boy aiming at him with a toy gun.)

Images from “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War”.  © Ashley Gilbertson. Used by permission.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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