Marine Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer, 21, was killed by a sniper on July 21, 2007, in Karmah, Iraq. He was from East Northport, New York. His bedroom was photographed in February, 2009. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
Marines on patrol minutes before an IED was triggered. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009. Peter van Agtmael.
While they grew up on opposite sides of the world, Ashley Gilbertson [Australian] and Peter van Agtmael [American] found themselves trudging through the same Iraqi soil in the mid-2000s. Unlike soldiers in uniform, however, Gilbertson and van Agtmael holstered cameras instead of guns, training lenses instead of barrels on discrete moments of soon-to-be-history. Like most young men who fought in these wars, Gilbertson and van Agtmael had grown up in a world less bothered by bodies and bombs, by grit and the gallows. But, when war broke out, they stood committed to recording the history of conflict’s sharp edge.
This spring Gilbertson and van Agtmael will each release a second book, inspired by their time documenting war. Today, however, their work seeks to do what is nearly impossible: draw attention to wars so many have sought to forget. While the books might fall under the rubric of war photography, each project feels both meditative and soul-straining, capturing the struggle between what a photographer ought to be and what the photographer has become.
Photographs startle and stoke, they can drive change and compel action. But some of the grittiest images, the ones that color foreign lands with the hues of human experience, can also overwhelm the senses. In 1944, Robert Capa, the architect of modern conflict photography, deciding not to photograph the concentration camps after WWII, wrote, “every new picture of horror served only to diminish the total effect.” In being too graphic or too raw, these photographs fail to illicit a response. In this moment of overflow, where the potency of the image struggles to match the importance of its content, the photographer becomes locked in battle with the impotence of his craft.
Marine Cpl. Kevin Chassiang, 19, was killed in an ambush on August 18, 2008 in the Uzbin Valley, Afghanistan. He was from Couthures sur Garonne, France. His bedroom was photographed on March 15, 2011. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen is a radical departure from his first book, Whisky Tango Foxtrot. The change was driven by a need to document war more honestly, he said. For Gilbertson, this meant finding war at home, visiting families and the intimate spaces they preserved in memory of the departed. Gilbertson’s collection—the wide-angle environmental portraits of bedrooms across the United States, Canada and Europe—seeks to convey the absence that always follows violence but leaves few traces.
Sergeant Jackson rested in the living room while his platoon searched the rest of the house for a suspected insurgent. Rawa. Iraq. 2006. Peter van Agtmael.
For van Agtmael, Disco Night Sept 11 is borne of nearly eight years of reportage, inside and outside America’s wars. His first book, 2nd Tour Hope I Don’t Die, documented Iraq and Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008. Disco Night Sept 11 offers more than photographs from conflict’s edge, as van Agtmael attempts to share the layers and complexity of war. Part of this comes from his choice of subjects: the soldier, the civilian, the loved one, the brave one, the battered, the broken, the mother and father, the boy in man’s clothing. van Agtmael’s photographs force the viewer to assess the logic of war and grapple with the sheer number of people affected.
“I think about [my time in war] as a burst of different experiences combined,” van Agtmael told us, describing his latest work. “The pattern of the book kind of mimics the patterns of my memory in that way. There was this urge throughout the project to make something permanent, partly, because it could serve as historical record, but also as a kind of catharsis, closing out a chapter of my life.”
Army Pfc. Jack T. Sweet, 19, was killed by a roadside bomb on February 8, 2008, in Jawwalah, Iraq. He was from Alexandria Bay, New York. His bedroom was photographed in December, 2009. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
Gilbertson’s work also signals the end of a trying life chapter. “I was the next generation of photographer trying to act like one from a previous era,” Gilbertson writes in the foreword of Bedrooms. The younger Gilbertson believed his role was to walk the pre-dawn streets with marines in Fallujah and sprint across sniper alleys in insurgent-riddled neighborhoods; to document the final moments of young lives in the isolation of modern battle. This isolation can be tough to see in his photographs, but easy to imagine in practice: Photographers, without agency in battle, live in an unequal state of symbiosis, protected from threats by a structure —the military— to which they do not truly belong. Photojournalists document wars, they do not wage them.
This doesn’t mean they are immune to war’s effects, though. Photographers like Gilbertson and van Agtmael have witnessed a degree of trauma unknown to most of their audience, and both men returned home changed by these moments. “I don’t think you can go into the most traumatic situations that arise on earth, voluntarily, and come back unchanged,” Gilbertson told me, discussing his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012. What nagged at photographers further, though, was the limited impact “bearing witness” had made.
The aftermath of a violent raid. An American soldier had been wounded, an insurgent killed. This boy, temporarily deranged by the sudden violence, leapt at an American soldier. His face was smashed by a rifle butt, his hands were tied, and he was forced to kneel against the wall. Mosul. Iraq. 2006. Peter van Agtmael.
In an interview last year, van Agtmael told VICE that his time embedded with the military gave him a clearer understanding of how America waged war, but that it was “very hard to interpret what’s going on in the longview when you are seeing things on a day-to-day ground level.” In one striking series of photographs, taken when van Agtmael accompanied soldiers on night patrols intended to root insurgents from cramped Iraqi neighborhoods, the only source of light is van Agtmael’s headlamp. In those moments, the viewer is shown both vivid detail—the angry and bloodied face of young boy—set off by the dark and unseen world that lingers at the photograph’s edge. The effect highlights the limits of a photographer’s perspective. “Despite all the death and confusion and isolation and impotence these pictures represent, I know they can only be a slender document. There are so many simultaneous existences and we can only be present in one,” van Agtmael wrote in the foreword to his book.
While van Agtmael realized his own limits, recognizing the facts that might be drawn from the places he’d been and moments he’d seen, he took issue with many who feigned understanding. “I became pretty jaded about ill-informed people, or even decently informed people, spouting their opinions that are often manipulated by their desire to be heard. When you sift through all the white noise of it you end up with very little of real worth,” he told VICE.
Rifleman Paul Donnachie, 18, was killed by small arms fire on April 29, 2007 in Basra, Iraq. He was from Reading, England. His bedroom was photographed on March 11, 2011. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
For years, Gilbertson also struggled to understand the value of his photographs: “Men in identical uniforms kicked in doors (again) and looked tired (still) and chain-smoked between raids,” one caption reads. After his last tour in 2007, Gilbertson wrote, “covering the war (in Iraq) used to make me feel like I was doing something important. I have grown to accept that people will not stop dying because I take their pictures.”
Gilbertson kept on clicking, though, adding to the growing volume of war photographs that went unseen, or, if they were seen, simmered with little effect. Like Sisyphus, Gilbertson had also cheated death, narrowly avoiding bullets that took the life of a young private to which his latest book is dedicated. The feeling of debt forced him to rethink his approach to war photography, eventually turning his lens away from the battlefield.
Instead, the debris-strewn streets of Ramadi, Iraq were replaced with peaceful cul-de-sacs of Alexandria Bay, New York, as Gilbertson visited American families waging a war of their own—with memory and loss—in the most intimate space of all: the bedrooms of their fallen.
Army Pfc. Karina S. Lau, 20, died when her helicopter was shot down by insurgents on Nov. 2, 2003, in Falluja, Iraq. She was from Livingston, California. Her bedroom was photographed in December, 2009. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
“The tragedy and the finality of this space was, to my heart, a more telling and honest explanation of what I had witnessed in Iraq than the countless photographs I had made there,” Gilbertson writes. Each individual bedroom showcases the “milestones of a shortened life.”
Primo Caporal Maggiore Alessandro Pibiri, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb on June 5, 2006 in Naseriya, Iraq. He was from Selargius, Sardegna, Italy. His bedroom was photographed on August 22, 2011. Ashley Gilbertson / VII.
By looking at Gilbertson and van Agtmael’s works in tandem, perhaps unfair to both photographers, it can be hard to resist critiquing the war they document: Americans may have admitted the debt owed to troops that fought and died for their country, but for the many soldiers who returned, scarred by their time in battle, their country appeared to leave them behind.
In Disco Night, van Agtmael records a telling exchange between three marines in the field:
Marine 2: I can’t joke around with my fucking friends at home anymore, they think I’m too fucking serious. They think I’m horrible.
Marine 1: And then we joke around like, “This one time, we almost got blown up.”
Marine 2: My friends say, “That’s fucking horrible.”
Marine 3: No, it’s fucking awesome!
Ending, with reverie:
Marine 2: We just don’t fit in anywhere else anymore.
To Gilbertson, recorded in the last section of the book’s text, a mother describes life after the suspected suicide of her son—a marine who served his country only to be abandoned by its health care system upon his return. The emotion of the account leaves the reader uneasy, as if waiting for some balance to be restored.
A drill sergeant watches recruits performing combat lifesaving techniques. Several soldiers mimic brutal injuries, screaming and writhing, a few faintly smirking. The recruits bandage the injured and get them out of the “kill zone” while others provide cover. Fort Jackson. South Carolina. 2011. Peter van Agtmael.
In this way, both projects, in striving to remain apolitical, betray a moral message: the costs of actual conflict exist in a world outside politics, a place that lives in the hearts of people who become entangled in the plots and plights of their country simply by having lost their most cherished creations to it. And the photographers, desperate to avoid mere call-signs of concerns, struggled with the role photography should play in telling their stories.
A Marine with a village elder from Mian Poshteh, a rural village in southern Helmand Province. The Marines were trying to build the Afghan Army. There were 240 Americans in the outpost, but only a few dozen Afghan soldiers. Mian Poshteh, Helmand. Afghanistan. 2009. Peter van Agtmael.
“Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience . . . and sometimes they put their lives on the line, because they believe the viewer’s opinions and the viewer’s influence matter,” said award-winning conflict photographer, James Nachtway in front of an assembled crowd in his 2007 TED Talk. “They aim their pictures at your best instincts, generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability and the willingness to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable.”
“It depends on who you’re showing the photographs to,” Gilbertson told us, in response to Nachtway’s statement. “I think it’s much tougher to convince an 18-year-old boy war is an awful thing than to convince a 60-year-old man. Perhaps above all, I think the photographs can be anything we want them to be, but that’s not dictated by anyone but the viewer, and certainly not by the photojournalist.”
Graffiti on a bathroom stall at Ali Al Salem Air Force Base in Kuwait. The base was the main transit point for soldiers entering and leaving Iraq. Ali Al Salem. Kuwait. 2006. Peter van Agtmael.
Scrawled in black pen on a bathroom stall are the graffitied words: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Unlike the other messages, which have received customary (often derogatory) additions, this phrase remains unaltered.
The frame separates the pictures of an injured US soldier adjusting to life without his left leg from those of family members waiting for a bus-full of returning soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas in van Agtmael’s Disco Night Sept 11. The arrangement appears to tacitly suggest what soldiers and the photographers that follow them have come to understand: one never truly leaves war. Or perhaps, war never really leaves them.
That specific quote, often attributed to Plato, was actually written by George Santayana, a renowned Spanish philosopher and poet who was teaching at Oxford in the early 20th century. Santayana recorded his skepticism of war in a poem intended as response to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who famously stated that the Great War would “end all wars.” The prose, which included the famous line, closed with a damning stanza:
As it is, we live experimentally, moodily, in the dark; each generation breaks its egg-shell with the same haste and assurance as the last, pecks at the same indigestible pebbles, dreams the same dreams, or others just as absurd, and if it hears anything of what former men have learned by experience, it corrects their maxims by its first impressions, and rushes down any untrodden path which it finds alluring, to die in its own way, or become wise too late and to no purpose.
Both Gilbertson and van Agtmael leave the debates, and any conclusions, to their audience. But their commitment to their craft in spite of its challenges invokes a maxim recorded by Vietnam war reporter, Michael Herr, in his book Dispatches: “It took the war to teach…that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” As such, these new books provide a brief glimpse at what war wrought, and how we might file these moments in their rightful place.