NPR photojournalist David Gilkey, 50, and his Afghan interpreter, Zabihullah Tamanna, 38, died today when they were caught in an insurgent attack on the Afghani army unit they were traveling with, according to a report from NPR.
Considered one of the best photojournalists in the world, Gilkey was on assignment in Afghanistan to “[chronicle] pain and beauty in war.” According to the New York Times, he and Tamanna were part of a four-man team from the network, embedded with Afghan Special Forces in Helmand Province. The other two American journalists, Tom Bowman, NPR‘s Pentagon correspondent, and Monika Evstatieva, their producer, were reportedly uninjured. Gilkey is the first non-military American journalist to die in the 15-year conflict; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 27 others from around the world have been lost.
Gilkey saw his work as more than just journalism; he genuinely wanted to make a difference in the world.
“It’s not like you put the camera to your face and therefore it makes what you’re seeing OK, but certainly you can put yourself in a zone. It’s hard, but you can’t get caught up in it and become part of it. You still need to maintain your state of mind that you are helping tell this story.”
“It’s not just reporting. It’s not just taking pictures. It’s do those visuals, do the stories, do they change somebody’s mind enough to take action?”
In an email to staff, NPR‘s Senior Vice President for News and editor Michael Oreskes said that Gilkey died pursuing that commitment, killed when his vehicle was struck by an artillery shell.
The group was traveling in a five-vehicle Special Forces convoy when fire broke out, traveling on the main road from Lashkar Gah, the local capital of the Helmand Province, to Marjah, a small agricultural town in the Nad Ali District. According to Shakil Ahmad, spokesperson for the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, insurgents opened fire on the convoy with heavy weapons, destroying the vehicle carrying Gilkey and Tamanna.
After a heavy firefight, the bodies of the victims were recovered and the remaining troops retreated to a nearby Afghan police base. The bodies were then flown to Camp Bastion, the Corps headquarters, and formerly the major base of operations for British and American troops in Helmand Province.
Zabihullah Tamanna, who was acting as Gilkey’s translator, had also worked for years as a photographer, and the two men were often seen together as friends. Unfortunately, few other details on Tamanna are available at this point in time.
Gilkey received multiple awards for his work, including a George Polk Award in 2010, an Emmy in 2007, and over 36 distinctions from the White House Photographers Association, including nine first-place awards; in 2011, they named him the Still Photographer of the Year.
As Michael Oreskes implied in his statement, Gilkey’s loss to the world is a great one.
“David has been covering war and conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. He was devoted to helping the public see these wars and the people caught up in them. He died pursuing that commitment. As a man and as a photojournalist, David brought out the humanity of all those around him. He let us see the world and each other through his eyes.”
Among his more prestigious and well-known placements, Gilkey covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the end of the apartheid regime in Africa, the earthquake in Haiti, the famine in Somalia, and the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. Where there was tragedy, David Gilkey was there ensuring that the world saw what it was really like.
Gilkey’s loss will be keenly felt, but one must suspect that this is how he always expected his life to end, and he went out pursuing his life’s work.
Thank you, David, and godspeed.
[Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images]