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Credit: 80993299: picture alliance / dpa

David Gilkey still exists

If you enter his name into a search engine, his pictures come up: the body of a three-year cholera victim in Haiti, soldiers in the Fort Jackson US army centre, special forces troops in Afghanistan, aid workers in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic. Wherever it burned, Gilkey was there. He was in Iraq, Rwanda, the Gaza Strip, South Sudan; His photos are like a tour of the world’s trouble spots.

He didn’t return from his last trip. It took him to Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for 16 years. On 5 June 2016, he was travelling with his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna for the US radio station NPR, when his convoy of five vehicles was ambushed by the Taliban. They fired at the cars; the vehicle where Gilkey and the interpreter sat was completely destroyed.

David Gilkey suffered the same fate as those he photographed dying.

He knew death better than others; he knew the risks he was taking. Nevertheless, he invariably returned to danger zones. He visited Afghanistan so many times that he eventually lost count. In a video recorded before his death, he says: “It is important to me to make things visible and ask: Do they change our thinking, do they challenge us to take the initiative ourselves? Ultimately, I think it's always about getting people to intervene.”

David Gilkey came from Portland, Oregon. The local newspaper, The Oregonian, reported that his mother, Alyda Gilkey, also spoke at his memorial service. She told about how adventurous David was as a boy: he could barely stand up when he managed to travel across the whole room by rocking his crib, couldn’t sit still in class, and was stubborn. “When he wanted something, he got it.” The only time he kept still was when he was looking through the camera lens.

David’s father took him into his darkroom and taught him photography. At school he attended a photography course and later the University of Oregon, although he dropped out of there. Graduating was not important to him; David Gilkey wanted to work, to see the world and capture reality in pictures. He worked for the Detroit Free Press, The Knight Ridder, and since 2011 for NPR (National Public Radio), the best radio station in America. His photos and videos were shared online. He won countless awards and was voted photographer of the year by the White House Photographers Association. He was 50 years old when he died. After his death, tributes were paid to him throughout the world.

US Secretary of State John Kerry praised his work and condemned the attack on him as “a bleak reminder”

of the dangers faced by the Afghan people, local security agencies as well as intrepid journalists and their interpreters. Gilkey's NPR colleagues chose a favourite photograph of him and wrote down their thoughts and memories about it. One of the photos shows schoolchildren in Kabul being served food; the girls wearing white headscarves on the left, the boys in white shirts on the right. They wait, jostle, or are in a world of their own; only one girl in the centre of the picture looks straight into the camera with her deep black eyes.

It is a photograph that is more like a painting. Gilkey's colleague Rebecca Hersher was there when it was taken. On the NPR website, she recalls that David Gilkey spent the whole morning in the playground. The children laughed at the big, strong man with the baseball cap and heavy cameras over both shoulders. Like cats, they rubbed up against his legs, at first cautiously, later more confidently, tugging on his trousers and jumping in front of his camera. He put up with it, smiled and waited for the children to forget he was there. Then he pressed the shutter release.


written by Anja Reich; chief reporter, Berliner Zeitung

  • David Gilkey

    The US-American photo journalist David Gilkey was a much valued photographer, who was acknowledged with many awards. For almost 20 years, he captured moments of calamities, epidemics and wars all over the world. Thereby he often ended up in Afghanistan. On his last trip in June 2016 on behalf of NPR, one of the most renowned radio stations in the USA, he and his colleague Zabihulla Tamanna died as a result of a targeted attack.

    Find out more about the story of Zabihullah Tamanna.