Got a note this week from David Burnett, long time photojournalist, who this month is chairing the judging committee over at the World Press Photo awards. Judging that contest is a massive task, requiring a couple weeks, lots of coffee, a love of visual storytelling, a point of view, and probably some eye drops. Thousands of images a day pass by the judges.
If you don’t know David’s work, you should, and almost certainly you have seen it and been moved by it, even if you didn’t know who was the author of it. He has covered the globe for virtually every major magazine out there, and done so with an intelligent eye and an open heart. Back in the day, when magazines actually let photojournalists act on a hunch, or overstay a trip just in case something might happen, David was in Iran. Sensing a seismic shift coming, he hung in, and his visual document of the toppling of the Shah, and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini is gripping and complete. He was perhaps the first Western journalist to gain access to the Ayatollah, and gave us a look at the Muslim cleric who changed Middle East politics forever.
David got this picture, and others, by being David, which means he stuck with it, went with the action, made good choices, sidled along with the crowd, created an opportunity, and most importantly, was ready photographically, when the door opened and he had a brief window with Khomeini. His coverage, and the thought process behind it, is presented, remarkably, in the book, 44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World.
DB continues his wry observation of the world from his blog, We’re Just Sayin. He pointed my attention to a recent entry about the day in Vietnam he didn’t get on a chopper.
The war wasn’t going well, and the official US position on moving the press around had changed. Instead of flying aboard American choppers, flown by more experienced pilots, the press was being ferried about on VN Army birds. On board this flight were Larry Burrows of Life, Henri Huet of the Associated Press, Kent Potter of United Press International, and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek. David was denied. He argued and pushed, but the answer was no. The bird was too crowded, too heavy. It took off, and never came back. All four shooters perished.
I never knew how close DB came to getting on that doomed helicopter. Reading his blog reminded me all over again of the essentially shaky nature of being a shooter. Even engaged in the most routine assignments, success is never guaranteed, and nothing is certain. It is always a risk, always a leap. For war correspondents, the leap of faith taken every day is staggering.
Like the one Burnett took by staying in Iran. There were no guarantees, no certainty of outcome, just a feeling that something momentous was about to happen. He stuck with it, which is sometimes, as a photog, all you can do. And then pray you’ll be ready with a camera to your eye when the moment you thought you needed to wait for implausibly, inexplicably, and suddenly, happens.
David’s been taking those leaps for years, quite successfully. It is sad to recall that tragic flight, of course, and the lives and talent lost. One positive note for me is that David didn’t fly that day. If he had, we would all be the poorer for it…. more tk…..