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'Pictures On The Radio': David Gilkey Created Visual Driveway Moments

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Four and a half years ago, we lost a dear friend and colleague. NPR photojournalist David Gilkey was on a military embed in Afghanistan with three other NPR colleagues, including local journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. Both David and Zabi were killed in a Taliban ambush on their convoy on June 5, 2016. David had reported from all over the world, ready to go anywhere at any moment. He once told a colleague his work is not just taking pictures. It's do the visuals, do the stories - do they change somebody's mind enough to take action? If we're doing our part, it gets people to do their part. David Gilkey's work is now featured in a new book. It's called "Pictures On The Radio." His friends and colleagues David Greene and Julie McCarthy both introduce chapters in it. And they are here with me now. Hi, you two.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hello.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: I love, David, that it's called "Pictures On The Radio" because as the book points out, Gilkey - we all called him Gilkey - Gilkey was ready with a quick comeback if any of his photojournalist friends from print publications tried to give him a hard time about working for the radio, right?

GREENE: It was like he was waiting for that moment. But, I mean, in all in all seriousness, he created visual versions of driveway moments, which, you know, are the radio moments that we think we create on the radio that people will sit in their driveway and hold things up to listen to the end of. That's what he did with pictures. Like, he just - he holds you there.

MARTIN: Right. David, you wrote the introduction to the chapter about Russia because you got to know Gilkey very well. I mean, you knew him before, but there's nothing like a very long train trip across Siberia to really bond people, right?

GREENE: Yeah, it was an amazing trip. And this is what I think I really learned - that what David does with faces and just, like, transports you into someone's soul. We visited the city of Yaroslavl, this Russian city that had lost its entire professional hockey team in a plane crash. We went to this youth hockey program because that's where people were pinning their hopes now - on younger hockey players. And he just went into the locker room, waited for the moment. You could see it just hit him. And that camera started clicking this young kid, bright orange hair and just these mesmerizing eyes looking back into David's camera. And I was like, my God, David, you just captured everything that Russia is - like, struggle, determination with a sort of sly smile. He just did that time and time again.

MARTIN: Julie, you convinced Gilkey to join you in India on a reporting trip. What did you learn about his his powers of observation during that project?

MCCARTHY: Well, they were enormous. We worked on the Yamuna River. It runs through Delhi, and it leaves Delhi the dirtiest river in India. And there were staggering scenes along this riverbank that runs through Delhi. Everywhere you turned, small boys would emerge naked from this garbage-encrusted river, a rag picker washing his wares, you know, against a rock. And these sprays of black water - it was so filthy - would fly. David captured it, this mother looking forlorn, tidying her home underneath the tracks of a railroad that crosses this filthy river. And David catches her there. And under his gaze, these images reveal a beauty. They reveal humanity. In his hands, they become poetry.

MARTIN: David, the book includes a remembrance from two of his good friends, two men who are friends to many of us who worked in Afghanistan over the years, Najib and Shafi Sharifi. And they described Gilkey as, quote, "an American man with an Afghan heart." He loved that country. It drew him back year after year ever since 9/11. And there are so many beautiful photos from Afghanistan. I wanted to single out one in particular because it captures something about Gilkey's personality, too. This is one from Helmand, where the Marines had a base. And it's of this Marine outside at a makeshift sink. There's a Chinook helicopter in the background not many feet away from him, landing in that moment, wind blowing everywhere, blowing water over and the guy sitting there shaving in this little, tiny mirror. And it's so Gilkey to to seize on that detail whereby we understand the absurdity of war.

GREENE: Absurdity is a great word because he just took in life in any way it came to him. I mean, things could feel so deadly serious, but David would look for moments like that, like someone shaving. I mean, he was as passionate about photographing, like, really bad food at gas stations on the highway crossing the United States as he would be about incredibly, like, deep and emotional moments from war. His curiosity was infectious. And just his joy - I mean, you know, we talk about that he, you know, could be grumpy, which he could be. But, you know, some of that was just, like, a shtick. I mean, David just loved people and loved capturing life more than anyone I ever knew.

MCCARTHY: And that quality - that surreal quality that he could capture in war. You know, I was very - I was just so happy he came to India 'cause it wasn't war. It was another kind of existence. And he captured the surreal nature of the whole thing. He was taking these pictures of a cremation. It was a twilight cremation along the river. And they were burying this young girl. There was flames, these beautiful flames coming from the cremation. And there was a one man smoking a huge stogie. And David was determined to get these flames coming together. I don't - he wouldn't leave because he wanted to make sure he got these two images sort of side by side. And there's David to make it poignant and penetrating and beautiful all at the same time.

GREENE: And, you know, I've been thinking a lot about Gilkey recently. I mean, I always do. But, I mean, his mission in his work was to bring the truth home, so we understood what people were going through in all different parts of the world. And he wanted us to feel that and experience it and maybe change our minds and maybe take action. And in a moment where, you know, this profession has been so under attack, I mean, David's work is such a reminder of the power of truth and that just telling the truth and capturing life as it is, I mean, is an incredible tool to bring about change. And he's just - he's just brought me back to, you know, so many of the reasons that I that I got into this work in the first place.

MARTIN: David Greene and Julie McCarthy, thanks so much for talking with me and remembering our friend and how much he said through those photos, how much he said about the world we live in. I appreciate it.

GREENE: Yeah. Thanks, Rachel.

MCCARTHY: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: The book is called "Pictures On The Radio," the work of photojournalist David Gilkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "IN COLLUSION WITH THE WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.