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NPR journalist lost in Afghanistan ambush left a prolific legacy

Some stories can be told only because of journalists who are willing to risk their lives. Award-winning photographer David Gilkey of NPR and Afghan journalist and translator Zabihullah Tamanna were two such voices. The two died Sunday in a Taliban ambush in southern Afghanistan. David Greene of NPR joins Gwen Ifill to remember the life and work of David Gilkey.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Some stories can only be told because of journalists who are willing to risk it all, telling the dangerous stories in word and picture.

    David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna were two such storytellers. They died on Sunday in a Taliban ambush near Marja in Southern Afghanistan.

    Gilkey was an award-winning photographer for National Public Radio, Tamanna, a respected local journalist and translator.

    Here's Gilkey in May, before he left for Afghanistan, describing how he used his camera lens to capture the story.

  • DAVID GILKEY:

    One of the amazing things about being embedded and working with U.S. forces is just how intimate you are with the subjects.

    And this is a picture from a farm, again in the south, 2010, of the soldiers talking with someone they suspected of planting IEDs.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more on the life and work of David Gilkey, I'm joined by NPR's David Greene, co-host of "Morning Edition."

    First of all, our condolences to you and your staff.

  • DAVID GREENE, NPR:

    Thank you, Gwen. We appreciate that. It's been a hard — it's been a hard day.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's been a hard day.

  • DAVID GREENE:

    And I speak for all of us when I say, thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I read today that — someone say that collateral damage has a face. This is the case of that, isn't it?

  • DAVID GREENE:

    Yes.

    I mean, David Gilkey said that. And it's so sad that he's fallen victim to that. I knew David very well. And I think that he always knew the risks in going into conflict zones and places like this, and believed it was worth it to tell the story.

    I mean, he wanted to capture humanity in stories like this. I think it just — we all knew that this was possible, but to lose a friend and a colleague, you just don't really think it will ever happen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Most people think of NPR as an audio experience…

  • DAVID GREENE:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … not as a visual experience, but David Gilkey was one of those who expanded that idea.

  • DAVID GREENE:

    He really — you know, and a lot of people jokingly asked about that. When David started almost a decade ago, they would say, what are you doing taking pictures for a radio company?

    And when I started working with him, I just so quickly realized that the kind of journalism he does, even though it's images and not sound, it's exactly what we do. It's all the sensibilities that I think we believe in. It's giving people time and space to just sort of collect their thoughts and think out loud.

    It's being respectful. It's waiting for someone's story to kind of emerge. And that's what we do on the radio. And that's what David did. Just to watch him operate, I mean, it was such a joy and inspiring, because he would just be respectful.

    He would be curious, and he would interact with someone, and sort of just wait for that story to come through and capture it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You traveled with him a great deal.

  • DAVID GREENE:

    Yes, which was a real honor.

    We went to Russia together. We went to Cuba together. We crossed the U.S. together on a crazy political trip in 2008. And — but, you know, I'm one of many who had the honor of traveling with him, because he would travel a lot. He loved being on the road and was just a collaborator like no other.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Was he a war photographer by gene or was he just a people storyteller?

  • DAVID GREENE:

    You know, it's funny.

    He — if you met him, you would think he was a war photographer. You would almost think he was at war himself, because he sort of had that tough guy persona. It was, like, you would want to be in a foxhole with this guy.

    But when you get to know him, you quickly realize he's — and he's just like a soft, gentle soul who was so kind. And, you know, he was gruff sometimes. We would be cranky together, but he would also — he knew what was going on not just in my life, not just in my wife's life, but my wife's brothers' lives.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DAVID GREENE:

    And he would keep track of that.

    And I think that — that level of interest and that level of sort of curiosity and caring, that's what came through in his journalism and in his photography.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tell us about Zabihullah Tamanna, because a lot of people don't understand that in order for someone like David Gilkey or for you to do your job in a place like Afghanistan, a translator or a right-hand person was necessary.

  • DAVID GREENE:

    Yes.

    Yes, I mean, I think of Zabi as part of this extended family at NPR. Wherever we are abroad, you talk to anyone who has reported abroad, any foreign correspondents — I was in Russia and worked with local translators and local journalists. They are part of the family. They are risking their lives for us, to do journalism with us.

    They care about the organization as much as people like us to who are part of it. And, you know, he left behind three kids and a wife and was one of the most respected journalists in Afghanistan. And it's — it's — it's devastating.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It is devastating.

    David Greene, thank you so much for taking some time to tell us about them both.

  • DAVID GREENE:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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