“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their responses to the four questions below.
– What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
– What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
– What is your dream image or story?
– What advice would you give to your younger self?
For this event, and in this episode, Ilvy is in conversation with Ashley Gilbertson.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, thanks for being here, Ashley, with us. Yeah, really nice. Thanks so much for doing this. I’m sure people will have a lot of questions for you. Everyone who just has joined— sorry, I see people keep joining. Please, when you have any questions for Ashley, put them in the q&a box on the bottom. And I think everyone that’s here is probably here for you. So, they will know you, but maybe as a short introduction, can you tell us what kind of documentary photography you focus on? And when you started, like a little biography of Ashley?
Ashley Gilbertson: Okay, sure. Yeah, so my name is Ashley Gilbertson, I’m a photographer, I guess. Yeah, I’m a photojournalist. I’ve been working for the past 20 something years, since I was a boy. I started out as a skate photographer. And my interest quickly moved into the street and into social issues. Actually just came across the picture when I was looking for the images for this presentation. But there was an image that I made that sort of transitioned me away from skateboarding very early on in my career, which is Cypriot women, holding photographs of the children who have been lost during the war. And they were begging the Australian government to try to help them find out what happened with their kids. And when I made that picture, I think it was back in like 1994, or something like that, or no, maybe ’96 When I was 18. The importance of that image versus all of the images I had made prior pushed me into, you know what I’m doing now. So, I thought about actually using that as one of the pictures for our discussion, but then it was a little bit self- indulgent.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: In which way?
Ashley Gilbertson: Well, in that it’s important, it was an important image, because it was important to me, and it propelled me to become a photojournalist. It’s not important to anybody else. Maybe them, you know, but it’s not a picture like, I think the conventional understanding of conventional, I guess, like, the wider understanding of what’s an important image, as far as impact or influence goes, is a different definition that we’re talking about today. I don’t know I’ve struggled. I’ve actually struggled dramatically with trying to edit for this today.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Because I think it’s quite difficult. Because the question is literally, what is your most important, most important photograph? And of course, you can look at so many things that are important in photographs. It could be the story; it could have been important to you. I mean, it could have been anything. But yeah, I’m curious to know which image you did end up with for your most important, so if you could either first tell us or start screen sharing right away. It’s up to you.
Ashley Gilbertson. Yeah. Okay. I can start sharing on the Preview, if you see that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yep. A hundred percent.
Ashley Gilbertson: Okay, so I chose a few different images for which I apologize. I’m sort of accidentally going to address the failures at the same time as the, what I regard as pictures that had some impact in my career. Because in the end, obviously, that the only reason we do all of this stuff is to have impact, right? Otherwise, we don’t do it. So, I don’t— I know that this picture, for example, this is an image of a United States Marine in Tikrit in Iraq in 2003. And this is just after the invasion had taken place. Tikrit was the last major city in Iraq to fall. So, this is the moment when the Americans thought that they had won the war. And this— I mean, honestly, I made this picture. I was and still am a photojournalist that didn’t really know what he was doing. So I’m learning, I’m very curious, and I’m learning as I go, and I’m speaking to everybody as much as I possibly can and reserving judgment and just trying to be as honest and as open as I possibly can be. So, when I got to Tikrit, I went around and there was so many photographers there, you know, all these big shots and people that I’ve looked up to, and I was freaking out like, you would, you would turn up and you’ll see the Americans doing like their house to house clearing. And that’d be like 40 Marines about a kick in the door of some house and across the street, 20 photographers. I’m like, oh my god, what like this is, I’ve got no place here. So, I went to one of Saddam’s old palaces. And one of his palaces that they’d occupied. And I walked inside, and I found these Marines doing like tourism. They were just going around like room to room and looking at the beds and the carpets. And this guy said, I’ve always wanted to do this, and jumped up on this banister and slid down. So, when I got back to my hotel, where I could send pictures, I sent this one through to my photo agency as a, like, as a silly postcard as a silly funny picture.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Wow.
Ashley Gilbertson: I didn’t think it was an image that I would ever file. It was literally just a silly, funny picture. And the next thing I knew it had been featured in Time Magazine, in double page spread, and then selected as a picture of the year in the magazine. And since then, it’s gone really viral. Like it just keeps coming up over and over again. It keeps being used in memes. It’s used to illustrate different examples of what took place during the war. And one of the things that I liked about it. Besides this being a moment of joy, and humanizing moment for, in this case, a Marine. It’s an image that’s been used by various people to prove different points. And I think that that’s one of the gauges of successes that we have as photographers, when you can make an image that hopefully creates some question and curiosity, but also doesn’t necessarily prove one point. So, if I’ve got a picture like this, that’s being used by, let’s say, people who supported the war, to say, like, look at the great thing that we did in Iraq, and then the same picture that’s being used by people who don’t support the war to say, look at the naivety of the Americans who went into this place without, well, without, right. So, I think this, you know, in that, in that grand sense, like this picture represented a lot. And on a more personal sense, it’s definitely one of the most important pictures I’ve made. Because if it’s—I hate to say this, and I sort of always hate this picture, for this reason, but I guess we all need one of these, at some point, it launched my career. I went from being somebody that nobody knew to all of a sudden, the guy who took the picture the guy on the banister.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I can imagine. It went all over.
Ashley Gilbertson: When I got my first assignment for the New York Times, they said, I mean, I had Ruth Fremson, who vouched for me at the paper. But um, the photo editor immediately knew me because of this photograph. When I tried to join this photo agency, VII, I went up to Boston, and I met all those guys, like all of the founders. And I was introduced to them by a mutual friend. It’s the guy who took the slide.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. No, people. No, I mean, all over the world, photojournalists know this picture. I mean, it’s being used in schools to talk about photography. It’s everywhere.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. It’s been everywhere. And then, but then like, I mean, I guess we’ll get to impact in a minute. So then, like, that’s one that I thought maybe. This is a more recent example of a picture that had some impact let’s say. This is a picture of Eugene, officer, Eugene Goodman. This was during the siege of the United States Capitol on January 6. And some of you guys might be familiar with this image that Eugene Goodman, it’s on and off here sometimes. But um, so Eugene Goodman stopped for a short period, the rioters as they came into the Capitol and stormed the capitol as a way to try to prevent the vote from being approved by Senate and House. I have a lot of pictures from this day, but this is the picture that went, you know, that really spoke to people. And, of course, you know, my colleagues, Ron Haviv was there, Mark Peterson was there, Christopher Lee were there. And we all have, you know, a version of this picture. For whatever reason, this is the picture that started getting attention very quickly after the riot. And I mean, personally, I don’t think my picture is any better than anybody else’s there. I do know, though, that this picture went out before anybody’s.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Ah, so you were quicker.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. That’s—which is generally the thing in news, right? Like, it’s not about being best. It’s about being first.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. In a way, it’s quite true. But who published it first, then?
Ashley Gilbertson: The New York Times Magazine.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. So, this picture has gone on, this picture went very viral as well. And it’s funny because I think in the past, maybe 10 years ago, we would have said, like, this picture was published in newspapers around the world, and blah, blah, blah. But now it’s like, how do we reach people? Right? It’s social media.
This picture has been written about by academics, went viral, it continues to go viral at different times. It obviously — scene that we’re looking at. So, a friend of mine, who’s an academic at the Harvard Art Museum, wrote about it and talked about the issue, not just of what Gene Goodman is doing, as a hero on this day, as a very rare moment—well, the only real moment of something that we can be proud of on that shitty day in the United States. But also, as a question of race. These racist protesters walking into the Capitol and occupying that place, and this lone black police officer standing his ground in the same halls, in the same hallways, as stood the men who held down African Americans in the United States. So
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: A lot of double meanings behind this picture that, yeah.
Ashley Gilbertson: I mean, to me, like, when I look at it now, you know, like, looking at the white hands in the foreground. You know, it speaks to the only reason I mean, and to be perfectly frank, the only reason that I’m behind everybody is because I thought he was going to shoot into the crowd, and I wasn’t wearing armor. So, I needed to get something back between me and him.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Which was the person in front of you, the people in front of you.
Ashley Gilbertson: One of the one of the protesters, right. So, this, this picture was also a finalist, as part of a group entry from the New York Times the Pulitzer this year, and it’s been collected by a bunch of museums. It’s, you know, it’s in various textbooks and so on. So, like, this picture has definitely had impact. It’s moved a lot of people but like, quantify impact, ya know?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah.
Ashley Gilbertson: And that’s where I struggle. I mean, I to talk about this picture, like, how did this? Did this change anybody’s life?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well
Ashley Gilbertson: In a positive way, or a negative way? I don’t know. Like, I can’t answer that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Probably it has, of course,
Ashley Gilbertson: Like we can’t, there’s no way we can gauge.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, of course. Don’t people reach out to you, though, after— there must have been people reaching out to you after this published in the New York Times Magazine,
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. I get, like tons and tons of messages. Yes. But those guys are still out here. Like the massive polarization of United, American and global society still exists, the rise of the hard extreme right continues to explode in popularity. Racism is still very front and center. Like this picture didn’t change shit, nor any of my stuff. So, I have been—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So, in a way, you believe you’re making a change, and then like as a photojournalist in general, but on the other hand, you’re now saying, I don’t believe it changes anything? Or?
Ashley Gilbertson: No, I know, that’s, that’s— No, on one hand, I’m saying, I don’t believe my work has any profound effect on anything. But on the other hand, I’m saying I’ve got no choice. Because what else do I do? Like I’m not getting into politics, I’m not qualified to, I’m not qualified to do anything else. Like the only gift that I have been given or I have worked towards is this, is using photographs as my language to try to amplify the voices of the people that I see in the world, or to try to cast light on things that I think are problematic.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: But personally, I feel the images that came out that day did change, it shifted something in the thoughts of many people, I feel, but I don’t know, I’m not an American. But these pictures went all over the world. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. You’re right. You can’t quantify it. You don’t know.
Ashley Gilbertson: Except in the times that you can, right? So, I was in Ukraine earlier this year. And this is not like, this is new. This is not normal for me, but I’d just come from Congo, where I finished another story about deforestation of the Congo River Basin and I came almost immediately to Ukraine. And I went from city to city. And I met with Ukrainians. And I came across this boy, Danilo.
So he’s 13. And this is how he was living on a front line between Ukrainian and the Russian military. The house, well, first of all, his mother got shelled on the street. And so, she went to the hospital and she was going to lose her foot that was going to be amputated. They couldn’t afford medical treatment. While his mother was in hospital, his house got shelled and then it got burnt down. All of the male relatives in his family, including his father, were on the front line in the East. And then he just had his grandmother to live with. They had to move out because the house was now burnt to the ground. The cat that you can see in foreground then gets hit by shrapnel. And then Danilo and his grandmother have to move behind Russian lines and live with a stranger because they’ve got nowhere else to be. So, out there listening to his story, I’m on assignment for an NGO, for UNICEF, and I was going to do a fundraising campaign for UNICEF, which I did. But hearing Danilo story, sorry, meeting his mother in hospital, like this is the first time that he had seen his mother, since she was injured. It was too dangerous for him to actually get to hospital to meet his mother. And this proud, strong young man who was really charged with looking after what was left of his family, he walked into the hospital and starts crying like this with his mom. And you can see like this, this strength, you know, this internal strength in this boy who has been forced to grow up far too quickly in this awful environment. But now, and you know, this image with his mother, you can see the vulnerability of him as well. And so, in a case like this, I made the decision to do a fundraising campaign for him.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, you did it specifically for him instead of for UNICEF in general. That’s beautiful.
Ashley Gilbertson: Right. So, I didn’t follow. So, we raised five grand for him, five grand for UNICEF, separately. And so, as a result, his mother received the medical treatment that she needed. And now she’s out, like, very recently, actually, last week, she’s out of hospital and she got to keep her foot as a result.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Wow!
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, I mean, the people, our readers, you know, the people that support the work that we do, sent, supported Danilo. So, I think, as far as impact, to me, like that’s impact. People who support the stories that we tell, support the victims of these, these—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s so amazing.
Ashley Gilbertson: To me, that is really profoundly moving. So, I mean, I’ve been thinking more about.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Are you still in contact with them?
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, yeah. So, that’s another way of doing this. And then on both a personal and professional level, to me, the only example really of an image that is important, that had impact both in my life and a broader impact is this one, which is shot in 2004 in Iraq, and it’s called the University of Jihad Motherfucker. It’s an insurgent that the Marines had shot during the Faludja offensive, which is why you can see the patch on his back and the blood coming off him. I went into conflict with the idea of trying to understand how we could pick up guns and try to kill each other. Like what it is that drives us to do that, because if I could understand that, then maybe I had a chance of stopping it. And I tried and I tried, and I tried and I don’t think I really understood until I did. And it was go to war. We’re not fighting against, you know, it’s not Ashley versus Ilvy. It’s a concept of who I am and what I represent versus a concept of who you are and what you represent. It is not an individual. It is a is an idea. And a philosophy that you’re fighting against. It is an intrinsic core belief that you’re fighting against. This photograph is not, you know, Muhammad who grew up in Ramadi and has three kids and a wife at home who love him dearly. And he’s standing up for what he believes is his country to be, the right of the Marines he has shot. The US Marines. He has shot somebody that was trying to kill them. That represents al Qaeda who attacked the United States on 911. And the Marine, the silhouette above him, I mean, neither of these people here identifiable. That’s the point of the picture. The Marine that’s standing there, that’s not Billy Miller from Pearland Texas.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s the whole Marines.
Ashley Gilbertson: It’s George W. Bush, it’s America, executives, foreign intervention, it’s arrogance. It’s symbolic, like this. So, this is the, this image went far and wide as well. It’s been used a lot in museums, in academic texts. It’s been published very, very widely throughout international media. So, to me, like, from a personal standpoint, trying to actually express the little bit that I learned about war, this is the picture that—
And then, in addition to that, the image got a little bit wider circulation and hopefully impact on people. So, I think to me, that’s probably the only one that I would select, in answer to your question. So that was a half an hour-long answer to it. Yes. Sorry.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So, out of these images, three, right, we had three we had the sliding, we have this one.
It’s it’s four. So, it’s the slider?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, yeah, of course.
Ashley Gilbertson: Then Danilo and then that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So, I love all of them. And I know all of them. And that’s not because you’re a colleague within VII, it’s because all of these images moved across the world at a very rapid speed, like I used to see them literally, like you say, you see them popping up everywhere, especially the sliding one, and one from the Capitol are images that you literally see in memes, in textbooks, in museums, everywhere. It’s everywhere. So, I’m curious to know, because you mentioned when we started, that there was a failure in all of them. But what I’m still trying to grasp because I have the feeling you are mentioning that because you feel it’s a failure, that that the world is not changing because of our or your images.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Is that the failure part that you mentioned?
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. I mean, you said like, your other—your second question was an image that you tried to make and failed, right. So, I feel like, I mean, to me, I feel like that’s all of my work. I mean, the only important picture that I have to really make is the next one that is hopefully going to be successful. Like none of the work that I have done has achieved, too me, any level of success that I require in the work. I’m not doing. I’m not doing this job, because I want to be in some fucking cool kid club with a bunch of photographers, or because I want to be a voyeur to historical events. I’m doing this because I have very firm, I have absolute conviction that we can be better as human beings, that we can be less racist, that we can be more fair, that we can share what we have, that we can stop treating other people like shit, that we can like, make a decision, go and buy a shirt and try to buy something which is produced ethically rather than a shirt that is like fucking workers in Bangladesh. We can make a profound change. And constantly trying to do that with all of my work. I don’t think any of it actually has any real effect. I don’t think any of it has led people to find an electric vehicle that has cobalt that is sourced around Congo about cobalt. It had some effect on the industry, but barely. I mean, my work in war, like I did, I did a series on bedrooms of fallen soldiers as a way of like trying to humanize and personalize who it is that fights and who it is that’s lost. Because I recognized as a result of this image that the only way to combat war, the only way to combat actual combat is to humanize and personalize who it is that’s fighting.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I agree.
Ashley Gilbertson: How many wars? How many wars have there been since then, like, I know that I live in a total dream world in which we can be the photographers that stop all war. But fuck it, why not? Like why not live in a dream world? Why not?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I totally believe it’s possible. I also believe that that your images do have impact. Yeah, so I wouldn’t call it a failure. I’m wondering if you have any pictures in mind, maybe of other photographers that literally changed the world? Does that happen in your— do you feel that happens?
Ashley Gilbertson: Gosh. I mean, yes. Like—
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You’re being a bit tough on yourself, like, oh, the work has not changed the world. I believe your images have impacted people, and therefore it makes changes, kind of like the butterfly effect. You don’t know what—
Ashley Gilbertson: And that’s, and that’s the world in which like, yes, I agree with you, Ilvy. That’s the, that’s the world that we occupy. Right? Like, we have to hope that the butterfly effect that we are responsible for has a positive effect, a net positive effect, because nothing will always have a purely positive effect. But— I mean, I went to a talk the other night up the street and Nick Ut was there with the picture of the little girl who was burned by the napalm, and she was there, and Nachtwey was there, amongst others. And there was there was a couple of things that I learned from that presentation, like I was pretty moved by, you know, meeting a woman who’s actually in the photograph. So passionate. But seeing that picture in yet another context, like how many times have we seen that picture of little girl running on the street burned by napalm so many times? It’s still has such a profound impact when you see it, it is so, so awful. It is such an amazing image. That picture unquestionably had a massive effect on American foreign policy in Vietnam and America pulling out of that place. The way that humanized and showed us what was taking place now. I think images like that have had an effect. I think that images like Ron Haviv shoots, you know, like images that Ron made during Bosnia, for example, that were used in trying, in the International Criminal Court, or in The Hague, I think it was to prosecute war criminals, that’s quantifiable, and a strong and important impact.
Ashley Gilbertson: Nachtwey said, and I can’t quote him exactly because write it down. But it really moved me and sort of gave me hope in what we’re doing. He said that there’s no end to this. There’s no like, I mean, in context of what we’re talking about, there’s no picture that’s going to stop this. There are pictures that you might make, that will have some impact on stopping the thing that we’re looking at, whether that’s the war in Iraq, whether that is polarization of politics, and the rise of the right wing. Whether that is a refugee crisis, these images may have some effect on that particular issue. But as soon as— like, you’re not going to stop all war, you’re not going to stop the problem, the difficulty of global disparity. As soon as you’ve taken a picture, and done a story that maybe has some impact, you’re moving on to the next thing. As soon as one thing is a result, another thing begins. And so, hearing that from, you know, somebody who is older and wiser than I am, gave me hope, like, I know that this is not a sprint, like we are all in a marathon and we will all be, we’ll all be born, and we’ll all die without seeing any effect. But we can do that, which is try and then wake up again tomorrow and try again.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s so true, that sometimes you really feel like oh, okay, here we go again. I don’t know if it’s going to work or I don’t know, it’s if it’s going to have the impact that I want. And sometimes, well I don’t know what you, but I really sometimes also feel a bit miserable about the lack of it. Yeah, you have to Yeah, you have that in the same way that you feel a bit hopeless sometimes, I guess. I don’t know if that’s the right word. That’s the word I would use for some of my images that it’s a bit hopeless.
Ashley Gilbertson: Absolutely. That’s the word.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it’s like, doesn’t change that much. But I also truly believe, well, it’s the butterfly effect that does keep me going to be honest. Um, by the way, sometimes you are breaking up a bit, but I’m not sure if I’m the only one hearing that. I thought maybe it’s my internet, so I didn’t mention it, but
Ashley Gilbertson: It could be. It’s probably my internet. It sucks here. Yeah, I don’t know why I live in New York City and like the internet sucks.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, even though when you break up, we can still totally make out what you’re saying at least I can. So, I think others can too. Okay, so let’s move to the third question. Because that’s answered your second question, right? The photo failure, or is there any image you want to show for that?
Ashley Gilbertson: No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So, what is your dream, image or story? And it doesn’t have to be a real story. It doesn’t have to be a real story at all. It can just be something made up in your mind that’s totally unachievable in any way. But yeah.
Ashley Gilbertson: Well, I mean, I think this one, I’ve been trying to find a way to elaborate on my answer. And I don’t know if there is any way but my dreams. My dream photograph is one that changes the world in a profound and positive way.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Like the napalm girl image.
Ashley Gilbertson: Right. I mean,you were covering, you were covering the crisis, like the refugee crisis in ’15, 2015- 16 in Europe. I mean, a lot of us were, right.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah.
Ashley Gilbertson: Seeing how those men women and children were being treated by Europeans.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Horrible.
Ashley Gilbertson: Fuck that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, absolutely.
Ashley Gilbertson: Absolutely disgusting. Outrageous. And we can look at ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves human beings. When we act like animals towards these people who are the most vulnerable, the most desperate?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah,
Ashley Gilbertson: My dream assignment is to make images on that, is to see you make images on that, is to see my colleagues that make people say, Oh, my God, they’re just like us.
Ashley Gilbertson: And that could be us one day. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen, except I want that. That’s what I want to happen. My heart, since I’ve been a boy has always been rooted in trying to telegraph this idea that we all share the same hopes and dreams and fears. Regardless of how we look, we should treat each other with kindness and with dignity and with respect. I will continue to do that until the day I die. But I don’t—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to help. I’ve been working for over 20 years. But what’s happened to society? My focus always comes back to the same thing, which is the world’s most vulnerable, which is refugees. For me, refugees. Look at refugee policy around the world today. It’s much worse than it was 20 years ago. We have a fence built on the Mexican border in the United States. We have fences built on the on the European borders, We have like, we have border guards in Poland, stopping blacks from Africa coming in, but allowing white people to come in. So, sometimes I look back at the work that I’ve done, and I say maybe I’ve actually caused more problems, because policy has just gotten harder and harder.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, I wouldn’t say well, I don’t think it’s because of you or us or photojournalists. I think in general, I don’t know how it happened, but society is becoming more right. Well, I’m talking about Europe now. But it’s all over the world, I think. And yeah, it’s, I don’t know, it feels a bit hopeless at times. But I also always try to keep it those same, like showing people that they are the same people with the same hopes, dreams and fears. I always tell people that when teaching as well, like that’s what you want to achieve in an image, but somehow, the them and us kind of, yeah, it’s difficult to show people that we’re the same.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yep. Yep. I know.
Also, my aim to show people and it’s quite easy when you can show images and talk about it and tell stories. People usually feel like oh, wow, yeah, that could have been me or that’s us, or they are the same. But that’s when you’re standing on a stage and talking about pictures, you feel there’s a connection somehow being made. But it’s more difficult when the pictures are in the newspapers with a story somehow.
Ashley Gilbertson: I know, and this is like this is going to have some of the I don’t know, like I’m think I think a lot about how we communicate and how we like our jobs as photographers, right? Like, yes. Traditionally, it’s to work with a media outlet and publish and hope that there’s going to be some big impact from the image. But then I sit down with people like you and with those of us that have joined today, or I sit down with somebody at a cafe, or I do a presentation at a museum, whatever, and like these sorts of events, sometimes feel like they have more effect than like the big splash in the newspaper or the magazine.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s true. Yes, it’s true. I agree.
Ashley Gilbertson: I wonder, you know, like maybe like, I know, like, I’ll be in communication—diversity, not diversity. Sorry. Well, yeah, like diversifying your message. So, you’re using education, you’re using exhibitions, you’re using presentations, you’re using media, you’re using social media, like traditional media and social media, like every single part of it, hopefully has some effect.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Hopefully. Yeah, I agree. Hopefully, let’s keep keep the let’s keep the hope and the spirit. I see there are some questions coming in. But I haven’t read them yet. So, it’s always let me see, let’s start with the top one. I’m not sure if you’re seeing them there in the q&a box. And anyone else who has a question, please put them in the q&a box. The first question is from Ken. Your photos of January 6, were very powerful, or were powerful and adding to work very, I think they were very powerful. What were the most important things you did to A, think in advance what you might encounter and 2, to think, move and click in the heat of the moment?
Ashley Gilbertson: Sorry. So, in advance of the day, I didn’t think anything was really going to happen. Because those those people had been to Washington numerous times before. They had mounted protests in other parts of the country. So, I accepted the assignment from my editor, thinking it was just going to be another political rally. Okay, I was completely wrong. So, I did absolutely no preparation whatsoever. I mean, I turned up the day before, I went to my hotel room, and like Ron, and Chris and Mark, everybody were out working. I mean, Ron was literally texting me like there’s fights on, I think it was K Street anyway, like, there’s Proud Boys fighting with protesters. And I was like, whatever, I’m doing yoga.
I totally like, thought is going to be nothing. So very much wrong in that sense. But then, in the heat of the moment, I mean, it’s the, I think it’s the same way that we all work like me, and Ilvy around the world, which is it’s common sense, where you’re putting safety first. And because, I mean, we are not useful as dead photographers, right. And we’re certainly not useful as photographers who got robbed of their cameras, we’re not useful as photographers who have their like, faces punched in by a bunch of protesters. So, you move in a way that hopefully keeps you protected. So, you know, if, as an example, there were numerous times on that day where it was pretty clear that I was being threatened by various parties.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Being like people wanting to take your cameras or pushing you, okay.
Ashley Gilbertson: Right. So, in those moments, you move, you do your best to get out of the situation. And you can usually guess, when that’s about to happen. Sometimes you can’t, and you’re just grabbed and that happens, except I guarantee that every single person in this presentation, everybody who’s listening, and you and I both have been in a situation in which you see the look. Yeah. And that could be at a bar, like everybody here knows that look, it’s a thing that happens. And it’s a split second, and you know that that person will cause trouble. Yeah. And so, to me, that’s when I leave, I move on. And sometimes it’s worth staying because the picture is very, very important. But largely it’s not worth staying, because there’s a picture somewhere else. So, I think that answers it, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes, I think it does. And I think you’re very right. It’s, with myself, I usually notice that I’m sometimes triggered or not triggered to stay when that, when I see that kind of happening, I’m like, Okay, I want to stay I want to stay. But in the end, it’s usually not worth it. Right. Usually, you’ll either lose a camera or yeah. Or worse. So, there’s another question coming in from Nica regarding what was discussed about the impact of photography, in your opinion, what is journalism for? Or what should it be for? I love this question. Yeah, I will. I’m happy you’re getting this question, not me. It’s not easy.
Ashley Gilbertson: This is funny. I was just talking about this last night with somebody Um,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, well, that makes it a bit easier.
Ashley Gilbertson: So, journalism. First and foremost, for me should be an honest and factual accounting of history as it’s taking place. As photojournalism goes, it should be produced with integrity and with as close to objectivity as we can. I mean, I don’t think that we can be objective, but we can certainly be honest and curious. So, when I’m sitting around, and the cat sitting around, running around in the Capitol on January 6, like, I’m still operating with curiosity. I’m not going to argue with anybody, I’m not going to shout at anybody. I mean if somebody punches me, yes, I’ll punch them back. And I’ll shout at them. And but that’s—as far as conversing goes, I will listen. And I will try to photograph it as I see it, as representative of what I am seeing as a news photograph as I possibly can. So, journalism should be a factual record of what we’re seeing. But beyond that, and like, what it is and what it should be, to me are the same thing. Like we can only answer for ourselves, right, like the only person we really know and the only person that we can represent is me. I think that VII represents a broader idea of what we believe the world should be and what we believe journalism should be, which is why I’m part of this agency. But what it’s what it should be, and what it is, is a public service. First and foremost, this is a public service to hold people who are acting in a way that is taking rights away from the vulnerable, holding them accountable, and shedding light on people that don’t have a platform that we have. Shedding light on the issues that they face and trying to, well, hoping that that has some positive effect on their lives.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s a beautiful answer. Did we all write this down? I hope someone did. No. It’s all being recorded. Thanks. That was beautiful. There are two more questions. Oh, three more questions, four. Okay, we’re going to run out of time, but we’re going to try to get to them. Jack is asking, do you think we are desensitized? Is that the word? Desensitized. Anyway, to images showing human conflict due to the vast quantity and daily access we have to it on social media? Very interesting question. And how do you feel about—oh, that sentence—however, at least it is possible to clearly document the events that are happening around the world. I think there’s a part missing there. But let’s go.
Ashley Gilbertson: I think I get it. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You get it. Okay, good.
Ashley Gilbertson: I do think we’re desensitized to images showing conflict. I mean, there’s no question. There’s a— I think Simon Norfolk described images coming from— including mine, images coming from the Iraq war at one point as an open sewage pipe spewing forth images, which is a lovely compliment to receive from a colleague. There are so many thousands, tens of thousands of images being produced at any given time of anything that we’re looking at, including conflict. So yes, like, we’re going to be desensitized. But that, to me, creates a space for photography which is more narrative driven, which is more personally driven. I mean, like the stuff I was talking about before from Ukraine, when, you know, when I had a conversation with my editors at UNICEF about that. We outlined clearly what the goal of the work was, which was to very much personalize who was, you know, who was most at risk and what their stories were. So, you know, I have colleagues who are doing very, very, very important work, which is on the hard frontlines where there are soldiers and where there are tanks and where there are people, you know, dead bodies on the streets, vital images, that in this case of Ukraine, I didn’t see my role as being in that space. Being on the frontline space. I could see that my colleagues were there, and they were doing very powerful work. And I could see that maybe where there was a slight hole in the coverage in that moment, was more on the rear lines, you know, like a kilometer away from the frontline way from the fighting except the people who have been very, very dramatically affected by it and trying to tell their stories more at length. So, I think that we can make, we can create a space for empathy and that really powerful images of difficult conflict, they’re going to continue to have power. But yes, of course we’re desensitized. And then is it possible to clearly document events that are happening around the world? No. It’s definitely not possible to clearly document the events happening around the world. I am one human being that will give you one perspective on one story. And almost always across the board with very rare exceptions that is somebody else’s story, not mine. I’ve always got a plane ticket out. I’ve always got this apartment back here in New York. Well, unless I don’t pay rent. I’m always going to be from a different background with a different understanding and a different cultural perspective. I can’t clearly document anybody’s story. I can do my best to represent it honestly. And with love, or with a fierce critique, let’s say, or with objectivity, in the case of news, but clearly documenting it. No. There’s no clarity man anyway, like there’s no clarity. The more gray it gets, it’s impossible.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: The more, yeah, exactly. The more you look into stories, it’s yeah, it becomes more complicated.
Ashley Gilbertson: It’s a nightmare. I wish things, I wish I was 18 again, and everything was like, ah, black and white.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, this story, I can tell this. And it’s so simple. Yeah, no, no, unfortunately. Dominique is asking, oh, this is more— Dominique, it will be great if you could email this question, actually, to us at, I don’t know. There must be a general email address on the VII Insider website, I’m sure. If you could reach out about this. That would be lovely. I’m sure it should be fine. But I don’t know. To be honest. Um. Paulo, Hi Ashley, on a lighter note. How do you combine— I love this question—how do you combine running and smoking? So, people who know Ash quite well knows he’s a runner. And he also takes pictures of running, like extensively, right? And you’re a smoker. Please tell me about this. That’s what Paolo is asking. I’d love to know, too.
Ashley Gilbertson: There’s no answer to this. Like I do it. I bet some of you guys like, drink like fish, and then like, go out and do crazy cycling. Okay, fine. It’s my lungs. Except like, I could run faster if I didn’t smoke, but I love smoking. And I love running. So, I just I just do both.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You just combine. Perfect. There we go. Um, oh, no, there’s so many. Okay. Let’s do it this way. I’m going to ask you my last question. Yeah, because otherwise I’m not even getting my four questions in. That’s impossible. And then if we have time, because we have to end at like five past the hour. But then we’ll go back to the questions. So, thanks guys for asking so many questions. It’s actually really lovely. And we’re going to try to get to them. So, Ash, my last question to you is, what advice would you give your younger self?
Ashley Gilbertson: Oh, man. I didn’t know. I mean, I thought about this.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Short, short answer.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, work harder. Don’t stop.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Work harder. Is that your advice? I’m surprised. You know why? I think you’re working like crazy.
Ashley Gilbertson: Right? Except it’s not hard enough, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I don’t know. If you feel that way.
Ashley Gilbertson: When the newspaper is filled with like stories— like, look, I was in Australia recently, visiting my family, seeing friends had one really dear friend who said, you know, we were talking about happiness and how Australia is. And he said, Well, I guess I could be happier. When we get that response from everybody we meet around the world, then I’ve worked hard enough. And yes, I’ll work really hard. And you work really hard. We both work really hard. Except it’s not hard enough. If it’s still fucked up everywhere, everywhere we seem to look, every time I pick up a stone there’s like some tragedy underneath it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s true.
Ashley Gilbertson: I would love to get to a point where more people around the world are saying, well, I could be happier. What an amazing response.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah, right. I like your answer, but it’s also a big—looking for the right word like it’s a—
Ashley Gilbertson: It’s not a burden, I think. I mean, I don’t see it, maybe it is, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a sense of responsibility. Like, we live in a world that we share with billions of other people. So, in the same way that I share with you and the same way that I share with my family and my friends, why can’t we do that on a more global scale?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, true. Very true. I agree. I agree. Thanks for the beautiful answer. Let’s see how many questions we can get to from our q&a. Let’s start with John’s question. Your striking image of the Ukrainian boy who lost his home and feared for his mother’s life reminds me of William Albert Allard’s photograph of the Peruvian boy whose sheep are killed by a hit and run driver. I think I know this image. In both cases, the image moved individuals to give and make an impact, helping one human—sorry—helping one human being feels attainable, whereas stopping massive issues like racism, war, famine, fascism can feel so overwhelming to the viewer. Maybe that’s the answer.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. It’s really well said. But definitely, the struggle, John, is like, we’re going into this trying to address war, famine, fascism, right? Like we’re going as photographers, we’re going in and we’re looking at an issue. Like when Ilvy goes to Ukraine, you’ll, Ilvy, you’re going to be looking at the war. Like that’s— the assignment is the war. But once you get there, you start like drilling down, like you’re making it more and more and more personal. So, I think you’re right, like maybe that that’s an answer. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I agree. Well, I think it’s much easier. Yeah. Like you said, to connect to individuals, to stories of individuals because you feel connected more, well, sane people do. There are some other kinds of people that really don’t seem to care. But that’s a whole other story. Shawn is asking, is there something that you can share about the decision that you made for editing for color or black or white for your photos? Oh, I’m curious too.
Ashley Gilbertson: Honest, there’s the honest answer here and then there’s like the over-romanticized answer.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Do the honest one. Okay, do the other one,
Ashley Gilbertson: It’s a mix except like, Shawn, I was talking to Avery about this last night. There are times— that’s a mutual friend. There are times that you make an image black and white because it just looks shit in color. Let’s be straight, right? There are also times you make an image black and white— like a lot of my, a lot of my running pictures are black and white purely because I’m shooting them all at nighttime in awful light on my phone. Like, if you saw my color files, you would die. They are disgusting. They’re so grainy, they’re so pixelated, but you convert it to black and white, it gets all, it looks like grain now and it gets all crazy. And it’s cool. Like it looks great. Yeah, sometimes it’s purely aesthetic. I mean, it’s always aesthetic, right. But there are other moments in which I think that black and white actually lends itself to pulling information, I mean millions of layers of color, right? pulling all this information out of it. And helping the viewer enter this space that you’re trying to bring them, which is an emotional, vulnerable space. So, looking like I’m looking at images on my wall now from the zine that I’m making. Some of them in color. And it doesn’t take away from the emotional content. And some of them are in black and white. And if those black and white ones were in color, it would be taking away from it. When you have like, bright orange light on somebody’s face in the afternoon and a deep blue sky and like bright green trees, all of this like it becomes so pretty, you actually lose the feeling of the image. So, I think in times like that, I do convert it to black and white or I shoot black and white film, purely to try to get the emotional message across like, and this goes back to who I am as a photographer though, which is I don’t get hired or I don’t shoot pictures to show how something looks. I shoot pictures to show how something feels.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Oh, that’s beautiful, beautiful way of saying that. It really yeah. I’ve never heard that actually. But it’s so true. When you don’t feel anything when looking at an image something went wrong along the creative process there.
Ashley Gilbertson: Exactly. Yeah, yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, there’s more questions. Yeah. Thanks, Ted. I didn’t understand your question. But I figured there was a spelling mistake. The question is I saw you on Creative Live. Do you still get tongue-tied when you approach young women for a photograph? What is tongue-tied?
Ashley Gilbertson: Tongue-tied is when it’s like, when you choke up like, boo-ba-bla-ba.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, do you do that? Ever?
Ashley Gilbertson: No. It was it was the— Okay. Yes, sometimes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, really?
Ashley Gilbertson: That was really embarrassing. So, I was like, it was this like street photography course for Creative Live, like how to shoot pictures on the street, like how to approach strangers. So, they went out and they filmed me like photographing people on the streets in Seattle.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, that’s so difficult when they film you when you’re photographing.
Ashley Gilbertson: More difficult, right? Yeah. So, like, I’m talking to people and there’s always people shutting me down like no, don’t take my picture. But you know, like as, as we all do, like you need to get a name and age and a profession for a caption And then like some sort of contact information so that should you need to fact check later on you can. Yeah. So, there’s this moment where there was like a lady coming up an escalator from a train station and I took a picture as she hit this nice light. And she came at the top of the escalator. I think I said something like, hi, can I have your number? Hell was wrong with me. It was so embarrassing. It was so dumb, but it was like, I don’t know. So yeah, like I’m normally, I’ll say like, my name is Ashley Gilbertson. I’m a photographer. Can I please have your name. Is it okay if I have a contact number or email? That was that was an outlier. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You kind of accidentally skipped that essential part.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I see. Okay. Lovely. Okay, we have two questions left. I’m gonna leave James’s question as the last question, because I really liked that as an end question, and Gavin is asking, hey, Ash, when we spoke when Russia invaded, you mentioned you wanted to go and document the war, but that you had obligations in Congo? You made it over to Ukraine after that job. How does your approach to these kinds of situations change based on the timing of current events?
Ashley Gilbertson: I look at a question of necessity. So, when the invasion, when the full-scale invasion took place in Ukraine, I could see that there are a lot of photographers that had decided to drop everything and go there. So, I had an assignment in Congo that I’d been working on for a very long time, trying to get out there on the deforestation story. And another story that’s coming out, I think, tomorrow, about charcoal. So, I looked, you know, the way that I conceive it is I look at the amount of photographers that are in a certain place. If there’s 1000, photographers in Ukraine at that moment, and 10, in Congo. I’m gonna go to Congo. Yeah, I’m much, much better suited to these environments where there’s less people, because I feel more of a call. Like, I know that my colleagues in Ukraine are going to do a very powerful job photographing a very important story, and I don’t need to be there. You know, my voice isn’t that special that I’m going to just, I’m going to add something, you know, make it 1001 photographers. And I’m like, number one who’s going to bring it all home? No. My colleagues are very fucking good at their jobs and I trust them. But I see that my colleagues don’t have the same opportunity to go to Congo, in this case. So, I went to Congo. And then I went to Ukraine afterwards, as people started leaving a little bit.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien:Yeah. Yeah. Because that happened quite quickly as well. Right.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Quickly. Yeah. I would say quickly,
Ashley Gilbertson: I would say quickly. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Yeah, it’s, but it’s interesting. I think that also comes both ways. You know, all the photographers, are there. The media have a lot of attention for Ukraine. And then, it’s not only because the photographers that are leaving that makes the story— I mean, it’s also the newspapers printing less about Ukraine, and then you kind of have to leave because no one is taking your images.
Ashley Gilbertson: Exactly. Well, then this goes back to the desensitization question.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. Yeah.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, it’s up—I mean, and this is where it comes, like it becomes up to us to find alternative angles on a story that has become too familiar. I mean, us as media.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Something that connects you to the story that makes you understand how dire it is, and how painful it is to be that person in a different way. Yes, yeah. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not easy. Um, okay. The last question is for James. And it’s, I love this question because, yeah, I’ve had to deal with this sometimes as well. How do you prevent yourself from becoming too involved in a story that you lose objectivity?
Ashley Gilbertson: I don’t. I don’t prevent that at all. There’s no way I’m going to turn off my, there’s no way I can turn off my feelings to something that I’m covering. I can be cautious with my responses to how I’m feeling, but I can’t be objective. I mean, I tried for a long time, but I can’t be. I have a human response to the stories that I’m covering. So, the best I can do is be honest about that response, which is fair.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, go ahead.
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah. Like I can’t— Like, define too involved. What is too involved? Is Philip Jones Griffiths going to Vietnam over and over and over again too involved? No. I mean, I don’t think so. No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Is helping people too involved? No, obviously no.
Ashley Gilbertson: I mean, sorry. Like, from my perspective?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Can you help a person? Let’s say you’re on assignment for New York Times, and you want to help a person in some way?
Ashley Gilbertson: Yeah, I mean, like, on the Congo story, for example, like, we were on a boat, going down the Congo River, photographing these logs that were floating on the river. As we get closer to Kinshasa, we’re still maybe 100 kilometers out, maybe 80. We came across a little, a little float of these logs. And there was a little girl in this tent that they had built on top of the logs who was very, very, very sick. And the parents were like, We don’t know what to do. It was still a week away from you know—because it was flood—we’re still a week away from the hospital. So, we took her in our boat to go to the hospital. Of course you can help. Yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, the answer to James is, there’s no way of becoming too involved.
Ashley Gilbertson: Well, I don’t like, I’ve got no fear of being too involved. Like I want to be, I want to be involved. I mean, defining how much is too much? I’m not going to sleep with a subject. I’m not going to, like, pay for a story. But like, my empathy and my heart is something that I share with the people that I’m photographing. And that’s not going to stop.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Sorry, go ahead.
Ashley Gilbertson: I mean like I will aspire towards objectivity. But all I know that I can really answer is honesty.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Do you see yourself as an activist?
Ashley Gilbertson: No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay. I was just curious. The question is quite in line with this as well. There are many journalists that are, photojournalist as well and I’ve never felt like I am an activist. I don’t see myself as one at all. But I was curious to know. Yeah. Ash we could go on and on. I would love to and I think the people in this chat also would have loved to. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a lot of love coming into the chat as well for you. People sharing links and yeah, there’s, it’s quite unusual to have so much response so I think the fact that you’re really sharing from your heart is doing a lot to people. I see the chat just filling up.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks for being here everyone, but yeah, Ash thanks for being here, for sharing all that you did and for being so open about all of this. It was really beautiful. It was touching to hear you speak about the way you work and how much of your heart goes into this profession. So, thanks, and thanks everyone for listening and please check the VII Insider website for all the next things that are coming up in the upcoming months. Thanks, Ash.
Ashley Gilbertson: Thank you everybody.
Ashley Gilbertson: Thanks, Ilvy. Thanks, everybody.