Thirteen years after 9/11, the front pages of today’s newspapers are filled with plans for action against ISIS. Barack Obama, who many Americans believed would end wars, is instead starting a new one.
The tweet elicits the common refrain: “nothing has changed.”
But something profound actually seems to have changed—Americans have gotten used to being at war, to the images of combat, and the portrayal of dead soldiers.
Ashley Gilbertson, an Australian war photographer based in New York who covered combat in Iraq for seven years, told Quartz “engaging with something politically is almost a way of sanitizing a situation, of not emotionally engaging with it.” He says, “it’s very easy to go and drink our coffee, to go to the park and sunbathe, to play with our kids and not feel like we’ve lost 6,000-plus lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
That is not because there isn’t enough coverage of soldiers. We see the soldiers’ names and faces, we have never had as much access to knowing about the lives they lived and the wars they fought. But soldiers are dehumanized, equated to one another through a uniform that erases their individuality, transforming them into the vehicles of a country’s safety.
“War is war everywhere,” says Gilbertson. “When you open a newspaper it’s a different uniform, a different color scheme, except it’s always a soldier with his fingers on the trigger doing the same thing. It’s the same picture over and over again, and for us to think that that can have some effect, we are completely lying to ourselves. It’s not having any effect. We need to find different angles to tell the same story.”
Feeling that his own pictures had become powerless, Gilbertson wanted to find a way for the public to ”connect with who is fighting and dying to realize when we decide to send soldiers somewhere, this is what the cost is, it’s not a number, but it’s somebody’s kid, somebody that we could have known.”
He found it in a suggestion his wife Joanna gave him in 2007, after looking at (yet another) photo spread commemorating the losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and getting annoyed that all the dead were portrayed as soldiers. She told him:
“You need to humanize them, to show us that they were people first, kids even, before they were soldiers. What’s left? Their families, but that’s not them. Their bedrooms. You need to photograph their bedrooms.”
Over the following seven years, Gilbertson spoke to nearly a thousand families, asking them for permission to shoot their dead child’s bedrooms, which they had kept intact since before their children had died. (All of the soldiers in the book lived at home before entering military service.) He took pictures of 40 bedrooms in North America and Europe—a limit he had set for himself on a project that could potentially never end and, coincidentally, the number of soldiers in the platoons he used to travel with as a combat photographer in Iraq.
The result, Bedrooms of the Fallen, is harrowing and uncomfortable: in their tangible absence, in their objects they left behind, the victims are no longer soldiers, they are children.
Each of the photographs tells a different story, yet the same—that of a young life interrupted, of a war that still continues, of the true cost of military action.
“I understand that for a lot of people it’s very hard to look at,” says Gilbertson—as uncomfortable as war should make us all.
Here are five photos from Gilbertson’s collection: