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New Book Features Work Of NPR Photographer Killed On Assignment In Afghanistan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In June of 2016, an NPR team was reporting in Afghanistan when the Taliban ambushed them. Two of our colleagues died in the attack - an Afghan journalist named Zabihullah Tamanna and NPR photographer David Gilkey. Gilkey spent decades as a photojournalist documenting wars, natural disasters and political crises. He and I collaborated on stories about Indian mangrove islands disappearing under rising seas and Syrian refugees finding a new home in Ohio. Now some of David Gilkey's most vivid images are collected in a book called "Pictures On The Radio." Photojournalist Chip Somodevilla and NPR correspondent Quil Lawrence helped put the book together.

Good to have you both here.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Thanks, Ari.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA: Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: You know, I knew David from his years at NPR. But Chip, you met him years before that at the Detroit Free Press back in 2001. Do you remember the first time you two met?

SOMODEVILLA: Yeah, I really do. It was in the newsroom at the Free Press. He had just returned from one of his first trips to Afghanistan. And there was a party in the newsroom welcoming him home. I was the new guy. He didn't know me very well. And when the party was over, I came up to him, and I told him - I said, you know, your work was amazing. I think you're great. And he said to me - and you guys know David, but if you don't know him, he sort of had this kind of a "Stone Cold" Steve Austin kind of look...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

SOMODEVILLA: ...You know, with the shaved head and the stern look and the...

SHAPIRO: He was a warm person with an intimidating exterior.

SOMODEVILLA: Right. Right. Exactly. He was a hard nut to crack. So he kind of looked at me. And he says, you know, so you want to do this kind of work? And I - you know, eager, I said, yeah, yeah, I'd love to. And he looked at me, and he just said, we'll see.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) But you really became close over time, right?

SOMODEVILLA: We did. We did. We became best friends. In 2003, he and I traveled to Iraq together. And that was a real solidifying moment for us. It was a time where we were both under a lot of stress, working really hard days, and it really cemented our friendship.

SHAPIRO: So tell us what you saw in his approach to photography in situations like that because we can see the output. We see the final image. But you know what went into getting those images.

SOMODEVILLA: He was made for conflict photography. His mind would really find its pace when things were at an extreme. Moments are what we look for as photographers. We look for that moment where the light, the composition, the subject - it all comes together to create a fraction of a second where the story can be told. It lets us hold onto it and then process it. And David - his brain, his soul, everything about him - was made to do that under really stressful circumstances.

SHAPIRO: Quil, I want you to jump in here because you also met David in 2001 in Afghanistan. Tell me about how he functioned in those conflict zones because by that point, he had been covering conflict for years in Kosovo, Rwanda, South Africa, et cetera.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, I think Afghanistan was where he really fell in love, though, with the story. So he was in there weeks after September 11, coming down from the north. And the Afghan colleagues he was working with from very early on - they just kind of fell in love with him. I mean, his bond with them was so tight, and it was just also part of what made his photographs from Afghanistan just so good because he understood the place. He loved the place. He knew what was going on. And he could get that moment that Chip is talking about that - I mean, for me, he's got photographs that explain the whole war in a photograph.

SHAPIRO: Point one out. Which one are you thinking of right now?

LAWRENCE: Oh, I mean, there are so many, but there is this image - it's up on the border of Pakistan in the mountains. And we had come in the night before after Taliban had disabled an American helicopter. And the Pakistani border guards are reaching across this concertina wire to hand these cute little cups of chai to these American soldiers who are all dressed up in their battle rattle, in their body armor and all of their gear. And the smiles there that - hide what everyone knew, which is that it's quite probable that the Taliban who attacked the helicopter the night before were aided, if not one and the same, as these Pakistani troops.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LAWRENCE: And this sort of smile across the border when we know as soon as the sun goes down, these people - maybe these same exact people who are, you know, reaching across to get a cup of tea will be shooting at each other.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

LAWRENCE: I mean, that's the war in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: What do you think it was about Afghanistan specifically that made him return so many times over the years? It was really the story of his life in and among the many others that he covered.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, I think he loved the people there because everybody there that he met, I think at one point or another, had been kind of stripped down to just the basics you need to survive. And David had - you know, he'd had his ups and downs as well, and he could relate to that and connect with them. But then there was also this duty he felt to keep covering this war that went in and out of fashion.

You know, when David was killed, he was over there finding the ground truth about whether Afghan troops were being effective at, you know, providing their own security after the Americans had stepped back. That was a story that nobody else was doing. And David was aware that it was becoming a black box. We didn't know what our own tax dollars and our - were paying for, what our own troops were doing over there. And David wanted to make sure that NPR's listeners and viewers online knew what was happening.

SHAPIRO: Chip, what did it feel like going through tens of thousands of photographs that your friend had taken over the course of his life and career and knowing that you were making these choices about how the world would view his body of work now that he's gone?

SOMODEVILLA: It was heavy. It was really, really heavy. Whenever I had a picture story or a project that I was working on, I would show my images to David and then vice versa. He would show his images to me. So while I felt comfortable handling his images, I was also very reverent about it. I really wanted the people who were not as familiar with his work as I was - I really wanted them to understand David through these pictures, and I think they will.

LAWRENCE: And the nice thing about this is that for once, it was the photos that were driving everything. I mean, the poor guy had been running around the world for decades.

SHAPIRO: It wasn't in service of someone else's story.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. We judged it by the photographs and the beauty of the photographs instead of what he'd been doing his whole life, which has been sort of like, hey, David, take a picture of this. It's going to be in the story.

SHAPIRO: What do you think he'd make of this?

SOMODEVILLA: Oh, man, he would hate the attention.

LAWRENCE: He would hate it - hate it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I thought that's what you were going to say.

SOMODEVILLA: No, no, he was more interested in making the pictures than, you know, sitting down and looking at them all over again. He didn't want to do that. He would've been proud of the work, but I don't think he would've liked the attention.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, just making it about him. I mean, that was one of his skills as a photographer - was even if he was six feet and, you know, an imposing figure sometimes, an intimidating figure until you found out he was a teddy bear, he had the photographer's trick of just disappearing. And you would - at the end, you'd be like, I didn't realize you were right in there, taking that shot. How did you get that shot? And he would, you know, set people at ease so he could take these incredible photos and also these really intimate portraits that I think somehow involved people trusting him. They had to trust him in order to get photos that intimate.

SHAPIRO: Quil Lawrence is a correspondent covering veterans issues for NPR. And Chip Somodevilla is a photojournalist for Getty Images. The new book of David Gilkey's photographs is called "Pictures On The Radio."

Thank you both.

SOMODEVILLA: Thank you, Ari.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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