Real Life Through the Lens

From wars on foreign soil to heartbreak at home, URI alumnus David Goldman shares his vision.



A Soldier’s Child from David Goldman on Vimeo.

When the student newspaper at the University of Rhode Island advertised for a photo editor in the winter of 1996, no one showed up initially. Until, that is, a tall, skinny sophomore from New York City walked into The Good Five-Cent Cigar offices with a roll of film from a disposable camera and no real desire to be a photographer.

Sixteen years later, David Goldman ‘98 is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist who has shot everything from the war in Afghanistan to the NFL for the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Boston Herald, and other news outlets. He recently won the 2012 World Press Photo Award in the Arts and Entertainment category for his image of a lone soldier playing the drums in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

“As a photographer, we all sort of have ambitions, like someday wouldn’t it be nice to win this award or that award,” Goldman said. “At The Cigar, I had never even heard of most of these awards. But as you come up in the industry, you learn about them and the prestige they come with, and you think ‘that would be cool if someday I could be a part of that.’ I entered the World Press Photo contest every year since I started at The Herald and never got anything, and I never thought I would, so it was a huge, huge surprise.”

It has been quite an odyssey for a man who says he wasn’t interested in following in the footsteps of his father, Louis Goldman, who was a still photographer on movie sets in New York.

“People used to ask me if I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. Never. Not one bit,” Goldman said during a phone interview between assignments in Atlanta, where he is now based. “I wanted to be near the ocean so I could surf. I thought I’d get into marine biology.”

But Goldman found the sciences weren’t for him. While he was looking for a part-time job to help get him through school, a friend suggested he try The Cigar.

“I don’t think anybody else showed up for the job,” Goldman said. “I went on my first assignment and from then on I fell in love.”

He didn’t take photography courses, teaching himself the functions of his camera through reading, trial and error. Instead, he majored in journalism and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1998.

Goldman said his studies enhanced his ability to tell a story through his lens.

“Studying journalism only deepened my love for the craft,” Goldman said. “Studying print and broadcast journalism gave me a broader perspective, because in the end, it all came down to storytelling, just using different tools. And simple things like learning how to write a lead and get quotes are things that have been invaluable to me to this day.”

After graduation, he caught on with the weekly newspaper, The South County Independent, freelanced in San Diego, Calif., and Connecticut and took a job as a photo technician at The Boston Herald, which he later parlayed into a staff photographer position.

While at The Herald in 2005, Goldman funded his own trip to Gaza to document the Israeli Army’s removal of 9,000 Jewish settlers to hand the land over to the Palestinians. It was a transformative experience for Goldman, who had never been on an international assignment before.

“It was that very first moment in my career when I was truly taking myself out of my comfort zone and facing all the fears that come with that,” Goldman said. “Of course there was the safety fear, but also, the fear of working somewhere I had never been, and the fear of working freelance without any guarantees I’d recoup my expenses.

“It was a defining moment for me because I took great pride in knowing I put myself out there and realizing, ‘Okay, I can do this. It’s not so bad, it’s not so scary.’ I learned there is something exhilarating about going somewhere I didn’t feel completely comfortable and adapting. It made me always want to push myself beyond complacency. I felt like I was growing, not just as a photographer or as a journalist, but as a person, and I hope that continues throughout my career.”

It wasn’t the last time Goldman would stick his neck out and rely on freelancing to advance his career.

After moving back to his native New York to take a photo editor position with the Associated Press, he quickly realized he preferred to be shooting. He left the AP to begin freelancing again, shooting for the AP, The New York Times, Getty Images, and “pretty much anyone who would hire me.”

He funded more trips to the Middle East, including the West Bank, and Afghanistan. In 2009, he did a contract assignment for the AP, embedding with the U.S. Army’s 1st Platoon Apache Company of 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment. His work was part of the AP’s Pulitzer Prize nomination for breaking news photography.

It was the Army’s first major push into the Logar and Wardak provinces since the outbreak of the war in 2001. Missions were fraught with peril, particularly the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the roadways.

The uncertainty that came with every mile traversed in a Humvee was perhaps the most difficult part of the assignment.

“A lot of it is time sitting around waiting to be attacked. It wasn’t like a full-out war, where there are constant offensives or advances on territory or new battlefields,” Goldman said. “It was specific missions that we’d go out on, and then typically we’d be on the receiving end of an attack and that’s how an engagement would begin.

“It was nerve-racking,” he continued. “I can understand why so many of these guys come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, most of these guys are getting injured with IEDs. It’s an incredible strain on your mental state, never knowing when it can happen. It’s not like a gunfight, where your body jumps into action and can compensate for stress. And, for me, I didn’t even have to be a hero. I could run, duck, and hide, while those guys had to fight.”

His war photography has earned Goldman international acclaim, but he hesitates to call himself a war photographer. He said human-interest stories, such as one he worked on with the children of fallen soldiers, are what truly capture his interest. He values the variety of assignments he covers for the AP, rather than facing the constant specter of conflict in the Middle East.

“What journalism also showed me is that I had an opportunity to see people when they were at their worst and when they were at their best and every emotion in between,” Goldman said. “When truly intimate moments would happen in their lives that they would share with you, it was so powerful it could move you to tears.”

Perhaps the biggest thrill for Goldman, though, came at the outset of his career, shortly after his first assignment at the URI student newspaper sparked his interest. His father, who died of a heart attack in 1996, was alive to see the burgeoning career that would send his son around the globe.

“I was fortunate. Before dying very suddenly, my father was around during the first few months as I started to fall in love with photography,” Goldman said. “He was able to see me develop a passion for it. That he got to see the beginning before he passed away meant the world to me.”

by Brian Pernicone