Late in the summer of 2021, photographer David Guttenfelder was in his tent on one of the Apostle Islands off the southern coast of Lake Superior, glued to his iPhone. He was nearing the end of a 21-day kayak expedition—on assignment for National Geographic—documenting the cultural history and natural beauty of a place the Ojibwe consider to be the wellspring of their ancient culture. For many photographers, a big photo package for Nat Geo qualifies as the apex of the profession, and at this point in his career, Guttenfelder’s portfolio is full of them. He’s documented the reopening of Havana, Cuba, to U.S. citizens; he’s spent months living in Yellowstone National Park; and he’s traced the entire length of the Mekong River, from China to Vietnam.
Now 53, Guttenfelder is a versatile visual storyteller—as adept at breathtaking landscapes as he is at arresting portraiture. But he made his name and reputation as a conflict photographer—he has covered wars in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, among many others, for the Associated Press. He has worked out of AP bureaus in the Ivory Coast, India, and Japan. Then in 2014, he took advantage of the stability afforded him by a Nat Geo contract to move back to the United States. His daughters were 9 and 11 at the time, and Guttenfelder and his wife, Cassie, a schoolteacher specializing in early childhood development, were looking for a place that their girls could understand as home.
“David and I have moved around for years,” Cassie says.
They always moved as a family, enrolling their daughters in the international schools their mother taught at in each city—a squad on an international mission. But over the course of her career, Cassie had taught students who could be identified as “third-culture kids”—children living abroad because of their parents’ work who never truly developed a sense of their own culture. She wanted something different for her own children.
“You get to a certain point where it’s difficult to bridge that,” she says. “So, I felt it was a good time professionally, with David and with myself, and with the kids’ ages, to come home.”
So, the Guttenfelders decided on Minneapolis. It was equidistant to both of their parents—Cassie’s live in Neenah, Wisconsin; David’s outside of Des Moines, Iowa—and it has a world-class airport, a necessity for a globe-trotting photojournalist.
Soon after moving here, Guttenfelder remembers overhearing his youngest say to her new Minneapolis friends, “My dad saves the birds.” He was working on a Nat Geo story about bird migration at the time, but he had never thought of himself in this way.
“For so long, all of my identity was about being the guy going to the front line,” he says. “I suddenly realized that through National Geographic, through moving to Minnesota, through my daughters growing up, I was shifting toward doing something that wasn’t so concentrated on a small part of humanity or something, like war is.”
But in his tent on that island out on the big lake the Ojibwe call Gichigami, as he scrolled through his iPhone, Guttenfelder read about the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan half a world away.
“Here I am, having this dream, amazing, beautiful experience,” he recalls. “And I’m up in my tent, reading about the Americans pulling out of Afghanistan and the Taliban taking over.” He pauses. “And I spent 10 years there,” he says. “I felt so far away and disconnected from these people I had spent so much time with. I just felt that I really needed to go.
“I decided I wanted to do purpose-driven documentary news photography again,” he says. “I try to remind myself that stories I’m doing about environmental issues and conservation and climate change, or even stories about paddling in Lake Superior, are equally important,” he says. “But when you see something so immediately impactful, so heartbreaking—it’s hard to feel other things have the same consequence.”
It took him a few months to get The New York Times to send him to Afghanistan. (He called Nat Geo first, but they passed: “It was a liability thing,” he says.) By the time he arrived, it was December. He ended up photographing Bagram Airfield—35 miles north of Kabul—the Soviet-built air base that was once the American military’s base of operations before being turned over to the Afghan government to be used mainly as a detention facility. The Taliban had overrun Bagram in August.
Guttenfelder’s photos of the abandoned prison contain all the calling cards of his style. Under slate-gray skies, Taliban fighters, photographed from a respectful, objective distance, patrol cell blocks that have been left in haste. There are mounds of abandoned detritus—stacks of clothing, empty bottles, books—piled up against cell block walls. Those same walls are adorned with sheets of notebook paper, on which anonymous prisoners have drawn armored personnel carriers, automatic rifles, and flowers. Each frame brims with photojournalistic information, all in service to the context of the story. And each image contains a strange, haven’t-seen-that-before detail, what the French theorist Roland Barthes referred to as the punctum, an incongruent something that pricks your consciousness, waking up your attention: a robed Taliban fighter climbing the stacked cell blocks like Spider-Man, or a piece of twine attached to a cage, threaded through an unusually vibrant purple roll of toilet paper.
By February, a new war crashed into his consciousness. While Guttenfelder was chairing an Icelandic photography contest in Reykjavík, Russia invaded Ukraine. “When the Russians crossed over the border, I just felt like—” Guttenfelder pauses. “I don’t know what the right word is—duty bound?”
He says he needed to contribute something. But unlike in Afghanistan, where he revisited a war zone and combatants with whom he was familiar, even if the circumstances had drastically changed, in Ukraine, he encountered a way of fighting that hasn’t been experienced by nearly anyone in almost a century.
“I just couldn’t be on the sidelines for this one,” he says.
The first time we talk is on a phone call in early October, as Guttenfelder is zipping up his bags, preparing to fly to Kraków, Poland, where he will meet up with a New Yorker writer. The two of them plan to drive a rental car to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, before making their way to the Kherson region in the southeast. It will be his fourth trip to Ukraine this year, and he’s candid about the fact that, with 100,000 casualties on each side of the conflict already, this is the most dangerous theater of war he’s ever encountered.
“It’s trench warfare,” he says.
Unlike most of the conflict photography he has composed in Africa or the Middle East, where he’s usually been embedded in lightly armored government patrols carrying automatic rifles, Ukraine is tanks and artillery and missiles fired from 30 miles away, all causing variations of indirect fire—the most volatile, indiscriminate kind—and more often than not in incredibly close proximity to civilians. This is in addition to the modern-day Black Mirror twist that he has since reported on in the The New Yorker: opposing squadrons of killer drones, where the high whine of what sounds like an airborne lawn mower is followed by terrible devastation.
“It’s the most treacherous fighting I’ve ever experienced,” Guttenfelder says.
While working in Ukraine, Guttenfelder texts me back, but infrequently, sometimes going weeks between responses. When he finally does make it home, he invites me to visit him at his house in Uptown. He answers the door dressed like a stay-at-home dad—a low-crown Patagonia dad cap on his head, frameless glasses, hoodie, and jeans. He’s short, with a wrestler’s build (he wrestled in high school) and a salt-and-pepper beard, and his eyes twinkle when he smiles, which is often. Lewis Lloyd, his French bulldog, bounds up several flights of stairs at his heels as Guttenfelder leads us up to the “man cave” he has cultivated in his home’s finished attic. There are shelves of books covered with keepsakes from his travels and a small, prestigious gallery of work by his war correspondent heroes—photos by João Silva, Nick Ut, and Robert Capa—standing sentinel over Guttenfelder’s own flak jacket. It’s obvious that Guttenfelder is a true believer in the power of photojournalism.
“My family has always been behind me, 100 percent,” he says. “And not just my wife, but my kids, because my wife tells them that their dad’s out there doing something that really matters.”
His girls have been aware of the family mission since they were little. He tells me about a time back in 2011 when they were living in Tokyo and he was about to get in a taxi to the airport to fly to Afghanistan. His 7-year-old handed him a drawing she had made, and he folded it up and put it in a pouch in his flak jacket.
“And then my little girl, who was 4 or 5 at the time, suddenly realizes she hadn’t thought to give me anything,” he says. “And at the last moment, when I got in the taxi, she took off her dress and handed it to me.”
He still has the dress—he pulls the pink-and-white-striped garment off his shelf and holds it up for me to see.
He’s conscious of the inherent stakes—he has friends and colleagues who have been killed, in some cases in close proximity—and he says his family is aware of them too, but he still worries that telling his wife and kids that what he’s doing is important will “sound like a lie” if he fails to make it home.
“So, yeah,” he says. “I feel the need to have these heavy moments with them before I leave.”
In fact, he says, just before his last trip to Ukraine, he found himself in another one of these fraught, anxious moments, and his oldest daughter, now 18, volunteered a kind of unsolicited pep talk.
She first asked him, “What are you worried about?” And then she said, “This is what you do. You got this.”
“My family has always been behind me…not just my wife but my kids, because my wife tells them that their dad’s out there doing something that really matters.”
Guttenfelder’s grandpa gave him his first camera—an old accordion-shaped Polaroid—back when he would spend summers at his grandparents’ house in tiny Stuart, Iowa.
“I didn’t know anybody who was a photographer or a storyteller or know anyone who’d ever traveled anywhere or even had a passport,” he says. “But I saw photography as a way to purposefully travel and enter into other people’s worlds.”
At the University of Iowa, he caught on with the school paper, The Daily Iowan, but even more importantly, he says, he gravitated to the U of I’s study-abroad programs.
“Essentially, I said, ‘Where’s the farthest place away that I could go?’”
He would eventually spend his junior year in Tanzania at the University of Dar es Salaam, but before he made it to Africa, he took a short detour, studying Swahili at a summer program at the University of Wisconsin. It was there, on a Lake Mendota dock, that he met his future wife, Cassie—she was the lifeguard.
“He said he would be going to Africa in the fall,” Cassie remembers. “And we started talking about some African bands that I liked, and we just sort of hit it off.”
Cassie expected their summer romance to end—she was planning on moving to Spain in the fall—but when Guttenfelder’s study-abroad program was delayed, he asked if she would hold off on her big move and ride bicycles across America with him. They ended up only making it halfway across the country—from California to Iowa over the course of two months—but it was obvious they had found something.
“We’re very different personalities,” Cassie says. “But I think it became clear that even as 21-year-olds, we both were really drawn to the adventurousness in each of us.”
They spent the next six months apart—Cassie ended up going to Madrid, and Guttenfelder made it to Dar es Salaam. Upon graduation, Guttenfelder was working for the newspaper in Iowa City when he was watching a television report on the Rwandan Civil War.
“I saw hundreds of thousands of people stream over the borders from Rwanda into neighboring Zaire and Tanzania,” he says.
He said there was already a voice in his head urging him to go back—he knew the people and their language, and he felt he had something to contribute. So, he quit his job, Cassie quit hers, and the two of them moved to Kenya. She volunteered at a school run by the Aga Khan Foundation, and he tried to string for the AP.
Sally Stapleton was the AP photo editor building out AP’s African operation in 1994. She remembers seeing the portfolio Guttenfelder had sent from Iowa and saying something obnoxious like, “My mother could’ve shot those pictures.” But the Rwandan genocide was burning out her team, and when Guttenfelder walked into the Nairobi bureau on his own dime, knowing the language, asking if there was anything he could do to help, he was put to work. It was immediately clear that Guttenfelder was a team player who was keenly curious about the world and was willing to work harder than almost any photographer she’d ever met.
“He took my negative ‘My mother could have shot this’ and turned it into a positive,” she says. “And he learned from good people—he soaked it up. Assholes don’t make good journalists. They might start out and have very good success, but if you are egocentric, people in conflict situations understand that you have the potential to bring danger to others.”
For his part, Guttenfelder is self-aware of why Stapleton gave him the opportunity. “Early on, I was successful not because I was a particularly great photographer,” he says, “but because I was street-smart and I spoke the language.”
Guttenfelder worked in Africa not only because he felt called to help the people he was living with but because he was willing to do it. These days, everybody has a camera phone in their pocket; back then, the equipment was bulkier, the technology more of a pain in the ass. He only had so much film, and he had to carry a case full of his own darkroom chemicals.
“I remember driving around the block holding a reel outside the car window to dry,” he says. He remembers carrying around a satellite phone that weighed 100 pounds with a dish bigger than an umbrella. “I remember all the MacGyver stuff you had to do just to get a picture on the front page of the Star Tribune.”
But the more work Guttenfelder put in, the more he improved his craft. He admits most photographers starting out were better than him, but he differentiated himself with a unique perspective on the world. “I thought I had something to say,” he says.
He worked in Africa for the rest of the decade, watching other photographers come and go, but he stayed, covering the Rwandan Civil War, then the conflict in Liberia, then the Congo, then Sierra Leone. Guttenfelder believes his staying power resided in being there for the right reasons. He built a life in Africa with Cassie, who landed a job as a preschool teacher at the international school in Abidjan when Guttenfelder started working out of its AP bureau.
“David is more than just a photographer. The only reason I’m walking around today is because of David—he’s the guy that basically got me out of Sierra Leone alive.”
One of Guttenfelder’s colleagues in Abidjan, Ian Stewart, says Guttenfelder shared his sense of mission regarding working in an overseas bureau. The Cold War had just ended, and the Global South was awash in its leftover machinery—specifically AK-47 and M16 rifles. Stewart explains that the journalists working the bureau—the writers, editors, and photographers—thought of the AP desks in London and New York as the gatekeepers.
“They decide what was going to be promoted as a major story and what wasn’t,” Stewart says. “And we’re trying to get Africa on the map—trying to get editors and newsreaders to recognize that these are human beings and they deserve to have some airtime and the world needs to know what’s going on.”
In order to cover this violence—to write about it, and especially to photograph it—the journalists had to get as close as possible. Tim Sullivan, an AP writer now living in Minneapolis (he says Cassie and David vouched for the area before he moved his family here), worked with Guttenfelder out of the Abidjan bureau.
“I don’t know how many checkpoints I saw David talk his way through,” he says. And as Sullivan points out, the checkpoints were often manned by intoxicated teenagers with machine guns. “It’s normally a series of checkpoints as you get closer and closer to where the actual combat is. And as a writer, I would normally stop at some point short of the front. I can get 85 percent of the information without going there, but that last 15 percent is really important for a visual journalist.”
Sullivan remembers one of his first assignments. Guttenfelder and his colleague, the video journalist Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, were accompanying Sullivan on a convoy across the Congo River, the three of them embedded within one of the militias operating in the country. Sullivan remembers drawing too much attention at a market, when a gunfight broke out, bullets flying 50 feet from where they had just parked. “And I get out, and I look down at my legs,” he says, “and it was like a cartoon—just going in every direction.” He looked over at Guttenfelder and Gil Moreno de Mora and watched Guttenfelder very calmly walk behind the car and tuck his camera under his gear vest.
“In a moment, he had obscured his most valuable object,” Sullivan says, “and he had tucked himself behind a big hunk of steel, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, you have to be calm when bad things happen.’ David trained me. And by train, I just mean by watching him and Miguel.”
In January of 1999, Guttenfelder was riding in a convoy of peacekeeping Nigerian soldiers in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in a car with Stewart and AP television producer Myles Tierney. Their convoy was ambushed, both Tierney and Stewart were shot with AK-47 bullets, and Guttenfelder covered them on the floor of the car. Tierney was dead, but Stewart, somehow, despite being shot in the head, was still breathing. Guttenfelder accompanied the bodies of both Tierney and Stewart on an hours-long odyssey from a field barracks in Sierra Leone, where Stewart was mistakenly placed in the morgue next to Tierney, to Guinea by helicopter, then from the Ivory Coast by jet to London, where Stewart underwent emergency surgery.
“David is more than just a photographer,” Stewart says. “The only reason I’m walking around today is because of David—he’s the guy that basically got me out of Sierra Leone alive.”
Cassie remembers waiting with Stewart’s girlfriend for their plane to land in Abidjan. She hugged David as soon as she saw him. “It made us think about things differently,” she says. “How do you want to live your life? It really was where you have to decide, right? Do you want to keep doing this? How will you respond to this experience?”
On July 24, 1999, Cassie and David were married in a big wedding on her mother’s property on Stone Lake in Wisconsin. The Guttenfelders had committed, maybe recommitted, to this life they had chosen together. They moved to Tokyo, where David worked out of the AP bureau and where Cassie taught at the American School.
The following January, Gil Moreno de Mora, one of David’s groomsmen, was ambushed and killed in Sierra Leone.
In September of 2001, Guttenfelder was working in Jerusalem. After the death of Gil Moreno de Mora, he was having doubts. He wondered if his commitment to conflict photography was damning him to a very limited perception of humanity.
“But then September 11 happened, and I feel like that decision was made for me,” he says. “Everyone expected me to just go—they needed photographers with experience.”
He was on a plane to Pakistan, and upon landing, he packed a bunch of supplies into a car and drove into Afghanistan for the first time, to a rugged spot in the Spīn Ghar mountains called Tora Bora, where the U.S. military believed Osama bin Laden was pinned down. Guttenfelder was working alongside an older photographer—a man he considers to be his mentor and many of his peers consider to be the best conflict photographer alive, Jim Nachtwey.
Nachtwey remembers being in the same place and time as Guttenfelder during those early days. “[Guttenfelder’s] discipline and drive were hard to miss,” he says. “He was a good comrade in the field—generous and thoughtful—and we became friends.”
When I tell Nachtwey, now 74, that Guttenfelder considers him a mentor, he says, “It never occurred to me that I could ‘mentor’ him about anything he didn’t already know.” Not that Nachtwey hasn’t noticed an evolution in Guttenfelder’s work. “It’s impressive—it’s become more complex and insightful and never fails to create an impact, even in situations that are not inherently dramatic. He was always good. He’s become a master.”
Guttenfelder is recognized as a master by more than his mentor. The editors, writers, and other photographers who have worked with him cite a litany of virtues: his respectful approach, his curiosity, his empathy, his creative eye, his versatility, even his willingness to experiment on social media at an earlier date than many of his peers. (With more than a million followers on Instagram, the reach of Guttenfelder’s imagery is massive.) But perhaps the thing commented on most frequently is his indefatigability.
The photographer Jon Lowenstein probably goes back the furthest with Guttenfelder—they attended the University of Iowa at the same time. “He’s got a capacity to focus and just drive through pain and discomfort,” he says.
Lowenstein has accompanied Guttenfelder in the field a couple of times, and he has seen up close the behaviors that have made his friend’s reputation: He says Guttenfelder stays in the field longer, he blows off meals to scarf protein bars, he’s just a grinder out there. He remembers watching him in 2004, spending five times longer shooting an Afghan woman in a voting booth than any of his peers. “To be a war photographer, you really do need that ability to just push through.”
And Lowenstein attributes part of Guttenfelder’s drive to a higher tolerance for fear, of course. “For a lot of us, you go over that edge a few times, and you come back, and you’re like, All right, that was a lot,” he says. He knows his friend isn’t motivated by the adrenaline rush or the young cowboy’s urge to prove himself, but he doesn’t attribute Guttenfelder’s drive to a pure altruistic selflessness either. “I think, most of all, beyond the photography, he wants to be there to see what’s going on,” he says. “To be witnessing history and to understand it himself.”
Out of all of Guttenfelder’s work, many of his colleagues are most impressed by his photographs of North Korea. Guttenfelder was instrumental in setting up the first AP bureau in Pyongyang, and although most of his work there couldn’t technically be labeled conflict photography—there are photographs of a lone Korean woman at a desk with her goldfish, a group of Korean swimmers on a public pool deck, Korean accordion players sitting in a row of chairs—making these images in a sworn enemy state wasn’t without a degree of grave personal risk. This work is held in such high esteem by his peers because photographers are drawn to imagery that hasn’t been captured before. And Guttenfelder’s North Korean photographs contain a key to understanding why his work so often exceeds that threshold.
“It’s a very tightly controlled place,” explains Guttenfelder of his time working under the thumb of a dictator. He says his North Korean handlers would invariably take him to an official photo op expecting him to shoot the obvious shot. “And then you would have to have your own point of view and project that through photography—that meant pointing the camera in a different direction.”
Guttenfelder has come to understand, whether embedded in North Korea or with the U.S. Marines or, lately, with the Ukrainian military, there is always some degree of official coercion. “I went there thinking that I was going to do something subversive,” he says. “I was going to do highly critical journalism, or I was going to uncover the nuclear program, whatever it is. And what I ended up doing was photographing everyday life at a place that we don’t know anything about. And that turned out to be radical in a way that I didn’t expect.”
Guttenfelder doesn’t know how long he’ll continue covering conflict zones like the war in Ukraine. He obviously still has both the expertise and the energy for it. His mentor Nachtwey just went on assignment in Ukraine for The New Yorker this past year. But Guttenfelder admits that as he gets older, his empathy for the people who worry about him the most—his wife and daughters, his mom—has grown.
“It’s easy to make those decisions for yourself,” he says. “You come to terms with what’s important to you, and you’ve made your peace with it, but that can feel like a selfish decision sometimes.”
In order to mitigate his family’s anxiety for the duration of a trip, he’s long employed a system where he tells them exactly when it’s really time to worry. That way, at least, they’re not worrying with the same intensity the entire time. “It’s better to say, like, ‘OK, for the next 12 hours, I’m going to be without communication,’” he says. “‘I’m going to a really tough place, I’ll write to you as soon as I get back.’”
Years ago, this system inspired a sort of family prayer that’s still in rotation. On the night before Guttenfelder was embedded with the U.S. Marine assault on Marjah, Afghanistan—the largest U.S. offensive in almost a decade—he called his girls. At the end of the call, they broke into a chant over the phone: “We wish Daddy home! We wish Daddy home!” As they got older, they kept it up, slipping back into the chorus on calls, and now that they’re teens, they’ll text it to him.
“It’s become like a protection mantra for me,” he says. When things get really dangerous in Ukraine—at one point, he was facedown in the dirt of a vegetable cellar, with a tank shelling the building above him—he repeats it in his head like he’s conjuring a psychic force field. “This last trip, I even wrote it on my arm with a black Sharpie,” he says. “I’m thinking of getting a tattoo.”
There’s a Wizard of Oz aspect to the wish-Daddy-home chant, of course, and in 2020, all those years of wishing seemed to have finally come true. The pandemic kept Guttenfelder grounded in Minneapolis for months, and for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, he was forced to engage with his home in a 24/7/365 way. “I’ve done a little bit of work here and there where I live,” he says, “but every place I had ever lived was just like a base—I wasn’t really a part of it, a part of anything.”
When COVID-19 hit, he called Nat Geo to say he was willing to fly wherever they needed him, and they told him nobody was going anywhere. So, he started covering regional COVID stories that he could drive to—a meat-packing plant in Grand Island, Nebraska; food shelf shortages in St. Paul. Then, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was murdered. Guttenfelder had photographed police protests before: When Jamar Clark was killed in 2015, he made his way to the Fourth Precinct with his iPhone. He says he felt strangely disconnected from the events—at that point, he’d only been back in the United States for a few months.
But in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s murder, Guttenfelder felt a responsibility to his chosen home. “It just completely changed what I knew of my role and responsibility as a photographer and as a person living in Minneapolis,” he says.
He uses the words he used to describe his feelings toward covering the Rwandan Civil War, and Afghanistan, and Ukraine. “I felt duty bound as a photographer,” he says. “Especially a photographer that had worked in complicated human-rights conflict. And as somebody who’s trying to make this place their home, I felt responsible to go down there.”
So, he went to the Third Precinct and stayed until 3:30 am. And he posted on his Instagram. And Nat Geo assigned him to cover the protests over the weeks that followed. There’s one picture that he’s particularly proud of—a group of Patrick Henry High School graduates whose graduation ceremony was cancelled by COVID showed up at a protest in their alma mater’s regalia. The image is truly Guttenfelderian: a full frame of information with an aspect of originality that wakes you up to its content. The graduates are wearing their red satin caps and gowns, one of the pair holding up his new diploma like a shield.
“They wanted to show that there’s Black excellence in our community,” he says. “I photographed a lot of the violence, but to me, that was the most moving image I saw.”
Another thing happened during the COVID year. Cassie went back to work at her preschool before Guttenfelder had work to go back to. So, Guttenfelder became an actual stay-at-home dad. “It’s been hard for him to miss so much of their lives—usually I’m the safe spot for the girls,” Cassie says. “And David’s off covering wars, right?”
But with Cassie now the essential worker, Guttenfelder’s role shifted, and now he was the one making the girls breakfast and ensuring that their day-to-day Zoom lesson plans were on schedule. “And he was the parent in charge,” she says. “And I think that really brought them closer in such a different way.”
Cassie has just gotten home from her preschool job, and the girls will be home soon, so it’s time to say goodbye. In the attic, David told me that he believes that in life, our paths will just lead to what we’re best at, especially if that’s conflict photography. “When young photographers who are covering conflict ask my advice, I often say, ‘You’re really good at this, so people are going to ask you to do this again,’” he says. “‘So, you need to decide: You better be sure that this is what you want to do.’”
It’s clear that both Cassie and David, and presumably their teenaged daughters, understand the mission.
“At a certain point you have to be honest when you answer, ‘I think I’m going to change the world,’” he says.