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April 25, 2010

Ashley Gilbertson: Bedrooms of the Fallen

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For the past three years photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson has been exploring the bedrooms left behind by U.S. soldiers who won’t ever return. In his recent work, entitled Bedrooms of the Fallen, Gilbertson visited with 19 parents who have kept the rooms intact. “To me this is not just a space in family homes, this is a space in our society,” said Gilberston. After eight years of covering the war, I set about to document its aftermath. He spent much time at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D. C.  Gilbertson’s wife, Joanna, soon suggested that he photograph the bedrooms.

Since 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, news outlets have told countless stories about the battlefield. “It’s very, very hard to present to a fatigued audience an old story and expect them to be able to connect to those images, ” said Gilbertson.

By taking us into the homes and intimate spaces of fallen soldiers we get a glimpse into their personal lives. “We as adults have entire homes or apartments that we can fill with things that we love,” Gilbertson comments, “but our children have one room, they have their bedroom.”

-Sandra Roa

See also:

Website: Bedrooms of the Fallen + Ashley Gilberston interview with VII The Magazine.

BagNewsSalon, the BagNews discussion and interview forum, is dedicated to a deeper reading of the key social and cultural photos of the day.

About the Photographer

Ashley Gilbertson

Ashley Gilbertson is a photographer with the VII photo agency, and a principal at Shell Shock Pictures. Gilbertson's photographs from Iraq where he worked from 2002 until 2008, gained him recognition from the Overseas Press Club who awarded Gilbertson the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal. His first book, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, was released in 2007. Since then, Gilbertson has been examining veterans issues including Post Traumatic Stress and suicide for Time Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Times. In 2007, he began working on Bedrooms Of The Fallen, a collection of photographs depicting the intact bedrooms of service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. That series was published by The New York Times Magazine, and went on to win the documentary photography National Magazine Award. It will be published in book form in 2012. He lives with his wife and child in New York City. See more of Ashley's work for BagNews here.

  • Wayne Dickson

    Powerful stuff. The old cliche, If it bleeds, it leads. You’re dealing with the bleeding of heart and spirit that doesn’t show and thus doesn’t lead.

    All these kids. Your photos make the war much closer to home, figuratively as well as literally. It’s hard to feel it when looking at radar screens or even bloody explosions. I for one have never an explosion, but I’ve seen plenty of kids’ bedrooms. This brings the war close. Heartbreakingly close.

  • bystander

    I recall these photos from when you featured them earlier. But, there is an element I would have missed without the narration you’ve added to the slide show. While I was cognizant that artifacts could have been added after the kids had gone, or had died – and, would expected there to have been… And, while I speculated that the artifacts had probably sunk to the level of background for the kids’ who inhabited these rooms as kids… I hadn’t considered the subliminal nature of the symbols with which the kids had surrounded themselves, or the possible effect of those visual stimuli on them. Revisiting these through the photographers eyes gave me a different perspective.

  • DennisQ

    Please don’t call them kids; they’re not children. These were armed adults who voluntarily took part in an invasion of a country that was not a threat to us.

    Their deaths are tragic in themselves, but they did not die defending America. One of the young men is lauded as having a great sense of patriotism because a wanted poster of Osama bin Laden peers out above the beer bottles. But this young man died in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attacks on September 11th.

    We should distinguish between sympathy for the dead and kitsch. These memorials are a way to push away from us our responsibility for the violent way they died. They are not “the fallen” in the sense that some arbitrary tragedy befell them. They were in somebody else’s country as part of a political takeover.

    • bystander

      Hey, DennisQ. Apologies if my shorthand vernacular offended you. I was using kids in lieu of children. They were photographs of some child’s bedroom in the parent’s home. I did not mean to imply a particular age with that choice of word, or particular level of agency. The men and women who once occupied those rooms were, and yet are, someone’s child. Someone’s kid. And, I can think of those men and women, in this context, as someone’s child, as kids from the “neighborhood.”

  • Alonzo Riley

    Photo sets like this always make me wonder what the opposite photo journalistic story would look like: the bedrooms of killed Iraqui’s, of entire families killed by errant or intentional fire, of “insurgent’s bedrooms.” Are we too scared to give the enemy a human face, or is it just too hard?

    • guido

      Alonzo – it’s not Iraq, but have a look at Kent Klich’s Gaza Photo Album:

    • sandra c roa

      Alonzo, During my interview with Ashley, he mentioned that the bedrooms of Iraqi’s had similar items.

  • Pingback: Bedrooms of the Fallen: The Aftermath of War, In Pictures - Matthew Newton - Annals of Americus - True/Slant

  • thomas

    A bedroom is generally a private space (particularly so for young people living at home) and generally not designed for public display. The parents mediate the intrusion somewhat by editing or arranging the room. More than anything these shots signify the depths of parental grief; memorializing physical space is similar to precisely setting narrative and history in that they allow us to properly organize what might otherwise become random and meaningless tragedy.

    What makes me most uncomfortable with the series is the voyeuristic presence, memorializing or not, of being in the intimate, familial, domestic spaces of people on the downside of advantage with respect to history’s configuration. And it’s a complaint of a photojournalistic genre rather than of these images in particular. It always seems easier to gain access to the personal space of vulnerable individuals and populations and document their deprivations, habits, hardships, and losses than it is to get past security and document the world of systematic exclusivity, entitlements and privacy where the decision-makers live.

    Of course everybody, all of us, have nothing but condolences for the families, but don’t parents who lose children to car accidents do this as well? So how does parental grief contribute to the public discussion, and policy issues surrounding these wars? Perhaps the problem with the genre is that it seems to think that despair speaks for itself. But without a demand for justice it is in danger of being casually sentimental.

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