A Filmmaker’s Tribute to NPR Photographer David Gilkey, Killed in Afghanistan

David Gilkey
Award-winning Gilkey and Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna did not survive a convoy attack—but their work will live on.

Documentary photographers are not always filmmakers themselves, but they are like our close cousins who grew up with us and practically lived in our homes. We tend to share values, cover similar stories, and wind up in equally vulnerable situations. That’s why when we lose one—particularly while they are on assignment—it feels so painful and personal.

I did not know David Gilkey, who was killed when his military convoy was attacked in Southern Afghanistan on June 5, but I am a fan of his work and of his approach, displayed below in a “photographer’s journal” that he dispatched from Gaza in 2009. In it, Gilkey muses, "When you leave [a warzone], you think, how is this going to get anybody anywhere? You just try to show that both sides are affected deeply by it."

An NPR tribute listed some of the many important assignments that Gilkey covered during his almost decade-long tenure there, from war in Afghanistan and Iraq to the devastating Haiti earthquake to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. He did not shy away from the difficult and dangerous situations, but managed to find the humanity in every one.

"When you leave [a warzone], you think, how is this going to get anybody anywhere? You just try to show that both sides are affected deeply by it."

Gilkey’s interpreter and fellow journalist, Zabihullah Tamanna, was also killed in the attack. The plight of the brave locals who work with foreign journalists has been getting more attention in recent years, through excellent documentaries like The Fixer and the narrative film of the same name, which also focus on an Afghani man working with western press.

Other journalists who perished in the field have been recently memorialized on film. There was not a dry eye in the house at the Cinema Eye Honors in 2012 when Tim Hetherington’s mother accepted his posthumous award for the short film Diary. Like Gilkey, Hetherington was a war photographer, but he fully crossed into filmmaking territory with Diary and his celebrated feature doc, Restrepo, an unflinching portrait of the Afghan war. Daniel Pearl also comes to mind; the story of his Wall Street Journal career and ultimately his brutal beheading at the hands of Pakistani militants was retold in 2007’s A Mighty Heart.

If you are interested in learning more about how to preserve the crucial work of other reporters in life-threatening or heavily censored situations, check out the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Thank you, David, Zabihullah, Tim, Daniel and the countless other journalists who have perished in your quest to put a human face on international news and create stories that connect us to each other. You inspire us and will live on through your important work.     

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June 7, 2016 at 1:22AM

Sameir Ali
Director of Photography