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If you've been following this site, you know I've been taking in images from Ashley Gilbertson's book, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, based on the extended time he spent as a war photographer in Iraq.
In this shot, we see an American soldier snapping a photo of a dead Mahdi Army fighter. The Iraqi was killed in May 2004 in the course of an overnight grenade-lobbing battle in a Karbala amusement park between insurgents and troops of the First Armored Division. According to Ashley's caption, Army policy is to leave Iraqi dead for other Iraqis to recover and bury. As a result, the body was still on the street the next morning.
Based on Ashley's text, the soldier is taking the photo because the scene is "an object of curiosity for GI's."
The allusion reminds me of a bumper sticker that was popular during the Vietnam War. It read: "Join the Army: Travel to exotic distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them." Of course, the slogan has everything to do with cynicism and next-to-nothing to do with insight. Still, looking at an image like this, it makes me think hard about the intersection of war (especially a U.S.-instigated cultural and religious war) and personal digital photography and video. (You do remember this, right?).
Call it a mixing of metaphors, but at a perverse level, where does a shot like this depart from the sphere of work-a-day war fighting and become, a lá the bumper sticker, a sadistic exemplification of tourism?
At the same time, I'm interested in the politics of the shot, and the curiosity of one shooter -- a professional -- shooting an amateur.
As Gilbertson conveys throughout the book, the largest portion of the shots he ended up with were the result of his -- and the visual media's -- limited access to the war. That being the case, one thing this picture captures is the irony that the troops -- so many of them with a point-and-shoot on their person -- had the media in their pockets, while the war photographers, and by extension, the rest of us, had next-to-nothing.
I wanted to bring you a couple more images from Ashley Gilbertson's Whisky Tango Foxtrot.
With the passage of time, we become more brutally capable of differentiating "progress" from "reported progress." As well, these two shots expose what Iraq became after 43 got his hands on it -- which was, and remains, a set.
One way to get underneath a massive photo op, a sick reality show, is to film the filming or photograph the photographing of it. Ashley, in his curiosity (and evolving disgust), knew well to pull back. (It also occurs to me that all good war photographers understand their ultimate client is posterity.)
Image 1 makes me think of Joseph Heller and Catch-22. In its pathetic simplicity (love the water bottle!), it implies that the Donald show was the cheapest, most make-shift, anybody-can-do-it kind of affair. And oh, the fantasy life of the Iraqi power station!
As Ashley summarizes:
Bill Roberts, a civilian public affairs officer for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, delivers remarks at the Qudas power plant. The military called in the press to celebrate the opening of the plant and claimed it would return much of Iraq's power to the electrical grid. In fact, the plant was not yet finished because of a lack of spare parts.
And of course, who can forget those inspired national elections and the creative way in which Bush/Rove, playing form-over-substance once again, creatively gave us the finger.
In my introductory post to his book, I don't believe I mentioned Ashley's fresh and completely honest style of exposition. I have to share his caption for image 2:
Wire photographers pose a soldier to photograph his ink-stained finger, signifying that he had voted in the December 2005 national elections. The habitual practice of setting up pictures annoyed me, but when I saw a photographer climb a high post and direct hundreds of soldiers into a more dynamic composition, I was shocked.
"I was shocked." I love it.
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.
I found this a tragic, if fitting image to offer you today, the fourth anniversary of the pronounced end of major U.S. combat operations in Iraq,
One month ago, the NYT ran a story about the lead up to, and aftermath, of a sectarian killing in Baghdad. The photographs were taken by Ashley Gilbertson, a freelance photojournalist who has been working on contract for the Times in Iraq since 2003. The photo -- taken on his last trip over March and April -- appeared inside the print edition, but never made it into the on-line slide presentation.
Ashley has provided the image to BAGnewsNotes so it might be viewable on the web. He supplied the following background about this symbol of still another Iraqi life lost:
Ed Wong and I had been out for a few days on an embed in Baghdad when we chanced upon two Shiite militia men attempting to evict a Sunni family -- Suaada Saadoun and her family of seven -- from their home in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood. American and Kurdish soldiers intervened and arrested the two men, then returned to base. The next morning we found out that Suaada had been assassinated on her way home from the market. I accompanied the Americans to the house and the crime scene. I saw her family grieving, the bullet that killed her, and the upper plate of her dentures that had fallen out when she was killed.
That night, I edited my pictures and began filing them to New York. I usually transmit very few images: my computer screen draws sniper fire even while on base, and my satellite phone's bandwidth is minimal if the signal isn't inadvertently jammed by the military. I didn't include the dentures photo in my first edit. I second guessed my editors, thinking it was too grotesque an image. When the fourteen pictures I initially chose went through almost immediately, however, I decided to send it. To the papers credit, the story appeared on the front page with the photo of Suaada's dentures.
I've received a lot of messages about Suaada's teeth. People seem to respond to the image because dentures are something with which they are familiar; they could relate to Suaada regardless of how different their lives are from hers. I still find the scene troubling -- when I was photographing them on the ground, I found them both difficult to confront and impossible to ignore. One woman's death, to me at least, became symbolic of the scores of people who die every day in Iraq. I only hope that people viewing my picture can feel it in the same way.
If you have questions or comments for Ashley, he has agreed to participate in the discussion thread.
Ashley Gilbertson is author of the forthcoming book "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War". Image © Ashley Gilbertson. Baghdad. March 28, 2007. Used by permission.