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Remembering NPR Photojournalist David Gilkey


NPR photojournalist David Gilkey and Afghan journalist Zabihullah Tamanna, who worked for NPR as an interpreter, were killed yesterday while on assignment. They were traveling together in Helmand province with an Afghan army convoy when they came under attack by the Taliban. The Humvee they were riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.


NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were in a separate vehicle. They were not hurt. David Gilkey was 50 years old and considered one of the best photographers in his field. He was honored with many awards over the years, including a national Emmy and dozens of distinctions from the White House News Photographers Association.

SIEGEL: David was always ready for an assignment.


DAVID GILKEY, BYLINE: Once they say go, it's no joke.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...It's full on.


GILKEY: It's go to the bank, go to the drugstore, go to the - you know, I don't need clothes.

SIEGEL: That's David at a public radio conference two years ago. He was on stage with our colleagues Kelly McEvers, Elise Hu and Jason Beaubien. For David to be ready to go, he explained, he only needed one thing.


GILKEY: In my case, are my cameras in my carry-on luggage? Can I get off that plane and do the job, you know, instantaneously, even if my - everything else gets lost? I can live - you know, if it's a long enough trip you have the bag they can lose and the bags they can't lose. And that's how you walk out the door and you head to the airport.

CORNISH: After joining NPR in 2007, David went through those steps many times to cover stories around the world. David Gilkey won that Emmy Award just before he came to NPR, while at the Detroit Free Press, where he worked for more than 10 years. He produced a video series about Michigan Marines in Iraq.

SIEGEL: Linda Epstein was his photo editor during some of that time. She says he was the first on her staff to go to Iraq after the September 11 attacks. She told us today that she has a specific photo in her mind from the first night of the U.S.-led invasion.

LINDA EPSTEIN: He was the very first of the Knight Ridder photographers to use night vision and to bring back the photos. I'm seeing just a soldier who he himself is wearing night vision goggles and he's armed and he's just patrolling. And that's what I see. And I can picture the green tint in my eyes. And it was because it was the night vision that we knew we getting all aspects of what was happening in Iraq.

CORNISH: But David didn't always cover war in conflict zones. Helen Richardson worked with him at the Boulder Daily Camera in the 1990s. It was his first full-time job as a staff photographer.

HELEN RICHARDSON: We did a lot of fashion shoots together. We went to the Great Sand Dunes, we did spring and fall fashion. And I would find the models and the clothes, and he would do all the shooting. And that's how I sort of got - introduced him to photography. And we had so much fun. We just were a great team working together, creating these amazing fashion spreads. And I'm still amazed at how talented he was even at a young age.

SIEGEL: For more on David Gilkey's life, we're joined now by Cheryl Hatch. She's a documentary photographer who studied with David at Oregon State University and went on to cover some of the same conflicts. Welcome to the program.

CHERYL HATCH: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: You worked with David at The Daily Barometer, the student paper at Oregon State. How would you describe him back then? What do you remember about working with him back then?

HATCH: Well, he showed up freshman year and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. So he wanted to be a photographer, a photojournalist. And he showed up with the gear. He was feisty. He was a really strong sports photographer, and that's back in the day when you had, you know, manual focus and manual metering. And David had strong skills even back then.

SIEGEL: When you say that he entered college already determined to become a photojournalist, did he mention where that conviction had come from?

HATCH: Well, I do know that he would say his dad was an amateur photographer and had a darkroom. And so David had fond memories of the darkroom and his father. And so he had a love of photography.

SIEGEL: Is there a photograph of his or a group of photographs that for you best capture David's work?

HATCH: Not a single photograph. But I think of the body of his work, and in particular his commitment to the story in Afghanistan and both the civilians and the military in Afghanistan. And, you know, he'd been in since 9/11 and gone back so many times. And so he has a broad, long perspective of that conflict.

SIEGEL: You were in touch with David Gilkey just a couple of days before his death.

HATCH: Yes, I was. We were - I was up in the middle of the night and we were texting back and forth. And I know I actually went back to look at the text message. And I remember thinking, gosh, did I say I love you? And I looked back at the text and I didn't, you know? I know when I left him at the airport and whenever we would talk I would let them know, you know, that he was loved, that I loved him because it's a difficult life. It's a hard life. And, you know, he was gruff and kind of had this tough exterior. But yeah, he was a beautiful, kindhearted man. And so - yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us and for recalling your friend, NPR photographer David Gilkey.

HATCH: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Cheryl Hatch, photographer and visiting professor at Allegheny College. We were talking about our friend and colleague, David Gilkey, who was killed yesterday in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.