David Burnett ’68 Captures Moments, Miles, and Memories
David Burnett has photographed gun battles in the streets of Iran, Olympic divers seemingly paused in mid-air, every president since John F. Kennedy. He’s chronicled D-Day anniversaries in Normandy and authored “Soul Rebel,” a book of Bob Marley images. He’s won more national and international awards for his work behind the lens than there are contact sheets in the National Archives.
And yet he can still recall what was “probably the only event I didn’t take a camera to in four years” as a CC student: the famed 1967 Homecoming concert by The Doors.
“Photography is about memory,” Burnett says. “It’s really about trying to be a historian, as much as anything.”
The Doors memories aside, his college days come alive as he sits in front of a laptop clicking through film shots he recently scanned into electronic format, delight spreading over his face as he points out classmates at a late-1960s football game.
“Jim Garcia. … Steve Sabol. … Rosie the trainer. … Gordon Price. …That’s Judy the adorable DG cheerleader.
“I can recognize people I haven’t seen in years!”
He pauses, lost in thought.
“I’ve got a daughter who’s 27, and she might think she has some idea of what our lives were like in our 20s but she doesn’t really. I’m not even sure the pictures do such a great job of describing that, or telling that, but there is something — there’s definitely something about being able to look through these pictures.”
Burnett grew up in Salt Lake City. When it came time for college, he applied to Stanford University and Pomona College in California. And CC.
“The kicker was I was always able to say I went east to school.”
As a first-year student, he tried to join the yearbook staff but got brushed aside by the then-official yearbook photographer, so he started paving his own path. He shot photos of campus athletes and ended up working for the student newspaper, the Tiger.
“They had an account with Stewart Photo, down on Tejon Street,” he explains. “And I’d drop the film off and get little prints made, and in they’d go, into the paper. Very analog. Extremely analog. And that’s OK, because I don’t know that there are any hard drives from 1965 that are still working.
“Look at my film, they might not be great pictures, but at least I’ve got them.”
In his junior year, Burnett declared a major in political science, and Professor Fred Sondermann became a big influence on him. “[Sondermann] was great. I did once actually see him typing on two different typewriters at the same time. He was that good. He was the guy who should have been what Henry Kissinger was — the world would have been a better place if Fred Sondermann had worked for Nixon instead of Henry.”
Burnett headed off to Time magazine for an internship between his junior and senior years, and had 11 pictures published that summer. After his 1968 graduation, he took a three-month obligatory trip to Europe, but jokes that he wasn’t into journalism mode yet. “I was in Prague about a week before the Russians rolled in and I don’t know why I didn’t feel a greater obligation to shoot pictures. … I shot a few pictures but I don’t really have anything.”
Depth of Field
Even with a body of work that speaks to the last 40 years in a very cogent way and includes credits in such magazines as Life, National Geographic, and Time, Burnett is humble about his impact. He is, however, clear about the power an image can wield.
One such instance was in 1972, during his time in South Vietnam, where Burnett was changing film in one of his cameras when fellow war photographer Nick Ut shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Napalm girl” photo. The hospital where Ut took the girl — named Kim Phuc — didn’t want to admit her, Burnett says, because her burns were so bad and hospital officials feared she wouldn’t survive.
But Ut’s photo captured the moment. And people around the world were asking questions.
“The fact that after a few days people wanted to know who it was, and they went back and got her moved to the right hospital — it absolutely saved her life.”
In 2012, Burnett met in Toronto with Ut and others who were in Vietnam that day, to honor Phuc and the 40th anniversary of the bombing. Phuc is married now, with two sons, and runs a foundation for children victimized by war.
“I’d seen her once in Washington, but I hadn’t really seen her in 40 years,” Burnett says, “and then we were all back in the same room together, sharing stories about it.
“You just realize that is the power a picture can have.”
The Sochi Winter Olympics in February were Burnett’s 10th. This year, he was on assignment for the International Olympic Committee, but these trips make up just a small part of his work these days. Based in New York City, he’s co-founder of Contact Press Images, one of the few independent photojournalism agencies that produces “in-depth photographic essays of pressing global concern.”
He’s also a collaborator in the Facing Change: Documenting America nonprofit collective. The work encompasses a visual online project, which he says harkens back to the photography program the Farm Security Administration oversaw in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression. Facing Change’s hope today, he says, is to document the social issues of the time, many of which are economic and financial.
“There are things that you can do with pictures,” he adds. “Video can be very powerful, movies can be very powerful, but there’s something that anyone with eyes and a bit of a soul can relate to when it’s a still photograph.”