Books: The Work of NPR Photojournalist David Gilkey

By David Schonauer   Wednesday November 4, 2020

David Gilkey joined NPR in 2007.

He died on assignment in Helmand, Afghanistan, in 2016, when he and NPR Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna were killed by a Taliban ambush of the convoy they were traveling with.

In between, as President Barack Obama noted after Gilkey’s death, the photographer “captured a breadth of truths across the world and showed the humanity of those he photographed, even under the most difficult circumstances.”

Now a book from powerHouse, Pictures of the Radio, brings together Gilkey’s work, including images taken on assignments in Afghanistan, Haiti, and elsewhere around the world as Gilkey captured conflict, natural disasters and other stories big and small. The book includes recollections of Gilkey by NPR correspondents who knew and worked with him, including Jason Beaubien, Ari Shapiro, David Greene, Julie McCarthy, and Eric Westervelt.

"David knew how to make the familiar seem new, and the foreign recognizable. He snapped big, amorphous concepts like climate change, immigration, and war into sharp, personal focus. Each image in this book is like a dot in a pointillist panorama, reminding us of who we are and what we share in common with the people David saw through his camera lens,” notes Shapiro.

“David loved the company of soldiers and Marines. Partly because many were just like him: smartasses who were real, earthy and profane. He would often tell us — laughing until he could barely speak — their stories, none of which could be repeated on the radio,” note NRP correspondent Tom Bowman and reporter and photographer Graham Smith.

In the book, Gilkey’s mother, Alyda Gilkey, recalls that David learned about photography early in life. “Since photography was his dad Dick’s first love, we had a darkroom in our basement,” she writes. Gilkey began his professional career covering violence in South Africa’s townships, then went on to cover wars in Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Working for the Detroit Free Press, he covered Michigan Marine unit through an entire deployment to Iraq.

In 2019, NPR visuals editor John Poole recalled recruiting Gilkey for the public radio network. “The job fell to me to call his references, and talking to his Detroit Free Press boss Nancy Andrews gave me my first hint as to what David was all about: "You better not hire him just so you can send him out to get local color in the suburbs,” she told Poole.

Gilkey’s other reference, his fellow photographer and friend Chip Somodevilla, put it even more bluntly: "I'm not going to lie — he does like the bam-bam,” he said.

But he wasn’t just an action junkie, noted Poole. “He thought deeply about the subjects and people he photographed and expressed himself through the time and care that he spent making images of them,” Poole wrote. “He could intuit and express a mood just like breathing. He could find the beauty in the most mundane situations and later, I learned, even in some of the most horrible situations.”

“Here was a man whose work and presence affected so many, a man who went into combat zones armed only with a camera to tell the stories he felt were important for people to know,” writes Gilkey’s mother in the new book. “A man who lived twice as long as many thought he would. We celebrate his life and we are grateful that he was in our lives for 50 years, but we are grieving for ourselves because we loved him and wanted him longer.”


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