Wheels up, David

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NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-love-you-tribute-to-friend-killed/article_7d68b5c8-c179-11e6-b064-ab17766afd1e.html

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Grief is a sneaker wave

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016

Grief is a sneaker wave.

As a college student, a sign greeted me at the Oregon coast: Beware of sneaker waves. It had a design of stick person being knocked over by a curling blue wave. I immediately had an image in my mind of a wave running to shore in Converse sneakers.

Turns out, sneaker waves are no joke. I was photographing at the coast—it’s called the coast, not the shore or the beach, for a good reason. It’s still a wild and untamed juncture where the ocean crashes into the land. I had scoffed at the warning and walked out to get closer to the surf. One minute I’m photographing on dry land, the next I’m up to my rib cage in cold Pacific water, dangling my cameras held high above my head. I turned and chugged toward land as quickly as I could. I was lucky another wave didn’t take me down. Or a random log didn’t knock me unconscious. Or the rush of water didn’t sweep me off my feet and under.

Grief has been sneaking up on me recently.

My Humpty-Dumpty heart has been shattered and cobbled together over the years. Wounded and healed again and again. Grief washes over and through me at unsuspected moments.

In my own life, I feel the loss of the children I wanted and never had. I have an abiding sorrow for the loss of the man I believed I’d spend the rest of my life with until he abandoned me. I still feel the loss of the people I’ve witnessed suffer and die in my long career as a journalist.

There’s been so much loss in my life in recent years. My friends felled by bullets and shrapnel in foreign lands. My friend who regularly questions why she should get out of bed in the morning after police assassinated her husband outside their home. I think of my friend whose mother beat back cancer several times and then decided enough was enough and crossed over surrounded by family in her daughter’s home. My friend mentioned how the deep pain of missing her mom show ups in all the “firsts” without her—Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays.

In February, I received a message from Brian Castner. We worked together covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in December 2014 and January 2015.

Prince Collins died.

Prince was a radio journalist. He’d been our fixer during our reporting and travels in Liberia. He’d arranged our press credentials and driver, Carton. He’d made introductions and connections for our sources and stories. He talked us through a checkpoint and dicey moment on New Year’s Eve returning to Monrovia. He always introduced us as his colleagues. He became our friend.

I sent Brian a text. “How are you feeling?”

“Surprisingly bad,” he responded. I felt the same.

Brian contacted the pastor at Prince’s church. He doesn’t know how Prince died. A sudden illness.

I hadn’t known Prince long; yet after a month covering the Ebola outbreak, we had shared meals and car rides, visited Ebola Treatment Units and attended funerals, watched rows of grave diggers carve deep rectangular holes in the red earth with pickaxes. Now I was viewing images of his casket and funeral on Facebook and reading the posted laments and remembrances of his friends, radio listeners and colleagues.

He left a young wife and family, who had welcomed us into their home at Firestone in Harbel. I liked Prince. I fully expected to see him and work with him again in Liberia.

On one of our last days in Liberia, Prince accompanied me as I shopped for gifts that Brian and I could bring home to our family and friends. We walked through tailor shops as I sought traditional handmade shirts. Prince offered advice on styles, patterns and colors. I wanted a saa saa, a hollow gourd with beads wrapped on its exterior with cotton thread, for my percussionist brother. We walked for a couple hours through the narrow, meandering alleys of the local markets. Prince made repeated inquiries until we found a vendor.

We shared our last meal at The Cape Hotel, looking out at the Atlantic. We celebrated the good work we’d done together and raised a glass to better days for Liberia.

And now Prince is gone.

Sneaker wave.

During spring break, I was in Rhode Island. My mom sent me a text. It’s seven years ago today that Sis died, Mom wrote. I miss her.

Ruth was my mom’s twin sister and my godmother. My aunt once told me the story of how she’d been sunbathing on the roof of her dormitory at nursing school when she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She said she knew immediately that my mother was giving birth to me.

My mom and aunt spoke of the powerful bond between twins and the deep knowing and communication that passes between them and transcends spoken words. And now my mom is the lone living twin these past seven years.

Whenever I’m in Rhode Island, I visit the graves of my ancestors. Sometimes I stop to say hello. Sometimes I stop to say thank you. I stop to honor and remember them.

When I visited the graves over spring break, winter had taken its toll. The fabric of the American flags staked in the earth was shredded. Only brittle twigs remained where plants had once blossomed.

The next day I went to the local nursery to purchase spring flowers. A pink hyacinth and violas for one grandmother. A blue hyacinth and pansies for another.

I fixed the wind chimes on Ruth’s grave and placed one half of a charcoal blue scallop shell on her headstone. I planted violas and a pink hyacinth on her grave. Ruth loved to garden. Her back and front porches were lined with chimes that tinkled and clinked when the wind blew through.

That day broke open bright, blue-sky sunny. I could feel the warmth of the sun and breath of the wind on my face.

Joy is a sneaker wave, too.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/column-grief-has-been-a-sneaker-wave-for-me-recently/article_1e70eb3f-7505-501f-b192-e51b356b5526.html

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Happy to be embraced in return home from Ebola-stricken Liberia

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

When we arrive at the entrance gate to Barclay Training Center, I reach out my hand to the soldier who greets us.

Oh no. Don’t give me no Ebola, he says.

I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and touching of any kind is not allowed. The usual friendly gestures of hugs and handshakes are strictly forbidden in this West African nation that has been in the grip of an Ebola outbreak for months.

I chose to spend my winter break working rather than resting. I turned in grades then flew to Texas to break the news to my parents that I’d be leaving for Liberia on December 29.

I traveled with writer Brian Castner. We’d met at the Combat Paper: Words Made Flesh conference at Allegheny, where he’d spoken last September. I’d been raised in the Army and Brian had served in the Air Force as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq. Brian proposed that we cover the actions of the 101st Airborne, whose soldiers had fought insurgents in Iraq. The president had now tasked them with fighting a virus.

The virus is transmitted between humans by direct contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “When an infection occurs in humans, the virus can be spread to others through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.”

The Army’s mission was to build Ebola Treatment Units and train healthcare workers. They would have no contact with Ebola patients. In Monrovia, they were confined to a walled compound where they would wander to one gate, called Redemption Gate, and look at the ocean. Redemption references the beach slightly north of the soldiers’ view. In 1980, Samuel Doe claimed power in a coup and had the previous government’s ministers executed on the beach.

As one soldier gazed west to the horizon and a faraway home, he called the ocean view a slice of heaven.

It was a look-but-don’t-touch lifestyle.

Earlier that day, Brian and I had gone to West Point, which Brian described as a shantytown. It sits on a .15-square-mile peninsula with 80,000 residents, the majority children. In August, when Ebola was rampant, the government placed West Point under quarantine and enforced it with police and barbed wire.

As we walked the beach, our host kept reminding us to watch our step. Feces. Feces.

The U.S. soldiers haven’t been to West Point.

As I photographed, children swarmed around me. They pressed in close for a view of me and pressed into my camera’s viewfinder.

I’ve been in such situations many times. In the past, I would have worried about theft or assault or an ambush. This time I worried about sweat: the children who grabbed my sweaty arms with their sweaty hands. I became acutely aware of unconscious habits, such as rubbing my eyes as I wiped sweat from my brow.

Brian noted that Ebola was a new type of threat for him, too. With a bomb, he’d know his fate instantly: the bomb blew or it didn’t. With Ebola, it can take up to 21 days to manifest symptoms of the disease after exposure to the virus. It’s a silent bomb.

I’d notified the Student Health Center of my travel plans before I left and again when I returned. A fellow photojournalist warned me to be prepared for a frosty reception. Even close friends steer clear when you return, he told me.

Upon arrival in the U.S., I began my 21-day self-monitoring protocol. The women at the Pennsylvania Department of Health are on the ball. Someone calls me each morning to get my twice-daily temperature readings. She inquires if I have any symptoms. No fever. No symptoms.

I had decided I would continue the precautions and practices Brian and I had exercised in Liberia. No contact. Smiles and waves only. Or tapping elbows instead of hugs and high-fives.

My friend, a fellow journalist, who’d lived and worked in West Africa, met me at the airport. He is tall with a deep voice made for radio. Welcome home, he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, tucking me in close. I chafed, briefly. It was a shock to be embraced. It was also the best welcome home. I spent the weekend with my friends. We shared meals and they listened to my stories. I realized how blessed I am to have friends who will always embrace me.

When I returned to Allegheny, a student spotted me and came running across the Campus Center lobby. Professor Hatch. I didn’t have time to put up my arms. She ran right into me and wrapped me an exuberant hug.

When I heard you were in Africa, I was afraid you weren’t coming back. If you weren’t coming back, I wasn’t coming back.

She smiled and questions poured out of her. I smiled. Happy for the hug and the stream of questions.

She’s a journalist, all right.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Giving hearts and lives to bear witness

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

When students arrive for their news writing final, they learn the name of the person they’ll write about. They have a few minutes for research before they interview the subject of their profile. They write their stories and file them on deadline. The three-hour exam is a legitimate, real-time test of their journalism skills.

This year David Gilkey joined the class via Skype from Florida, where he was on assignment. Gilkey is photojournalist and video editor at National Public Radio, who has covered a broad range of stories, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The students peppered Gilkey with questions about his background, career and his personal life. They focused on his recent coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Wait a minute. Hold on, Gilkey said, at one point in the interview. The students watched as he removed his earphones. He paused, looked up toward the ceiling for a moment, then put the earphones back and returned to the interview.

Was that breaking news or a phone call? I asked. A phone call with news, Gilkey replied.

Gilkey completed the interview and gave the students his email address and responded to questions they had during their final. He stayed in contact with the students for the full three hours.

After 45 minutes, most of the students broke away to begin writing their stories. I opened my computer and read that Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist, had died of an apparent heart attack in Liberia at the age of 58.

I must have gasped or blurted something. A student looked up. Are you OK, Professor Hatch?

Yes, thanks. Focus on your work. I’ll explain after the exam.

I sent Gilkey a text.

He told me that the call he’d taken during the students’ interview was from Nikki Kahn, du Cille’s wife, also a Washington Post photojournalist, telling him that his friend and colleague had died.

All the students hit their 10 p.m. deadline. A number stayed late and read du Cille’s obituary posted online. We discussed his work and commitment to it.

Du Cille had received three Pulitzer Prizes for his photography, two while at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. He was known for his compassion and his big heart.

“He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance” wrote Post reporter Matt Schudel.

Most recently, du Cille had focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he had covered the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

In an article in the Post in October, du Cille wrote about his experiences.

“Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized…But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

On Sunday night, my phone dinged with a message from JR Ancheta, a friend and former student. We’d worked together in Afghanistan.

Happy Solstice.

He sent a message with a photo of a surfer silhouetted against a lavender sky tinged with flamingo pink clouds. Returning to shore, the surfer had his board tucked under his arm, the water a band of brightness and sparkles around him.

JR was at his family home in Sitka, Alaska, when he noticed the light. He grabbed his camera and dashed to the water’s edge.

JR had been through some tough times lately. Making the dash for sunset light, photographing the twilight moment reminded him of the joy and reverence he has for photography—and the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s really easy to get stuck, JR said. The world is full of nastiness, muckiness, ugliness. We forget to see. Forget to look. Forget to find beauty.

Looking. Seeing. Finding those little snippets of beauty everywhere. Photographers find beauty in the nastiness and muckiness.

It’s a gift, JR said.

Then he surprised me with a gift.

“Thank you for teaching me to watch the sunsets—and the sunrises,” JR said.

My first column this year was about Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer, who died on the job, at 59, of an apparent heart attack. In April, I wrote about another AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, assassinated in Afghanistan. She was 48. And, in my last column of 2014, I remember Michel du Cille, who died covering a story and people he cared deeply about.

Photojournalists and journalists know the risks and accept the dangers of covering a some stories. We open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering and the beauty in our world. We witness and return to bear witness.

To quote Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

We give our hearts—and sometimes our lives.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/giving-hearts-and-lives-to-bear-witness/article_180de8f2-8d59-11e4-b1f4-0f9521438772.html

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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