Interview by John Camp
(Part I is here)
John Camp: David, on your days off, do you walk around with a camera under your arm?
David Burnett: About four years ago I needed a carry around camera, and ended up asking the Ricoh people to try out one of their R4 point-and-shoots. Great little camera, and I have progressed through several of them, and currently have a CX4 on my belt, for the last year. I make little movies (1280p) and make lots of pictures that I would never otherwise make. I'm a little lazy, like a lot of photographers. I don't always have a "real" camera on my shoulder. My bad. But the fact that I have a little ten-megapixel camera with me all the time, is way better than having the greatest camera in the world sitting at home on a desk instead of on my shoulder (apologies to Chase Jarvis). And now of course, camera phones seem about to take over the world. And there is the Lytron (I have not seen it yet.) The assault of gear will only increase in the future, I believe. So finding something that works for you, and lets you feel confident in what you can do with it, is the key.
JC: Where do you get most of your information on such things?
DB: I read Shutterbug (my favorite), Pop Photo, American Photo (usually), PDN (rarely), and Digital Photo Pro (to see how the advanced-tech-half lives...). And online, I am swamped by all the good stuff. You need a fast internet line and at least an hour at a clip. It can really become the kind of surfing that the term was invented to describe. From one great site to another, and in an hour, you’re on overload.
JC: You’ve had a traveling show of photographs of Bob Marley. Are you an artist, or a reporter? Or both?
DB: I still think what I see as an artificial boundary between journalism and art is one that really ought to be more diffuse, transparent. I suppose art is art only if you premeditate what you're doing. So they say. But I think there is something inherent in the photographic process, the seeing, the understanding, which has every bit as strong an element of connection as anything in the art world. I have always thought the process a bit skewed in favor of those who decide. So perhaps we have to decide for ourselves. I remain a reporter, but, dare I say it, with an artistic eye.
The Marley work [Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley in Jamaica and Beyond from Insight Editions] was of course done as reportage for TIME magazine on the 'new, undiscovered music known as Reggae....' I don't for a minute feel obliged to try to justify it as art, but in the reactions I see from viewers, and the way the pictures draw people to them...I leave that judgment to the viewers. What I suppose is true, is that I think the most important work I have done is the black-and-white from the 1970s and early 1980s. It is classic reportage, and while I love what I am doing now, I see it with different eyes.
JC: Speaking of that, how important is a well-developed artistic eye in news photos, as opposed, say, to the ability (or the bravery) to stand in and get the shot? What do you need most—balls, or eyes?
DB: There are a number of really wonderful people working in the news business these days. People whose pictures you can usually spot before you read the credit line. What is very different is that today you can see some of those images just minutes after they are taken. I don't really think that makes much of a difference in how we see or interpret them, but it is very cool to see the pictures from the first quarter of a football game while they are still playing the second quarter. Speed aside, what I find most striking is the ability of some photographers to distill something special out of what might not seem to be a very special situations. (Damon Winter of the New York Times and David Guttenfelder of AP both come to mind.)
What we do know is that we live in a world where a camera, far from being the shield for the press that it once was, is now often seen as a target in conflict situations. Rather than be safeguarded, we become the target. That creates a new world of unease and mystery for those working in places where just being a photographer puts you at risk. It requires an extra sense of self, and smarts, to be able to not only make the pictures, but safely get them, and oneself, out. I have decided to leave the really dicey stuff to the younger photographers—there are plenty of talented ones—concentrating now instead on more easily accessible subjects.
JC: What do you think about the use of Photoshop to "enhance" news photos? Is there any place for Photoshop in that process? What about in feature or soft photos? Of course, you can't use Photoshop to move things around in news photos, but what about the idea of, say, altering contrast, or dynamic range, or colors so that they "look more like what the photographer experienced"? What about "soft" set-ups, like shooting people who are dramatizing events and are obviously attracted to your cameras...in other words, news-based performances?
DB: In all the years of darkroom work, there came to be a number of accepted printing techniques (burning, dodging) that were invented primarily because of the technical inability of the camera to get what the photographer "saw." And now, in a world which questions the veracity of everything, the ability we have to alter the look of a picture in seconds, using software, adds even great question marks. Yet, there are times when the most simple of techniques can make a picture approachable, and perhaps believable. Raw files are just that, and they need to be moved to the next step to actually become that final product for publication.
In the end, when you analyze the characteristics of Tri-X, Kodachrome, and every digital camera made now, each had its way of interpreting a scene. I think the real challenge we face is to try to create something which stays close to the real scene, which is a representation of what happened, and which avoids making the photograph just about the photographer. That is, of course unless the photographer is an "artist" and the photo is just the jumping off point where they add their own vision. We live in grey areas, but I think it's important to at least maintain a feeling of honesty about our work. Feature work, where you are going past an impression of an event, and entering the area where you are allowed to express your own view, as long as it is obvious in the photo, or it's explained in a caption, I think there is nothing wrong with interpretation. Just don’t confuse the two.
JC: In relationship to the previous question, do you see or feel a difference, sometimes, between the truth of a particular situation, and the actuality of what can be photographed? Have you ever been to a crisis spot or been on a political assignment where you have the feeling that what you’re shooting really isn't what's happening? What do you do about that? Is it your job to worry about that, or do you shoot what's in front of you and let other people worry about it?
DB: Much of what we do in politics really has nothing to do with how things operate. I like to paraphrase a Russian friend who used to describe his job, in the Soviet Union in the 1990s, as, 'We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us....' In much of political photography, the campaigns (for example) pretend to have an event, and we pretend to cover it. In the end you have to accept certain restrictions simply because for the majority of photographers, there simply isn’t time or access to see what is doing inside the campaign. So in a way, we agree that having a chance to see a speech, or a campaign event is where the public face of the campaign and candidate will be shown, and if that is what they want to show us, then that is what we can shoot. And all bets are off. Campaigns which try to restrict and control the press find one thing for sure: Those photographers will do anything they can to get beyond those restrictions, and in the end I can't imagine a candidate being better off by having a whole team of angry photographers trying to make a picture.
Control is a funny thing; it is often used as a tool by the security people to limit what we do, while in the end, the security people should be forced to live by the standards that the campaign wants, not the other way around. There are times when you know what you are trying to show isn't the real deal, but it's as close to the real deal as you can get. We all make compromises in our work. Because of access, time, transport, distance issues. All anyone can do, is to press their effort to the maximum, and afterwards decide if it was good enough. Of course in most cases, it's never good enough…and the desire to keep pushing forward is what makes for the best photographers.
JC: You do workshops as well as shoot on assignment. How critical are these for the development of a photographer? What kind of education does a top photographer need?
DB: I have done a number of workshops, and I have to admit that in most cases, I think I get at least as much out of them as my students. What I get, usually, is being exposed to infectious enthusiasm. People for whom the need and desire to photograph is paramount to all others. Those are the kind of people I find invigorating and inspiring.
If they are able to take some little thing away from me, or be inspired in some small way, that's great, but so much of what we do requires a genuine commitment of time, energy, and effort. Most of the photographers I know who have been successful are self-taught, in the main. They assisted established photographers. They learned on the job. They paid attention when there were things to notice. Nothing—especially in the era of digital when you can set up a shot, take it, and look immediately to see if you were successful or not—surpasses getting out there and shooting. One of my mentors, Philip Jones Griffiths, the great Welsh photographer, explained it all in a nutshell to me early on during my stay in Vietnam. I was fixated on trying to produce a story for TIME, and spending all my days trying to figure out where to go, what to do. Philip just punched through, reminding me that "Vietnam isn't about a bunch of so-called stories for TIME magazine. What you need to do is put 50 rolls of film in your rucksack, fly to Danang, and don't come back to Saigon until you've shot every roll."
What he was essentially telling me to do was simple. Put yourself in a real time, real life situation (it can be around the corner from home, it doesn't need to be half way around the world) and just shoot, shoot, shoot. That's how you make yourself a better photographer.
I know a number of great photographers who started in the military, and used what their resources were to maximize their learning and understanding of photography.
JC: When I contacted you about this interview, you were in Dubai. How does working as you do affect your private life? Is it hard to stay married? Is it hard to raise kids? Have you ever had a dog? Have you ever thought about moving to the countryside, where you could draw water and chop wood? Or is it the Upper West Side for you?
DB: My wife and daughter have been very understanding. I hate being away, but I understand that for me, that's where the work, the stories are. We have a house in the 'burbs, and there is plenty of wood to chop if I had a proper ax or, don't tempt me, a chainsaw. But both of us have travelled significantly in our careers, and we understand what it takes. I try not to be away longer than two weeks (three for the Olympics every four years) as readjustment is just too great. My daughter moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, and so we are away from each other. When I talk with her, I am reminded of how my life was when I lived in Vietnam, phoning home a couple of times a month (it was expensive) and trying to stay in touch with actual handwritten letters. The loss of letters in today's world is one of the great losses we are experiencing, though we shan't know the full extent of it for another twenty or thirty years when we'll wish we had those letters never written. I love New York, but am happy to be away from it. I really like small towns, with welcoming barbecue restaurants. In so many ways our private lives and work lives are one and the same. They meld together, and we share so much of it.
JC: Tell me one last thing about leading your kind of life that's important, and that might be important for photographers reading this.
DB: The one thing I think I would advise young photographers, in particular, is that in most cases no one can be as hard on you as you will be on yourself. Do not settle for easy. Do not settle for that first image. Craft it, work it, and make something more out of it. And finally, don't forget that the biggest joy in photography is making pictures of those things in your own life. It doesn't need to be a St. Patrick's Day Parade with thousands of revelers to be important. Your friends, your family, your own life—that should be the first subject you work on. It's a given your family will be tired of being photographed, but don't give up. In another couple of decades, those are the pictures you will be glad to have.
JC: Thank you, David.
DB: My pleasure.
Once again, here's David's website. Big thanks to David Burnett and John Camp.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Albano: "A great video interview, where he praises the Holga a lot."