By Donald R. Winslow
UPDATE: The parents of NPR photojournalist David Gilkey, killed last Sunday during a Taliban ambush in southern Afghanistan, have announced plans to hold a memorial service for their only son at the Portland Museum of Art on July 8, 2016, in Portland, Oregon. - Editor
ATHENS, GA (June 5, 2016) - Photojournalist David Gilkey and his translator, Zabihullah Tamanna, have been killed in southern Afghanistan in a Taliban ambush, according to Gilkey’s employer, National Public Radio.
NPR said the duo were on assignment and part of a four-person team who were traveling in a five-vehicle special forces convoy with an Afghan Army unit in the Helmand Province when they came under heavy attack Sunday. NPR says their other two journalists were not injured.
Gilkey, 50, was an extremely experienced war photojournalist, having covered conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and dozens upon dozens of wars and natural disasters.
This afternoon his good friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photojournalist Tyler Hicks, reached in France, responded to news of Gilkey’s death.
“It’s so very hard to know where to start, because very few photographers have the dedication that David has when working in war zones. There is a very short list of people who can be really counted upon, due to their experience, and the kind of people you can trust to have your back, to make the right decisions. And David was one of those people."
Gilkey and Hicks, friends and war photographers together for some 20 years, have been in the thick of it many times before, in dozens of countries.
“Running into David in the field always put a smile on my face,” Hicks told News Photographer magazine today. “Seeing David offered some comfort, just knowing he was around, that there was a certain amount of understanding that I was in the presence of someone who could help me in time of need. On top of that, David was an incredible photographer and a loyal friend and a legend in our business.”
Hicks observed that while many photographers have “moved on” from Afghanistan, the dedication that’s typical of Gilkey had him still working on very dangerous turf.
[AT LEFT: President Barack Obama greeted David Gilkey, one of the White House News Photographers Association's award winners, in the Oval Office on March 12, 2009. Official White House photograph by Pete Souza]
“David’s dedication to covering Afghanistan and countless other dangerous countries really shows the fact that he was still out there, still going to places where people have seen many photographs from for so many years - because he still cares, and he wanted to document a world that even when everyone else had stopped covering those places and gone home, his dedication never waned. David kept going, and that’s not something that could be done because someone asked him to do it, it had to come from a place of complete care for the people that he’s documenting.
"David more than anyone understood the risks that he placed himself in, that being there as an observer to their condition put him in the same situations and in the same danger that they were living with. And that is the definition of real dedication and passion and drive, to do something that is important.”
Gilkey is not the first dear friend Hicks has lost in combat. One cannot help but to be reminded today of the death in Misrata of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, another close friend and comrade of the Times photojournalist.
“It reminds us, thinking of Chris and Gilkey, that this is all still going on and that it’s even more dangerous now than it was before, because we don’t have the support that was built into a lot of these places anymore, which makes it even more difficult for someone like David to continue to do the work.
“The very fact that David was still out there, I salute him for being there. What he was doing was important, and he left behind a great legacy of photography and a great, great number of friends.”
“Working with him closely for five years at NPR, there were lots of trips and lots of time to think about this, but I never came to grips that it might actually happen,” Keith Jenkins, his former NPR boss, told News Photographer magazine today.
“This time, seeing what the NPR team was doing and what they were posting and doing good work and actually having a good time working together, it comes very much out of left field.”
Jenkins said that NPR has never really stopped covering the war in Afghanistan. “So there have been many regular trips, multiple times each year. And now the story has been of transition from the American to the Afghan forces. This week they were embedded with the Afghan Army and they were really telling the story of what the mission is and they struggles the Afghans are facing right now. I think in this particular instance, they’d been there for about a week, maybe a little longer.”
Jenkins said Gilkey is survived by his parents, who live near Portland, OR, and that the photojournalist had been living out there for a couple of years to help them but had recently moved back to Washington, DC.
When Gilkey did a large story a few years ago about taking the railway across Russia to Siberia, Jenkins said the story was a “real transition” for the photographer away from his conflict photography to show the artistic side of his work as well.
But Gilkey eventually returned to documenting war.
“The hallmark of David’s storytelling around this topic was that he wanted people to know that we still have people in harm’s way every day, and while it is no longer on the front page in the way that it has been and while it’s been transitioning away from U.S. military support, that’s why he kept doing it.
“He got an award from the Marine Corps for covering their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Marines told him how much what he does means to them, and of all the things David was proud of that was one of the main ones, and it’s because the award was about him telling a story that’s so easy for everyone to simply forget,” Jenkins said.
Gilkey was a staff photographer and videograhper and editor for NPR covering national and international news. He was one of the first unilateral journalists to cross the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan while embedded with the U.S. Army, covering both wars since they began following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
His first newspaper job was at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and he worked for the Detroit Free Press until he joined NPR in 2007. Before Boulder, Gilkey studied journalism at Oregon State University.
During his career he won many awards, including being the White House News Photographers Association's Still Photographer of the Year, and he was part of the NPR team to win a George Polk Award in 2010. He received a 2007 National Emmy Award for his video series, "Band Of Brothers," about Michigan Marines serving in Iraq. And in 2004 he was the Michigan News Photographer Association's Photographer of the Year.
In a statement tonight U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "This attack is a grim reminder of the danger that continues to face the Afghan people, the dedication of Afghan national defense and security forces to securing their country, and of the courage of intrepid journalists -- and their interpreters - who are trying to convey that important story to the rest of the world.
"David Gilkey certainly never shied away from conveying those stories, whether there in Afghanistan or Somalia, Haiti, Gaza, Iraq and dozens of other places around the world. He was more than a gifted photographer. He was a gifted storyteller, who understood the power of imagery to enhancing the power of understanding. He will be sorely missed. Teresa and I send our thoughts and prayers for these courageous individuals to their colleagues, friends and families."