What happens when a real war photo journalist is assigned to cover the end of the world… the end of the world in the form of a zombie apocalypse?

In the fall of 2014, TIME Magazine did just that.  The results are both chilling and compelling.

TIME Magazine assigned war photographer Ashley Gilbertson to cover a video game.  Not the launch of a video game. Like his assignments in Iraq, Gilbertson was sent to shoot photos of a conflict, but in this case, as an in-game player, inside the zombie epic The Last of Us (Remastered), and using the game’s built-in “photo mode.”

In a day of combat in Iraq, I’d generally file between eight and 10 photographs per day. I figured I could do the same thing with this assignment. I was wrong. In combat, I need to be in position, prepared for a shot, and I’ve only got hundredths of a second to make it before the situation changes and I have to move on. There’s one moment, one frame. Within the game, I could freeze time. I had unlimited time to experiment and find my shot using different angles, depths of field, exposure, grain, vignettes and lenses. The zen approach to how I work in the field is lost within a gaming console. There, I had the opportunity to second-guess myself every time I hit pause.

While this may sound like an advantage, Gilbertson explained that it resulted in pictures that were “too good,” making them seem unnatural, and staged.

An additional challenge was that I could make photographs that seemed almost “perfect”. 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.  It was too clean. The last thing I wanted to do was to advertise the game, so I tried to mess with the photos a little. Put unimportant information in the foreground. Tilt the camera. Pull back too wide. I needed to make the shots imperfect because, I believe, imperfections make photography human. In advertising things look perfect. In journalism, there’s always something off. What some people see as visual weaknesses in our work, I see as part of our tableau.

Gilbertson describes how the game began to take a toll on him.  While covering a war, he used only a camera, but the game expected him to battle his way through some situations, decapitating people, and shooting people at point blank range.

I’d play for 30 minutes before noticing I had knots in my stomach, that my vision blurred, and then eventually, that I had simply crashed out.

So Gilbertson moved into the TIME offices, and hooked up with a contributing photo editor, and avid gamer to help him work his way through the various levels.  His partner would clear a level and then hand the controls to Gilbertson, who could then use his photography skills and get the shots he wanted.  It was very much like embedding himself in a troop of soldiers in Iraq, while they cleared an area, which afforded him some protection while he took photos.

One of the other things Gilbertson found distressing was the lack of expression and emotions of the characters.

None of the game’s characters show distress, and that to me was bizarre – it’s a post apocalyptic scenario, with a few remaining humans fighting for the survival of their race! …In the end, their emotions mimicked that of the zombies they were killing.

The entire experience gave Gilbertson additional perspective on an issue that he faces all the time as a conflict photographer. “How do we reach a readership that is accustomed to seeing people dying en masse in war zones, as a result of games like this one?”

What did Gilbertson take away from this assignment?

…a couple things… the work I usually do is an antidote to the type of entertainment this game represents and that I suck at video games.

If you’d like to see some of the results of Gilbertson’s adventure in The Last of Us, check out some of his photos below!

If you’d like to read the entire article of Ashley Gilbertson experience with TIME Magazine’s photo assignment, you can find it here: http://time.com/3393418/a-war-photographer-embeds-himself-inside-a-video-game/

Header image (c) Ashley Gilbertson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Scroll To Top