Correction: This article has been updated to correctly reflect the location where Cheryl Hatch contracted a life-threatening illness.
Photojournalist David Gilkey, whose photography and legacy is currently being honored at Oregon State University’s Fairbanks Gallery, was described by coworkers and friends from the Daily Barometer and National Public Radio as authentic, dedicated, tender-hearted and able to find humanity in any situation.
In 2016, Gilkey was killed in Afghanistan while on assignment for NPR, along with interpreter and journalist Zabihullah Tamanna. Jim Folts, a retired journalism and photography professor who taught Gilkey at OSU, said he is considered to be one of the finest war photographers of our time. Gilkey traveled across the globe to locations like Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia and India, to name a few.
Gilkey, a native of Portland, grew up with a keen interest in photography since his father, Richard, was also a photographer and had a darkroom at home. By the time David was enrolled at OSU, he was committed to becoming a photographer, according to Gilkey’s personal friend, Cheryl Hatch.
Hatch, an OSU and Daily Barometer alumna, worked as a photojournalist herself, shooting in the Middle East and Africa as a war and conflict photographer. She left the profession after contracting a life-threatening illness in Afghanistan, and later began teaching.
Hatch said even in college, Gilkey had ambition and drive, was extremely competitive, knew what he wanted and went for it.
At OSU, Gilkey studied journalism and got his start at the Daily Barometer. At the time, he was well-known for his sports photography, which was shot on film and required manual focus and exposure.
“You actually had to have a level of both skill and intuition, and a knowledge of things like that to get a solid shot,” Hatch said. “He was a really strong shooter from the beginning.”
Folts shared a passage from Gilkey’s college journal, which stated: “very jealous of the other photographers who have more press passes, more access to the race, and better equipment. I want so badly to be a photographer. It’s very VIP to me, and the most important thing in my life right now. I don’t know what else I would do.”
“Not many people would write that in a journal in college,” Folts said. “I think that just shows the commitment and the passion he had for it.”
Hatch graduated ahead of Gilkey, and went overseas to work after school. Gilkey left OSU soon after, working for newspapers before landing his job with NPR. Hatch and Gilkey worked in many of the same countries, but never side by side. Regardless, they kept in touch, vacationing and meeting up throughout the years.
Gilkey first went to Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.
“David kept going back to Afghanistan because that was a story he had been covering from the beginning,” Hatch said. “I think that will be part of his legacy. The last time we talked in Pennsylvania, that was one of the things he wanted, to see that body of work shared.”
As a friend, Hatch said Gilkey was incredibly loyal. When she approached him about speaking at a conference for her college students, he told her yes and kept his word, despite having to travel from South Sudan to make the date.
David Greene, Gilkey’s colleague at NPR and host of “Morning Edition,” also shared this admiration for Gilkey’s loyalty.
“He had a tough outside. When you were friends with him, you had to earn that smile, and there was nothing like a Gilkey smile,” Greene said. “Once he brought you in, he was the most loyal friend you could ever ask for.”
Greene made a distinction between Gilkey’s work and the work of other photojournalists: Gilkey had the ability to find humanity and focus on people, through the violence and madness of war and conflict.
“Working alongside him, I think I was just in awe,” Greene said. “He honestly could see the humanity in the most horrific stories, and that’s incredibly rare.”
Greene, who traveled to Russia with Gilkey on assignment, said he was able to bring stories to life in their truest form, specifically by focusing on faces and people.
“He would really approach everything he did with an open mind and curiosity. He wouldn’t come to a story thinking about the image he wanted to get, I don’t think he knew what image he was going to get when he met a person,” Greene said. “You would just see him, waiting patiently for that moment where he felt like someone was revealing their true self, and then he would capture it. And there it was.”
Moreover, Hatch described Gilkey and his work as genuine, and said she appreciated his reverence for beautiful things.
“He could sleep in the mud with Marines or he could go to a five-star restaurant. He could just walk and move through all these worlds, and he was always authentic,” Hatch said.
Over time, Hatch said Gilkey developed a “relentless consistency of vision,” along with a body of work that demonstrates his dedication to the stories he cared about, as a photographer and as a person. She also said Gilkey’s work displays a thread of history, showcasing the conflict and disasters that shaped the past two and a half decades.
Hatch shared a meal with Gilkey and drove him to the airport not long before he died, and sent a text to him the night before he was killed in Afghanistan. To Hatch, David is remembered as a tender-hearted, loving and dear friend.
“When he was assassinated, I just realized he is unique in my life. There aren’t a lot of people that I have so much of a trajectory with, but also who share that common experience of going in and out of difficult situations, witnessing all that suffering and horror,” Hatch said. “We just came and went in each other’s lives over the decades. Great guy doesn’t seem to hit the mark. He was a remarkable person.”