David Gilkey Was 'An Incredibly Thoughtful' Photographer In The Midst Of Plight NPR's Jason Beaubien says David Gilkey, who died this week in Afghanistan, had a talent with his camera for distilling unfathomably large disasters into human-scale stories of grief and loss.
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David Gilkey Was 'An Incredibly Thoughtful' Photographer In The Midst Of Plight

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David Gilkey Was 'An Incredibly Thoughtful' Photographer In The Midst Of Plight

David Gilkey Was 'An Incredibly Thoughtful' Photographer In The Midst Of Plight

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR's Jason Beaubien first met David Gilkey at a departure gate in the Miami airport. It was January of 2010. Haiti had just been hit by a devastating earthquake. It was the start of what Jason came to call travels with Gilkey.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Several disasters and a few years later, David and I were in the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan had just hit. We landed in the middle of the night at the destroyed airport. We tried to sleep under a tarp next to the runway. And he started talking to me about how bizarre it was to get off that plane and see 1,000 people cowering in the wrecked terminal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAIVD GILKEY, BYLINE: I turned on my headlamp and all I saw were all eyes. Did you see that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GILKEY: Really weird. I've never come in anywhere where - like, even in Haiti where - Haiti we sort of knew where to go to set up a base. And this really was - we still don't have the foggiest idea of what we're going to do.

BEAUBIEN: Our lives seemed to converge in some of the most difficult places in the world, and David was always ready to jump right in. He'd say, hey, man, and off we'd go. Just physically, David was big and could come across as gruff or imposing. He shaved his head and often had a short beard. But underneath this burly exterior, he was incredibly thoughtful. And he was very sensitive to the plight of the people we were trying to cover. This is from an interview about the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GILKEY: This guy goes riding past me on a bicycle, and I just kind of watched him go off into the distance. He went sort of climbing up into the remains of his house. And I went over, and he picked up this shoe. And he just held it up and he started crying. And I wasn't taking pictures. And he said, this is my mother's. This is all I have.

BEAUBIEN: I came over and started talking to the guy. Then David picked up his camera. In just a couple of frames of one man's grief, one man's loss, he told the whole story of this inconceivable disaster. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, one of his photos was of a 10-year-old boy dying on a beach and everyone was too afraid to touch or help him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GILKEY: We got down to the beach and just off the sand was this little boy sitting on a bucket. And he was not wearing any clothes. He was surrounded probably by about 50 people, sitting there naked, alone, shivering and sort of - I wouldn't call it breathing, but panting. It was shocking.

BEAUBIEN: His photo of that boy captured the fear, the helplessness in the epicenter of the outbreak. David was a quirky guy to travel with. On all the trips we did to incredibly hot places, he always refused to put on sunscreen, even when his shaved head was peeling and red. But then at night, he would pontificate on the secrets of skincare in the desert - moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. He viewed frequent flyer miles as a competition in which I was always losing.

And he loved to tell the story about the time he cashed in 100,000 miles or something like that and upgraded to a first class cabin on Emirates, where you could get a shower and order a medium-rare steak. Just days before that he'd been in Afghanistan, eating power bars and sleeping in the dirt.

He wasn't a cowboy. Some people might think that anybody who spends that much time in war zones must be cocky and believe they're invincible. But David wasn't that way. He thought about the dangers. Speaking to Scott Simon in 2010 after seven weeks in Afghanistan, he questioned whether he was pushing his luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GILKEY: I go back and forth between Afghanistan every year. I went to Iraq every year. And it was always the question amongst sort of the journalists, I think, was when you leave, do the dice reload? Or are you just stacking up bad karma? And I don't have an answer to that.

BEAUBIEN: Recently, he told me that he felt it was getting more and more dangerous to cover the world's armed conflicts. His dedication to covering the Afghanistan war had already cost him dearly. He'd watch relationships fall apart. He'd lost friends and seen others badly wounded. On Sunday, it cost him his life. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to end with a final thought from our co-host, Kelly McEvers. She had just traveled to South Sudan with Jason Beaubien and David Gilkey earlier this year. They stayed at a Doctors Without Borders hospital inside a U.N. refugee camp. Kelly says she watched in awe as David quietly did his work and put people at ease.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

He was able to convey without words I'm here, I respect you, and I'm not here to take something from you. I'm just here to document what's happening to you and then tell the world about it.

SIEGEL: NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was 50 years old.

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