In Their Rooms — Photographer Ashley Gilbertson preserves the memory of the fallen soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan by taking pictures of their bedrooms.
… The need to see America’s twenty-first-century war dead, and to make them seen—to give their absence presence—has consumed Ashley Gilbertson for much of the past decade. The initial impulse was purely personal. While he was working as a photojournalist in Iraq, a Marine stepped forward to protect him, and was killed; and Gilbertson was haunted by the feeling that Lance Corporal Billy Miller, in doing what he understood as his duty, had died for him.
In the appalling immediacy of his experience, Gilbertson came to recognize a general truth: that, like it or not, these wars really are ours—they implicate us—and when our military men and women die in far off lands, they do so in our name. He wanted to depict what it means that they are gone. Photographs of the fallen, or of their coffins or their graves, don’t tell us that. But the places they came from and were supposed to go back to—the places they left empty—do tell us. So, to picture death, Gilbertson decided to picture how and where the dead had lived. He set about photographing their bedrooms, many of which had been preserved by their families in much the same spirit that Gilbertson preserved them with his camera: as memorials.
Some rooms are starkly spare; some explode with personality. There is a lot of sports gear and memorabilia; there are not a lot of books. There are rooms that belonged to people blown up by IEDs, and rooms that belonged to people who were blown up by suicide bombers. The only room that is in real disarray—bedclothes scrambled, belongings spilling from bags—belonged to Private Danny Chen, who took his own life in Afghanistan. Seen all together, Gilbertson’s photographs defy any effort to seek in a room’s furnishings an echo of its former occupant’s fate. Their power lies in reminding us of the disconnect between life and death. One of the most elaborately and carefully kept rooms, nearly every inch of which is lovingly decorated, also belonged to a soldier defeated by the enemy within: Specialist Ryan Yurchison, who returned traumatized from Iraq, and took an overdose.
You can spend a great deal of time visiting each of the rooms in these photographs, studying their endless particularities. Gilbertson found these rooms all over the map: in cities, suburbs, and hinterland, scattered across the country. And since America’s story is always bigger than America, and our losses in our recent wars have been shared with NATO partners, there are rooms here from the Isle of Mull in Scotland, from Versailles, France, and from Bitetto, Italy. But one thing that all the rooms here have in common is that they belonged to young people, people just out of high school, mostly, people well on their way to adulthood but still living in their parents’ homes, sleeping in single beds, often with a teddy bear or two looking over them— like children. That is who we send to fight our wars for us, our children. Ashley Gilbertson is right: we should never lose sight of them.
Above: Marine PFC Josue Ibarra, 21, was killed by a roadside bomb on June 19, 2011, in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was from Midland, Texas. His bedroom was photographed in December, 2012. Photograph by Ashley Gilbertson/VII.