We meet acclaimed American photojournalist David Burnett
When I get through to the NYC-based photojournalist David Burnett it’s 10am in New York and the artist has just jumped off his exercise bike. ‘Let me turn this TV down a little bit. Da da da dee dum’, he tunes in… before continuing ‘…and of course, this is the worst show in the world!’, referring to early morning TV. I immediately breathe a sigh of relief that the chirpy, humble man on the end of the line is not the aloof artist I’ve been dreading – because in reality, there are plenty of reasons for him to be big-headed. David Burnett has spent over 40 years as a photojournalist, working for world-class publications including Time magazine, and photographing everyone from Ayatollah Khomeini to Gorbachev and JFK. His Dubai exhibition, ‘Soul Rebel’, running at Gulf Photo Plus until Sunday April 15, captures the late Bob Marley up close. Even if you can’t make it to his workshop running at Gulf Photo Plus this week, read on for an insight into his remarkable career.
Have you been to Dubai before? I was there to do a shoot for a Fed Ex film about 10 or 12 years ago. We did a wonderful shoot 45 minutes outside of town and they had Fed Ex trucks and dunes, and four guys with four camels.
What’s the one shot you’ll be looking to snap while you’re here? I’ve seen some really amazing stuff – they look like skyscraper roofs. They have taken my breath away in a few pictures, so I’m hoping that in my workshop we can take everybody up and get one of those shots.
What can people expect from your workshop? My theory about workshops is that if you attend the class thinking ‘boy, I’m going to take some great pictures this week’ – that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about trying to get yourself to open up the creative sensors in your mind. Somewhere down the lane, in a couple of weeks or months you’ll be doing who knows what and the seed which was planted since doing the workshop will make itself evident.
How did you get into photography? Like a lot of people, by accident. I applied for the yearbook staff at high school and clicked ‘yes’ on the photo box. I got into the dark room and started to see some pictures develop in the old fashioned way – that was just magic – I think I was hooked from that first day. To me what was really interesting wasn’t just shooting the pictures, but it was getting them published and sharing them in some form of mass media. Probably within three months of studying it at school I was selling pictures to the local daily newspaper of basketball games.
Do you remember the first photo that made it big? Funnily enough it was a picture of a guy named George Romney who was running for president in 1967 and who just happens to be the father of Mitt Romney who is running now. The week after I shot him I was going in for surgery and they bought me a copy of Newsweek magazine. It had my picture of Romney that had been published that week and it was very exciting! I felt like if I had to meet my maker during that surgery, at least I had been published in a national magazine. I was 20 years old at the time and from there I went on to have a very long association with Time magazine.
What is the one event you’ve covered that moved you most? There are a lot of them, and a lot of things move you in different ways. I ended up walking into the release tent in Thailand on the Cambodian border when the Cambodian refugees were fleeing the Killing Fields of the 1970s. Seeing the kids, it enraged me. It moved me to tears. That’s probably one of the more powerful moments. How would you describe your time in Vietnam covering the war? I think I became a much better photographer by all the experiences I had while I was in Vietnam, in terms of my photography and understanding of journalism. That was really the crucible – you really have to get it right the first time.
Who would you most like to photograph that you haven’t already, dead or alive? One of the people who I used to see pictures of and who had to me a very interesting physiognomy and character was Charles de Gaulle. An easy guy to photograph, perhaps, but I would have liked to have a shot at him. If you could arrange for me to spend a day with Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, I’d love to do that.
Who were you most disappointed in meeting? There were a few times when I thought I was going to get some time with a world leader and I got in there they shooed me out right away. I was with a group of editors from Time magazine photographing Gorbachev during an interview and the guys tried to throw me out. I was just insistent that I be allowed to stay to the extent that finally Gorbachev looked up and said ‘let him stay’. And I was like ‘that’s my friend over there, the first Secretary, he’s my friend’.
Who has been the most interesting person you have met? That’s a tough one. Did I really meet Ayatollah Kohmeini? No. I got inside to where he was working, but I did what most photographers try and do which is to disappear. Get your pictures and prolong your stay by being the least annoying or aggressive that you can be. To me, that’s what it’s all about, it’s not about bathing myself in some personal friendship with this president or that Imam.
But you did spend some time with Bob Marley? Yes I did spend time with Marley in Jamaica and in Europe. It doesn’t fail to amaze me what an impression Bob Marley has made in this world. He came from the tough side of town and had this gift of music, poetry and understanding that he still shares with with people who were born 10, 20 years after he died. There are very few people who fall into that category.
Would you say afterwards you became friends? The problem with me is that I kind of go from this one to that one and I never saw Marley again after 1977, and what a heartbreak that is for me – that I didn’t pursue it. But I lived in this wonderful time of photojournalism where the phone just didn’t stop ringing and I became so caught up with getting the story. There are a lot of people that I wish I had gone back and spent more time with secondarily, that I never did. And Marley was certainly foremost among those.
What type of photos fill your home? I have one wall of black and white pictures, which are just pictures from friends. Then there’s another wall which is photographs of my daughter that we took for New Year’s cards from the age of about 2 to 26, her age now. That’s it. I should probably have more in my house, but I don’t. Which is the most important photo you have ever taken? I took a photo of a young American soldier in Vietnam reading a letter from home and in a way that became the first good picture I ever took. From that moment, my understanding and my ability to see, and conduct that into making a photo, changed.
What is the one photo you’d like to be remembered for? In the end Paul McCartney is right: the love you take is equal to the love you make, and you can’t really exist as a fruit-bearing and worthwhile artist without having some more personal side to your life. So that would be my answer: some picture of my kid.
Exhibition: ‘Soul Rebel’ until April 15 at Gulf Photo Plus, Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 380 8545). Artist: David Burnett. Price range of works: Dhs5000 to Dhs18,370.