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As NPR Goes Digital, Photos Become Essential To Storytelling

Zabihullah Tamanna (left) and David Gilkey in Afghanistan on June 2. Monika Evstatieva/NPR hide caption

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Monika Evstatieva/NPR

Zabihullah Tamanna (left) and David Gilkey in Afghanistan on June 2.

Monika Evstatieva/NPR

NPR remembered colleagues David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna at a memorial service at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum on Tuesday morning. Gilkey, an NPR photojournalist, was killed in Afghanistan on June 5 with Tamanna, NPR's Afghan interpreter and a fellow journalist. As NPR's The Two-Way reported, "David and Zabihullah were on assignment for the network traveling with an Afghan army unit. They were in an armored Humvee driven by a soldier of the Afghan National Army. All three were killed after the Humvee was hit by rocket propelled grenades in an apparent ambush."

NPR posted a number of tributes to the two journalists in the days following their deaths, including links to a number of Gilkey's pictures, and recollections from those who worked with Tamanna. In the wake of their deaths, I also heard from some listeners who wondered why NPR — which stands for National Public Radio, after all — employs photojournalists. For those who encounter NPR primarily on the radio, it is perhaps a logical question.

The short answer, of course, is that NPR has long ceased to be a radio-only operation. While radio remains a primary focus, NPR, like any media outlet that wants to survive these days, also needs a strong digital presence. That means images have become an integral part of its journalism, to accompany the articles (and links to the audio versions of stories) at NPR.org and on member station websites, on Facebook and, experimentally, on the mobile listening app NPR One.

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A man carrying a shotgun walks through a collapsed burning building while trying to keep looters at bay on the streets outside Port-au-Prince, in January 2010. Read the stories from Haiti. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gilkey/NPR

A man carrying a shotgun walks through a collapsed burning building while trying to keep looters at bay on the streets outside Port-au-Prince, in January 2010. Read the stories from Haiti.

David Gilkey/NPR

Michael Oreskes, NPR's news chief, told me that when Gilkey was hired, NPR "recognized that no news organization can be only in one form of distribution. We have to be in digital, and digital now means half a dozen different things. So our roots are in radio and we are still very focused on radio, but NPR.org has 30- something million viewers every month, and that's a visual platform. Yes, it's true that radio is for your ear and the visuals on radio are the pictures we paint with our words. But there are lots of people who want our kind of journalism, but they want to get it in a different way."

Oreskes pointed to an NPR One experiment last year that married Rebecca Hersher's audio reporting with Gilkey's video and images from Afghanistan. "It was a wonderful, moving, beautiful marriage of her lovely radio, audio story and his visual imagery. It's an essential part of the storytelling," Oreskes said. An online version of some of that work can be seen here.

Gilkey was "a wonderful storyteller," he added. "It wasn't just that he was a photographer; he told stories in everything he did."

Indeed, Gilkey was at the top of his craft. His work was part of NPR's coverage of the Ebola epidemic that was honored with a Peabody Award, and he shared in NPR's 2010 George Polk Award for "Brain Wars: How the Military is Failing the Wounded." In 2011, Gilkey himself was named Still Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographers Association; in 2015, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting bestowed on him an Edward R. Murrow Award, the first it gave to a multimedia journalist, citing his work documenting international breaking news, military conflicts and natural disasters. He came to NPR off winning an Emmy Award for his work at the Detroit Free Press.

Gilkey himself used to laugh about being a photographer at a radio organization, friends and colleagues recalled. "He did joke about it a lot," said Chip Somodevilla, a staff photographer for Getty Images, who was a close friend. After being hired at NPR in 2007, "he had his reservations," Somodevilla recalled.

The question — "Pictures on the radio?" — was raised, not just by outsiders, but also by some within NPR early on, Somodevilla said, adding that Gilkey confided that he felt some colleagues were less than welcoming early on, not understanding the value of video and images. He said that was one of the biggest accomplishments of Gilkey and his NPR Visuals team colleagues (who number about a dozen people): "Making people at NPR believers in visual storytelling."

Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Espinoza wipes the sweat out of his eyes at the end of a daylong patrol out of the Sangin District in southern Afghanistan in May 2011. Read the story. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gilkey/NPR

Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Espinoza wipes the sweat out of his eyes at the end of a daylong patrol out of the Sangin District in southern Afghanistan in May 2011. Read the story.

David Gilkey/NPR

All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro recalled in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting that Gilkey "arrived at a time when everybody knew what NPR sounded like. Nobody knew what NPR looked like. And NPR decided to hire staff photographers to create a visual language to accompany online the stories that we hear on the radio. And so he created that visual language for NPR in a way that I think whoever follows in his footsteps now knows what NPR looks like. What it looks like is what David Gilkey saw through his camera lens."

One of radio's advantages is its intimacy; listeners hear subjects breathe, and hesitate and laugh; sometimes they choke up. Although he was working in visuals, Somodevilla said, Gilkey's style matched that of radio, where the microphone is often just inches from the subject. "David was never content to shoot with a long lens," he said. "He wanted to be as physically close to his subject as possible, so that his photographs portrayed a high degree of intimacy."

Ariel Zambelich, an NPR visuals editor, said the pictures Gilkey sent back to the office "were always right up in someone's space," showing a physical closeness that is difficult to pull off as a photographer, "without feeling you're invading someone's space." But as a result, she said, in Gilkey's images, "you're sharing the space with the people in the photograph."

"That really is what David did. He did things in an NPR way," Oreskes said. And that kind of storytelling "is very much a part of the future of NPR, and public radio, which is reaching people with our quality of journalism where they are."