Updated 3:15 a.m. ET
David and Zabihullah were on assignment for the network traveling with an Afghan army unit. They were in an armored Humvee driven by a soldier of the Afghan National Army. All three were killed after the Humvee was hit by rocket propelled grenades in an apparent ambush.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were also in the convoy, traveling in a separate vehicle. They were not injured.
Tom reports that when the journalists' remains arrived by helicopter at Camp Shorab in Helmand Province — where the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division has a training mission — an honor guard of "dozens and dozens" of U.S. soldiers stood at attention and saluted.
David was 50 and Zabihullah, who for years also worked as a photographer, was 38.
David was considered one of the best photojournalists in the world — honored with a raft of awards including a George Polk Award in 2010, a national News and Documentary Emmy in 2007 and dozens of distinctions from the White House News Photographers Association, including 2011 Still Photographer of the Year.
It is fair to say that David witnessed some of humanity's most challenging moments: He covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He covered the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. He covered the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He covered the devastating earthquake in Haiti, famine in Somalia and most recently the Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
His images were haunting — amid the rubble, he found beauty; amid war, he found humanity.
Back in 2010, after he covered the earthquake in Haiti, he talked about his craft. The camera, he said, made things easier.
"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," David said. "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."
His craft, he said, was about more than journalism.
"It's not just reporting. It's not just taking pictures," he said. "It's, 'Do those visuals, do the stories, do they change somebody's mind enough to take action?'"
In an email to staff, Michael Oreskes, NPR's vice president for news, said David died pursuing that commitment.
"As a man and as a photojournalist, David brought out the humanity of all those around him," Michael said. "He let us see the world and each other through his eyes."
Keith Jenkins, the general manager for digital at the National Geographic Society who edited David at NPR, said he and David talked a lot about the dangers of the work David was doing and how much longer he could keep doing it.
"Ultimately, he felt it was really important to tell those stories and to tell them to a society that can very often forget that we have people in harm's way on a daily basis," Keith said.
David also understood those risks.
"It's a very hard thing to put into words, the peace you sort of make with what you're gonna be doing," David said. "I'm not saying you walk into these situations and you're fatalistic about it but you also are preparing and making decisions based on the sort of level of threat that is there."
Zabihullah, who was known as Zabi, worked as a photojournalist for the Chinese news agency Xinhua. More recently, he wrote for Turkey's Anadolu News Agency. Zabihullah kept a tick-tock on the country. He wrote the big news — when a new Afghani president was sworn in — but also covered the daily attacks and drone strikes that killed militants and civilians.
NPR's Philip Reeves recruited Zabihullah to NPR. He called him a "great colleague."
"He was a lovely man, with a great eye for a story and deep wisdom about his country," Philip said. "He clearly loved his family."
Zabihullah leaves behind three young children.
Secretary of State John Kerry released the following statement:
I was saddened to learn today of the death of an NPR photographer, David Gilkey, and his colleague Zabihulla Tamanna, who were part of a crew reporting on Afghan forces in the southern part of the country.
This attack is a grim reminder of the danger that continues to face the Afghan people, the dedication of Afghan national defense and security forces to securing their country, and of the courage of intrepid journalists — and their interpreters — who are trying to convey that important story to the rest of the world.
David Gilkey certainly never shied away from conveying those stories, whether there in Afghanistan or Somalia, Haiti, Gaza, Iraq and dozens of other places around the world. He was more than a gifted photographer. He was a gifted storyteller, who understood the power of imagery to enhancing the power of understanding. He will be sorely missed.
Teresa and I send our thoughts and prayers for these courageous individuals to their colleagues, friends and families.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I am very sorry to report this breaking news. We've just learned that NPR journalist David Gilkey and Afghan translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed today on assignment in southern Afghanistan. They were traveling with an Afghan army unit when their vehicle came under fire. David Gilkey is a longtime member of the NPR family, a gifted photographer and videographer who often traveled to dangerous places to capture the news. David Gilkey was 50. Zabihullah Tamanna was 38. We're joined now by NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. David, thank you for joining us.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Of course.
MARTIN: Do we know any more about what happened?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, the details are sketchy and fragmentary, and I should warn that in such circumstances often subject to a lot of revision. But what we know so far is that approximately between 2 and 2:30 local time David and Zabihullah were traveling part of an Afghan army convoy with U.S. air support. It was near Marjah in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. And they were hit. It's not clear exactly what they were hit by. There have been some contradictory and some incidental reports - not perhaps enormous weaponry but they were hit. And the vehicle appears to have fallen into a ditch or stream subsequently.
David's body was later identified by our colleague, Tom Bowman, the Pentagon correspondent on assignment there. He and the producer, Monika Evstatieva, who were there on assignment, were not harmed and in fact appear not to have been aware initially that that their two colleagues had been hit in this attack.
MARTIN: Can you tell us more about David Gilkey? As I mentioned, he was a much loved figure here.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, David Gilkey is a tremendous journalist and really known as a photojournalist videographer. And if you think about that, for a radio network, in some ways, to be known for photography sounds like a punchline. But David Gilkey was a powerhouse, and he was really eloquent about why he did what he did. In 2009, he covered conflict in Gaza, and he simply said collateral damage has a face.
And I think if you thought about a through line in a lot of David Gilkey's work, you know, so many conflicts abroad he covered. One of the first journalists in Afghanistan to cover that war after the 2001 terror strikes on this country, one of the first journalists embedded in an Army unit to go into Iraq in 2003 with President Bush's led invasion there, but also sort of the - a row and roster of countries that he covered where there was conflict.
He saw humanity in terrible circumstances and bloody conflict and he also saw the pain and anguish that emerged. And he sought to chronicle that. He didn't describe himself in any way as an activist but he did want people to be emboldened to take action from what he recounted. And he acknowledged that it was tough to do.
But, you know, this was a person who found meaning in going back again and again and again to these incredibly dangerous circumstances and incredibly haunting stories that weren't fictions. They were real and people endured real pain that he was chronicling and of course subsequently he got caught up in that of course today as well.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, David, I'd like to ask you to give us some context about how dangerous it is to function as a journalist in Afghanistan, although I am seeing that he may be the first American journalist who was not in the military to be killed in the 15-year Afghan conflict, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Can you tell us any more about that?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, since 1991, CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has chronicled I think about 250 journalists killed in combat and crossfire. And, you know, you can think of a lot of people with very prominent names and great accomplishments who were among them. You think of Michael Kelly and David Bloom in Iraq. You think of Anthony Shadid trying to chronicle the conflict in Syria, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Lybia.
And there are many, many more in all kinds of conflicts even if this - this mortality of this beloved colleague is - was a rare one in Afghanistan, it also is worth pointing out it's a conflict that many in government and in media thought would have been wrapped up far - long ago and these guys risked their lives to do this for us, and I think we need to honor that.
FOLKENFLIK: That's media correspondent David Folkenflik in New York. David, thank you so much for speaking with us. It's a sad day for us here.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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MARTIN: You can see David Gilkey's work online at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.