Remembering The Late NPR Photographer Who Put 'Pictures On The Radio' Gilkey died in 2016 while on assignment in Afghanistan. His mother, Alyda Gilkey, remembers the man behind the lens: an adventurous soul who had a way of putting his subjects at ease.
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Alyda Gilkey On The Life And Legacy Of Her Son David, Who Put 'Pictures On The Radio'

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Alyda Gilkey On The Life And Legacy Of Her Son David, Who Put 'Pictures On The Radio'

Alyda Gilkey On The Life And Legacy Of Her Son David, Who Put 'Pictures On The Radio'

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David Gilkey was blunt-headed, bull-shouldered, good-humored, loyal, brave, meticulous, sometimes a little manic and deeply sensitive to the world, his friends, his work. He covered hurricanes, floods, famines, tsunamis and wars by bringing his feet - which he called the greatest zoom lens ever invented - close into the lives of people.

David Gilkey was NPR's staff photographer. He enjoyed all the jokes about taking pictures for a radio network. I photographed the little things I had stopped seeing, he once wrote. The Taliban ambushed and killed David and his friend and interpreter, Zabihullah Tamanna, in June 2016. Friends, including NPR's Quil Lawrence, Tom Bowman, David Greene and Julie McCarthy have shared memories in a book of David's photographs, "Pictures On The Radio." And we are honored to be joined by Alyda Gilkey, David's mother, from Portland, Ore.

Thanks so much for being with us, Alyda.

ALYDA GILKEY: My pleasure.

SIMON: Please tell us about him growing up, the little boy in the basement.

GILKEY: He was a bit of a handful when he was growing up (laughter). My husband, Dick, was a school administrator, but he really loved photography. And so when we built our house, he put a darkroom in the basement. And we discovered later that when we would send David downstairs to play with all the toys in that part of the basement, he would often go in and look at his dad's photographs, which were standing up in a big cabinet. Dick showed both kids how to use the darkroom, and David really took to it. He just thought that was wonderful.

SIMON: You note in the book he had some wild times as a teen. Anything you can tell us about?

GILKEY: No, I don't think so (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, that wild? Yeah. Was his camera a kind of passport to the world, do you think?

GILKEY: Oh, definitely, yes. He loved to travel, loved to go and see places.

SIMON: Yeah.

GILKEY: So the camera was just perfect for him. And when he got his first job with a newspaper in Boulder, Colo., then the company that owned that, Knight Ridder, sent him to South Africa. And that was just - he just thought that was wonderful. Then when he went to NPR, that was just perfect because he could travel the world from there.

SIMON: Alyda, I got to ask, did you worry about him?

GILKEY: Oh, of course, always. When he was growing up, he was always doing things fast anyway. I mean, he skied fast. He skated fast. He was on the roller speedskating team, which was just the perfect thing for him.

SIMON: Yeah. The photos in this book are utterly stunning. And just to note a few, there's - in fact, I think the cover photograph is Marine Lance Cpl. Espinoza in Helmand province, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his gloved finger, and Crystal Turner, a Marine vet, hugging her year-and-a-half-old daughter to her knees; and then a Palestinian man on the West Bank holding his dead pet bird after an attack. These are details of lives that often go unnoticed. Do you think that's what David was looking for?

GILKEY: I think so, yes. All of his pictures seem to have a story. And I have some hanging in my apartment. And I know that people will come into my apartment, they'll look at them, and they'll want to know more about what that is a picture of. What's the story behind that? And I think that was a part of the magic of his photographs.

SIMON: Did he talk to you about people he photographed when he'd come home?

GILKEY: No, didn't talk much about the places he had been. He would answer my questions, but I had to come up with the right question.

SIMON: This is personal, but I have to ask, did you ever urge him to stop as he approached his 50s? You know, say, come on, David, settle down in Happy Valley?

GILKEY: I talked to him about it once. And I said, what kind of photography do you really want to do? And he said, well, I want to do the kind where I have to go out into the world and find out what's happening. And I said, well, I guess you're never going to be a wedding photographer.

SIMON: (Laughter).

GILKEY: And he said, no way. No way.


GILKEY: It was just what he wanted to do.

SIMON: Why do you think people opened up their lives to him, as so many did?

GILKEY: Well, there was just something about him that was - I don't really know how to describe it. There was something about his personality that just seemed to put people at ease, and so they would just talk to him.

SIMON: What do you hope people will know about your son as they go through this book?

GILKEY: I hope that they'll realize that he was very sensitive, and that kind of got him in a little trouble when he was growing up because people didn't realize how sensitive he was, but he was a good son.

SIMON: Alyda Gilkey - the book of photographs by her son and our friend David Gilkey is "Pictures On The Radio."

Alyda, thanks so much for being with us.

GILKEY: Thank you.


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