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See what a real-life war photographer did with The Last of Us Remastered's Photo Mode

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The Last of Us Remastered on PlayStation 4 includes a Photo Mode, in which players can manipulate freeze-frames of the game and turn them into images of post-pandemic America ... images that also happen to show off the PS4's technical chops and developer Naughty Dog's stunning art. The act of using the Photo Mode barely resembles — not that it's meant to — what war photographers do: put their own lives at risk in real-life combat zones to document the casualties and consequences of armed conflict.

On its photo blog, LightBox, Time magazine decided to combine the two as a thought experiment. Time assigned Ashley Gilbertson, a photographer who has covered conflicts such as the Iraq War and Afghanistan War for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and others, to play The Last of Us Remastered and see what he could come up with in its Photo Mode.

Gilbertson said he "loved the concept," and dove in with a plan to capture the best possible image of each scene or level. But he quickly found himself overwhelmed, not just by the requirement of fighting his way through the enemies, but also by the graphic violence on display.

"After a short time playing it, I noticed I was having very strong reactions in regards to my role as the protagonist: I hated it," said Gilbertson. "When I covered real war, I did so with a camera, not a gun. At home, 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. I felt like this could well be my last assignment for Time."

He added, "It sounds extreme perhaps, but I'm wired that way."

Instead, Gilbertson brought The Last of Us into the Time offices and had someone else play for him, and then took over just to use the Photo Mode.

"That's when I started to make better images — the whole experience resembled an actual embed, with someone doing the fighting and me taking photographs," said Gilbertson. However, he explained, the experience of using Photo Mode ended up being very different from his typical method of photographing war zones. The game allowed him to stop time and endlessly tinker with a freeze-frame to produce a "perfect" image. But that's not how it works in the real world, and perfect images aren't the kinds of photos that Gilbertson likes to create.

"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," said Gilbertson.

Check out LightBox for a full gallery of Photo Mode images from Gilbertson. His latest book of documentary photography, Bedrooms of the Fallen, consists of black-and-white images of the bedrooms of 40 soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq; it was published in May. For more on The Last of Us Remastered, check out our review update.

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