War photographer Ashley Gilbertson’s mindset in late 2003 could have been summed up thusly: “If you haven’t experienced Iraq, you are a worthless piece of shit.” Earlier that year Gilbertson [seen with his camera in the photo at left] was charging around Iraqi Kurdistan in an old beater with a trunk full of beer, documenting a nation without a country. And then, after completing his first rotation shooting the war, he was back in the US, reeling from the collective complacency he saw there. People who hadn’t seen carnage, war, and mayhem firsthand couldn’t tell him nothing, no-how.
Gilbertson’s career started accidentally with snapshots of the assorted derelicts who happened to be his best friends in his native Australia. Somehow he found a path that led him through photographing for the most prestigious press outlets in the world and then winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal (the highest honor for war photography). He also published the book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
, which chronicles some of his time in Iraq.
Gilbertson is only 30 years old but, luckily for the rest of us innocent bystanders, he’s learned to cope with the insanity that he has witnessed ever since that beleaguered first round. He no longer thinks you deserve to die for not knowing the difference between Shias and Sunnis, but he still probably thinks you’re stupid. (Which you probably are.)
Vice: When did you first pick up a camera?
I had been skateboarding for about a year, and I was really shit although I
I was cool. I just learned how to ollie three stairs and I thought I was Mike fucking Carroll. At some point I asked my father to take a picture of me skating. He was sort of an amateur photographer so he bought me this little Ricoh SLR and I tried using the self-timer to take pictures of myself skating, but of course it didn’t work. So I started shooting my friends who were actually good at skating. By 16 or 17, I was a full-time skate photographer. I did a little news here and there but skating was my passion. The sense of knowing the decisive moment of when to shoot all comes from that experience. It’s important to get all the necessary information captured in a news picture, just like if someone’s flying down two flights of stairs, you have to depict all the technicality and risk involved in the execution.
There seems to be a continuity in your work—starting with skaters and hoodlums, moving on to refugees, and now documenting a nation that has been devastated by war. You’re drawn to outsiders.
There is a connection, without a doubt. These are subcultures on the fringes and in many ways they haven’t got their own voice. They are all marginalized, and the progression to Iraq was natural because I was giving more exposure to yet another group who I felt were misunderstood. Approaching things with an empathetic eye is really the main theme in all of my work.
But the transition from skate photographer to war correspondent must have been rough.
When I got my first big jobs it was a nightmare. I had no fucking idea what I was doing. A bureau has ten journalists who have to answer to an editor every single day. I had to file pictures when they wanted, not whenever I got around to it. At first they had me on these stories about infrastructure crap in Sadr City, where I had to photograph yet another pile of shit or some politician. I did a lot of that stuff because nobody else wanted it. Everyone was after a front-page story. Up until that point, the relationships I had with editors were pretty much one-on-one, but when you’re working with a paper that has 80 photographers around the world on any given day they don’t have time to call you to kiss your ass or shout at you.
Then all of a sudden the real war started. The invasion was kind of a cakewalk compared to what followed. I didn’t know about this until recently, but one of the first editors I worked with told me she had a photographer in the same place I was working. After filing his pictures he called her to say, “Keep an eye out for this Ashley guy’s pictures because he is absolutely fucking crazy. He is running around the battlefield as if there were no bullets.” I look back at myself then and it was really bad. I had no idea what I was doing—I probably should have died. I thought all these experienced war photographers were being pussies, when in fact I was a total lunatic running around without a helmet or flak jacket. So I wasn’t wholeheartedly accepted by the other photographers until 2004 in Kabul. Fallujah took place later that year, and now I’m like blood there.
You must have learned how to dodge bullets somewhere along the line.
No, it’s just been luck. But I’ve had two mentors who taught me a lot: Emmanuel Santos, who was all about the philosophy of humanity, and Masao Endo. He’s a very old-school Japanese war photographer. His first war was Vietnam—he went out on a patrol with 40 men and only three of them came back alive. He came back from that trip and spent two years freaking out in a Zen monastery because his parents couldn’t afford a shrink. He has since covered every major conflict and still does to this day even though he’s over 60. He’s a descendant of a shogun and his philosophy on photography follows what a samurai believes about war and swordsmanship. It sounds weird and far-fetched but it translates into photography so easily. You have to become so familiar with your camera that it actually becomes an extension of you. It becomes part of your nature. Masao taught me that if you’re caught in a minefield you should stick to the trees because mines can’t be planted near roots. He also told me that when you’re standing near the front line you always squat, even if all the soldiers and photographers are standing up and laughing at you. It’s one less sniper target. You have to be a little crazy to be in a situation like that in the first place, but it’s still important to take only calculated risks.
Is it possible to be unbiased when you’re worrying about being blown to tiny pieces every 30 seconds?
I have no belief in objectivity whatsoever. It’s impossible for me not to care or to withhold my emotions. When I see American administrators making decisions in Baghdad it makes me furious and I will go out and take pictures that specifically show how absolutely fucked the country is. Perhaps we would have greater change if more photographers were subjective.
In the first couple years of the war, the media and government made a big deal about embedded journalists. I never really understood how you could be anything else.
Yeah, there are these independent, unembedded journalists who think they’re nonmainstream or whatever. I’d just like to say to each one of them: Go fuck yourself. It’s bullshit. Photographers have always been embedded with their subjects. The only difference is that now the Pentagon has come up with an ugly name for it.
Have you been desensitized to violence?
I think I was when I got back home for the first time. In 2004 I spent six months in Iraq, ending with the Fallujah campaign. When I got back to New York I was totally desensitized to anyone who hadn’t been in Iraq—you did not deserve my empathy if you weren’t an Iraqi soldier or civilian or you weren’t over there for some reason. But that was totally wrong. I had to consciously force myself to start reconnecting to societies other than Iraq. By distancing myself from normal society I was cheating the Iraqis because I was forgetting I had what they wanted.
Is there something addictive about the kind of work that you do?
I think early in 2003 and maybe even part of 2004 there was an adrenaline rush that came from working in situations like I was. There is a certain feeling of invincibility when you run across a street and you’re the guy who doesn’t get hit. It gives you a lot of energy and your brain is running in survival mode. There is something very driving about that, but the adrenaline that used to be exciting now functions like a warning trigger. It’s really weird, and now if I’m doing something daring like hanging off a train in Australia instead of riding inside I will freak out in a bad way. I’ll have problems with what’s going on inside my head. When the adrenaline starts pumping it doesn’t relate to anything fun or exciting anymore. My reflex is, “Fuck, I need to get out of here and find cover.” It’s like my brain has rewired itself.
Are you going back anytime soon?
I’m headed back to Iraq through August for the end of the surge. The military is trying to make it seem like it’s some minor thing, but in fact it’s a withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Baghdad. That could go badly. I hope I’ll return without any pictures because that would be an indication of a peaceful transition—that the Iraqi Army can handle what the Americans have been doing and that sectarian violence will not spike. But if I had to guess, I would say I will be coming back with a lot of images.