MIRANDADEVINE

We’re all accomplices in Britney’s torment >73
COMING OF AGE The enduring appeal of Julie Christie >67

THE FITZ FILES Our much-loved columnist returns >66

LESLIE CANNOLD Disclosure rather than cloak and dagger >73

AnAustralianphotographer’s tourofdutyinIraq > 74
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NAKED EYE With Kerry-Anne Walsh and Lisa Carty >68
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February 10, 2008 THE SUN-HERALD

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Images that open

>COVER STORY Combat photographer Ashley Gilbertson’s tour of duty in Iraq continues to haunt him, writes MATTHEW HALL.

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HOTOGRAPHER Ashley Gilbertson claims his job is the most satisfying in the world but the Australian has learnt first-hand how quickly a dream can become a nightmare. As one of a handful of Australians working in Iraq for major international news organisations, award-winning Gilbertson has spent most of the past five years photographing combat and the daily life of locals and the military in the warravaged country. While on assignment for The New York Times, Gilbertson was often embedded with the US Army or Marines to experience and document conflict and its consequences close up. ‘‘This is a dream job, maybe the best job

in the entire world,’’ the 30-year-old says. ‘‘I get to witness historical events as they take place in front of my camera and give them to the rest of the world. That is one of the most fantastic things anyone could wish for.’’ But in keeping with the many complex contradictions in present-day Iraq, where there is sun there is also shadow. Even a witness to history needs occasional clarity. ‘‘You need to look after yourself or it will turn into a nightmare,’’ says Gilbertson. ‘‘You need to convince yourself that reality is not bombs going off and being shot at every day. You need to convince yourself that reality is actually going to eat a lovely meal with your wife and enjoying the day.’’ Gilbertson grew up in Melbourne and, barely a teenager, began photographing friends – local skateboarders and graffiti artists. He soon decided he was better with
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THE SUN-HERALD February 10, 2008

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a camera than a skateboard and made his first step towards a professional career when he sold his skateboard for film. The plan was never to become a combat photographer but Gilbertson was drawn to the plight of people affected by war. In 1998, he documented the experiences of refugees from Kosovo recently arrived in Australia. He was hooked. So began a journey that led him across Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and eventually landed him in northern Iraq just before the US launched the war in 2003. Gilbertson points to Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defence, to help summarise his experiences over the next few months. ‘‘Stuff happens,’’ Rumsfeld once said of the Iraq war. This would certainly prove true for the Australian photographer. With an Iraqi fixer and another Australian, television cameraman Tim Grucza, Gilbertson travelled from the north of Iraq, through Tikrit, onto Baghdad and back to the north as the country collapsed. He got sick, returned to his Paris base to recover, and met an American journalist in a bar who he would later marry and move with to New York where he now lives. His coming of age, perhaps professionally but most definitely personally, occurred while accompanying the marines in the infamous street-by-street nine-day battle for Fallujah in 2004. The day before the Americans began operations in the labyrinthine, militiacontrolled city, a marine sergeant took Gilbertson and his New York Times colleague aside and showed them how to fire a gun. Just in case, the sergeant explained, the
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journalists were the last men standing and they could get their hands on discarded weapons. ‘‘You get scared out of your wits,’’ Gilbertson says. ‘‘It’s like a sixth sense. I invest my cool in the marines, soldiers, and Iraqis that I’m with. If they’re acting jovial and nonchalant then I’ll be as cool. If they start getting tense then something is very wrong.’’ Tragically, in the last days of the Fallujah battle, something did go wrong. While Gilbertson attempted to take a picture of a foreign fighter lying dead in a minaret, the photographer’s reluctant marine escort was shot and killed. Gilbertson survived Fallujah to return to New York and win the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for his work but had to seek counselling after his experience. ‘‘I think about it every day,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s hard to come back from a story like Iraq and focus on other things. It’s hard to come back to New York and photograph broken fire hydrants in Brooklyn. ‘‘I know that’s important to the people whose houses are burning down around the fire hydrant but . . .’’ he pauses, ‘‘I just don’t care.’’ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a book of Gilbertson’s Iraq photographs, is haunted by powerful images of war. Many pictures capture his subject – a US soldier or Iraqi local – an hour, a day, and a week, before they are later violently killed. ‘‘To me, those pictures are a way of understanding that a soldier who died at 28 years old is not just a military statistic but a real human being,’’ Gilbertson says.

‘‘You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in his smile. It’s very easy and convenient to forget that these are lives, real people, that we’re talking about. This is not just some war that we can get impassioned and crazy about because we shouldn’t have gone in there in the first place.’’ Gilbertson returned to Iraq last year to observe the US military’s ‘‘surge’’ intended to stem the fractured nation’s disintegration into civil war. The success of that strategy continues to spark debate but, on the ground, Gilbertson claims he witnessed more violence in Iraq than ever. ‘‘What I saw was 30,000 more targets on the streets. Anybody who saw the figures that came out would see that there were more Americans killed in 2007 than any other year and it was spot on. There was so much death. ‘‘I will give it to the Americans that there was less Shiite-on-Sunni violence but there was more [violence] on the streets of Baghdad simply because there were so many more Humvees driving around that they could blow up and so many more soldiers they could try to shoot.’’ Gilbertson’s work, which is being exhibited in Melbourne this month, also captures a forgotten element of the war in Iraq – children growing up in an environment where brutal and random violence is an everyday event. ‘‘These kids will grow up hating Americans, hating Shiites, hating Kurds, hating Sunnis and the first thing they will do when they have a problem is go to the gun before the table,’’ Gilbertson says. ‘‘These kids are throughout the book, whether they’re carrying real guns or fake

‘I wish I had something good to say about Iraq but I don’t.’
rocket-propelled grenades, or dressed up as [Islamic militant leader] al-Zarqawi pretending to cut off [murdered American contractor] Nick Berg’s head. These are kids who are totally desensitised to violence. That is an entire generation that we have lost in that country.’’ He acknowledges there is common ground on an ultimate outcome in the country. The challenge, though, is how to arrive at that destination. ‘‘At the end of the day everyone in Iraq – the Shiites, the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Americans – all want exactly the same thing. That is, to sit down and enjoy dinner and enjoy their family and have a peaceful life. ‘‘I wish I had something good to say about Iraq but I don’t. There must be a solution but it’s just a disaster. It couldn’t have been planned to be worse.’’ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle Of The Iraq War by Ashley Gilbertson is published by University of Chicago Press and distributed in Australia by Footprint Books, $60.
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