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An award-winning war photographer futilely attempts video game photojournalism

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Ashley Gilbertson / Time

If anyone could capture the terror, desperation, and occasional joy of surviving the apocalypse, you'd think it might be award-winning war photographer Ashley Gilbertson — a man who spent years covering the Iraq invasion for The New York Times. This week, for Time magazine, Gilbertson "embedded" himself in (also award-winning) video game The Last of Us, using its built-in photo mode to capture shots of protagonists Joel and Ellie making their way across a dead but still hostile landscape. Gilbertson, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder during the war, found the game too bloody, intense, and disconcerting to even play himself; he took the controls only to operate the camera.

But the photos? The photos, even at their most dramatic and well-shot, are bland.

Gilbertson hints at this in his piece on the series. With the option to replay a section or freeze the game, "it wasn't hard to make images that recalled posters for a war film, or that might be used in an advertising campaign for the game itself," he writes. And when he tried to echo famous war photographs, he found that he couldn't get characters to react with any kind of emotional urgency. "In the end, their emotions mimicked that of the zombies they were killing."

Gilbertson War Photography

A photo from Ashley Gilbertson's Iraq: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Gilbertson ties this to our ability to desensitize ourselves by experiencing extreme violence through "nonchalant" characters. Some of it is simply technical: the roughly contemporaneous Beyond: Two Souls was sold on the strength of its cutting-edge motion capture, but its models looked stiff and plastic compared to the real actors. And, obviously, the most imperfect shots were still capturing things the developers had planned, not the fleeting moments that photojournalists look for. Perhaps the larger, overarching problem with these photographs is that most fiction leaves little of the unexpected to grasp at.

"Their emotions mimicked that of the zombies they were killing."

These are some photographs from Bedrooms of the Fallen, Gilbertson's latest book. He found the families of American soldiers who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan and took pictures of their still-preserved rooms, which were full of posters, stuffed animals, cheap electronics, and other everyday artifacts that we don't associate with the violence of war. Games have certainly included diaries or personal effects from dead enemies for dramatic purposes. But if they choose not to, you can't look up a character's parents in a phone book. Virtual people are never going to give you a "behind the scenes" look at their lives. You can't humanize somebody who doesn't exist.

Video games in established genres have to be familiar enough for people to pick up the mechanics even while developers are trying to create a fresh narrative. They have to have replay value, and value for people who don't particularly care about the story. They have to be fair — you rarely want a game to randomly break its own rules. Massively multiplayer games like DayZ can still be fascinating, but in "serious" single-player games, none of these things are conducive to capturing the human inconsistencies that make photojournalism interesting. If war photography is often about breaking through the sanitized image of war, maybe the most subversive thing you can do in a game is to expose the actual glitches and cracks in its humanity, where tidy fiction breaks down and designers' sleight of hand is laid bare.