In a revealing and deeply personal article this summer in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Gilbertson contemplates his role as a Iraq war photojournalist. On one hand, the war gave him a reason to carry on his career: "In Iraq, I had a purpose, a mission: I felt important."
On the other hand, Gilbertson was battle-weary. He didn't want to return to Iraq, but he needed the war for a completely wrong reason: "I wasn't ready for it to end."
He returns to Baghdad, covering the U.S. troop surge in hostile neighborhoods. On a IED-clearing mission, he photographs a sergeant guarding the street. Gilbertson runs back to the Humvee for safety and lights a cigarette to calm his nerves.
Suddenly a huge explosion rocks the vehicle. An IED has killed the sergeant. Gilbertson is shocked again. Moments before the sergeant was alive and all was well. "I ended up being the guy who engaged him in his last conversation," Gilbertson writes. "I took the last photograph of him alive." The VQR article, accompanied by numerous Gilbertson photographs, goes on to describe other incidents of violence and suffering.
For Gilbertson, this last trip to the war proves unsatisfactory. The cruelty is too much and his sense of mission begins to fade.
Covering the war used to make me feel like I was doing something important, but I have grown to accept that Americans will not stop dying because I take their pictures….
Gilbertson's story can be found at the Virginia Quarterly's website, www.vqronline.org.