The Alexia Foundation Remembers Robert E. Gilka

Bob Gilka with Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis, David Sutherland and Sherrie Taylor at the Opening of “Eyes on the World” at the UN Headquarters, when he received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foundation.

It was with great sadness that we at The Alexia Foundation learned of the the passing of legendary photographer and editor Robert E. Gilka yesterday morning. In addition to being the director of photography at National Geographic Magazine for more than 27 years, and mentor to many, he has also been an important part of The Alexia Foundation family for many years.

Upon learning of Gilka’s passing, Peter Tsairis immediately penned the following tribute to him:

“To the Gilka family and friends, Aphrodite and I are truly grateful to have known and worked with Bob, especially during his years as a perennial judge for the “Alexia Competition” at Newhouse. The photojournalism community has lost a legend, a giant among giants and a man of integrity. We and the Alexia Family will always remember his insightful remarks and straightforwardness at our competition. During the judging he would often remark “where is this story going, is there access and is there a potential solution?” We shared many good wines and laughter and for this and his photographic acumen, we are eternally grateful.”

“He was always looking for stories that went way beyond just pointing out problems, and looked for stories that searched for solutions to problems or that inspired.”

Gilka was instrumental in The Alexia Foundation during its founding and its growth. He was the most trusted adviser and guiding light in its early days for founders Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis and for Syracuse Professor David Sutherland. Gilka’s participation in the competition brought it instant credibility.

Gilka served as a competition judge an incredible 14 times, starting with the very first competition in 1991. David Sutherland recalls Gilka most fondly for his no-nonsense, clear critique and commentary, and for his constant comment of “What’s the up-side here?”

“He was always looking for stories that went way beyond just pointing out problems, and looked for stories that searched for solutions to problems or that inspired,” said David.

Gilka’s search for stories with solutions and inspiration made them the central tenant of the Alexia judging that they are today. Because of Gilka’s influence, we too look for stories that propose solutions and drive change.

Gilka’s huge influence within the foundation and in the photo world prompted us to award him our first ever Alexia Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Further, Gilka’s role in the development of today’s photographers cannot be overestimated. Many of those photographers now advise and assist The Alexia Foundation today. To that end, we wanted to share the stories of two of our Photojournalism Advisory Committee Members.

Ed Kashi recounts, “When I was a 24 year old young buck and took my first pilgrimage to photo mecca to see the almighty Mr. Gilka in 1983, about 10 pictures into my portfolio he snapped like a Marine drill sergeant, “You go to art school?!” I promptly left the building, walked over to a nearby park and sat on a park bench near some homeless guys and started to cry. After I pulled myself together, I determined that I would improve and learn to see, understand light and how to tell a visual story and that one day I’d return and make it at National Geographic. 8 years later, I got that chance with Tom Kennedy.”

According to Pim Van Hemmen’s account, Ed eventually even became friendly with Bob.

“Ed and I spent a fantastic evening with Bob and Jeff [his son],” said Pim, “in the bar of the hotel in Syracuse on the eve of the Alexia judging back in 2002 or 2003. We quizzed Bob for two hours about his career in photojournalism and Jeff said he heard stories that night he’d never heard before. I think Ed and I were late for the chili competition because we couldn’t pull ourselves away from Bob. It is one of my fondest memories.”

“Bob was one of a kind,” concluded Pim, “God is going to have his hands full.”

3 thoughts on “The Alexia Foundation Remembers Robert E. Gilka

  1. I remember the evening well, and I know Dad would quickly agree with me that Ed has (to use a word did not use loosely or too often) given us many “memorable” photographs.

    Best to all of you for this fond tribute.

    • We’re so glad that he was able to be a part of our community and that we could put this tribute together. Thank you for your reading it. Our hearts go out to your family in this difficult time.

      • Bob Gilka was my dear friend and trusted advisor. He offered us stability and reassurance during our fledgling years when we needed it most. Janet, his late wife, told him that the only thing he must not give up was his association with Alexia. And he never did. With deepest affection to Greer, Jeff, his family and friends and those who revere him at National Geographic. He was a bear of a man with the gentlest of hearts and the keenest of minds.