Making an appointment with a photojournalist is a challenge. David Burnett never knows where his next job will take him or when he will depart. This has been the life of one of America’s most accomplished photojournalists for over 40 years. His portfolio reads like a history book — the Vietnam War, the revolutions in Chile and Iran, the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has photographed presidential campaigns since the 1970s and all of the presidents from Kennedy to Obama. Ever the versatile photographer, he has also photographed eight Olympic Games — seven summer games and one winter. “I don’t like working in the cold,” he says.
Burnett’s photographs have won numerous awards, starting with the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1974. He won both Magazine Photographer of the Year and World Press Photo of the Year in 1980, and Best Olympic Sports Essay in 1997 and again in 2009. The National Press Photographers Association awarded him Best Campaign Picture for “The Road to the White House” in 2009. He won the Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club for Best Reporting from Abroad in 1995 and again in 2010.
Burnett has two recent books: Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley (Insight Editions, 2009); and 44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World (National Geographic, 2009). His exhibition based on 44 Days traveled to the international festival of photojournalism Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, France in 2009 and to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. in 2010. Other exhibitions have appeared across the U.S. and abroad since 2000, including Too Close at Rencontre d’Arles in 2006.
American Photo magazine named David Burnett as one of the 100 Most Important People in Photography — an honor that he says made his mom very happy. The May/June 2010 issue of American Photo features Burnett and his work in a 10-page spread. He is one of the founders of Contact Press Images in Paris and New York.
Burnett continues to work under contract for TIME magazine, a position he enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s and again since 2003. While he uses digital technology every day, he also carries unconventional cameras like the Holga and 4 x 5 Speed Graphic on almost all assignments. I met Burnett at his New York City apartment just after he arrived home from Washington, D.C., where he had photographed a press conference with President Obama. He was packing for Brazil to teach workshops the following week.
Ken Lassiter: Where were you born?
David Burnett: In Salt Lake City. I grew up thinking it was normal to be a Jewish kid in a Mormon state. I loved growing up there. It was a good-sized town for a young kid with a car and a camera to make photographs. I had an old Exakta camera with a Heiland Strobonar flash unit to shoot Friday night high school basketball games. I would make a lot of pictures in the first half, then drive my car down to The Salt Lake Tribune. They let me develop my film. They looked at the negatives and usually selected one or two shots for printing. Most Saturday mornings, I had a photo and my name in the newspaper. I also got a new roll of film and five bucks. I figured, “What could be better than this?”
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2011 issue.