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NPR Photographer Gets Close-Up Of Conflict

Eric Westervelt/NPR
"I have a towel in my mouth because I was using it to get the gas out of my face, eyes and mouth," David Gilkey says. "It burns your lips so you suck on a dry towel. It helps the stinging stop."
David Gilkey/NPR
Gilkey's lens is seen here after being pierced with what he assumes to have been a rubber bullet — though he says it's hard to know for sure — while he was covering the Gaza conflict from Israel.
David Gilkey/NPR
A photo taken during a protest in Israel on Jan. 2, moments before Gilkey's camera was damaged.

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey has been covering the Gaza conflict from Israel's border towns. He has had his equipment destroyed — and has suffered from tear gas exposure — while capturing protests and gunfire. Gilkey spoke with Corey Flintoff via telephone Tuesday, after returning from a reporting trip to Sderot. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

I'm sitting here completely filthy from lying in the dirt as mortars and rockets moved directly over our heads. ... I got some unusual pictures the other day ... literally, I have a picture of the rocket leaving Gaza, and then hitting, maybe, less than a hundred yards behind me. I mean, it's not ... without ... serious risk.

"Not without serious risk" is Gilkey's thoughtful and careful way of describing what he and Jerusalem correspondent Eric Westervelt have been undertaking for the past couple of weeks, covering Hamas rocket attacks in southern Israel and Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank.

Gilkey points out that this is nothing compared with the danger of covering the fighting in Gaza itself, but it was at a West Bank demonstration that he had a particularly close call:

These points where the West Bank cities and some of the refugee camps bump up to Jerusalem are flash points. It's where the kids throw the rocks. You know, the kids collect and throw rocks at the Israeli Defense Forces, which are guarding the gates. So, it goes downhill pretty fast, and what happens is the kids march up, and things get going, and they start burning tires, and pushing dumpsters out into the street. ...

"Fridays are always the worst days for this," Gilkey says, because that's when Muslims gather for Friday prayers and tensions are stoked by fiery rhetoric. Gilkey and Westervelt went to cover a protest last Friday, getting to the scene as the conflict was escalating:

Unfortunately, because things had already gotten out of control, I couldn't get to where you could be behind the soldiers. The only position I could take was to move up some alleys and down this main street, to get the kids as they're throwing the rocks at the soldiers and setting things on fire and running up and down the street. That's just a choice you make based on what's happening. Obviously, you can choose to be standing around the soldiers, but there's a pretty great chance you're going to get hit with a rock, or you can be on the side, and that's where I was.

But that put Gilkey in the line of fire from the Israeli Defense Forces, who were firing smoke grenades, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the rock-throwers.

So, I had just walked down there and I found a spot that seemed reasonably out of the way, and I heard "Boom! Boom! Boom!" on the metal wall that I was sort of up against, and then my camera flew out of my hand, and I looked down and — there's a hole in it! [laughs] And that was the end of my day.

That laugh from Gilkey was not a "funny ha-ha" laugh. It was a relief-from-tension, almost embarrassed sort of laugh. He assumes, though says he can't be sure, that the camera was hit by a rubber bullet, used by riot control troops as a form of "nonlethal" force, only it's not always nonlethal.

"Rubber bullet" is a pretty loose term for what it is. I mean, it's a little tiny piece of lead covered with very hard plastic. So it's not a joke. I mean, if you got hit in the head with it, it would ...

It would kill you.

Yeah ... you wouldn't want it to hit a vital part of your body. ... But that's sort of the price of doing business over here. I think you have that choice. You can say, "Oh, they were trying to get me," but, you know, you make the choice to be here and then to be in a position where you can make a picture that shows what's going on, and unfortunately, sometimes that puts you in the mix, and in this particular case it did.

The bullet hasn't changed the way Gilkey operates. He has been back to cover the same demonstrations in the same place.

As a photographer, you have to be there and you have to get in as close as you can in order to get a picture that tells a story. I mean, there is a much closer line that you need to be on, and still maintain your safety, yet get a picture that's compelling and tells a story of what's happening. So, unfortunately, I think that puts us at a certain risk level sometimes.

Gilkey goes on to explain what it means for a picture to tell a story.

You try to capture emotion in it and show that this is a personal thing to the people here. It's not just smoke on the horizon. I hope that maybe some of the chances that you take — or the risks that you take in order to get a picture like that — that somebody would understand, "Wow! These people are not that different from me."

The thing that frustrates Gilkey the most, he says, is not being able to be where the heaviest conflict is right now — in Gaza itself.

The biggest thing is, we're locked out of Gaza by the Israeli government, and that's the hardest part, is not being able to report from where this is actually going on. ... And there's been some rumor of a pool of reporters and photographers that's going to be allowed in, which hasn't materialized, a court ruling by the Supreme Court in Israel saying that they have to let us in, which hasn't happened, so I think clearly ... they just don't want us in there.

Gilkey says he's surprised that there are fewer foreign journalists covering the Gaza conflict.

Even two years ago, there would have been hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, trying to cover this. And I would say that number is now 20, maybe, 15 percent of what it would have been then. And that's a reckoning for our business. There's not the interest level, and there are very few organizations, I think, that are committed to covering something like this. So, I feel lucky.

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