Dispatches: David Burnett


I’m trying to figure how to explain David Burnett because he doesn’t really fit anywhere, and that my friends, is a compliment. Let me start here. Iranian Revolution. Vietnam. Bob Marley, The Olympics. Politics. Oh, and when everyone went digital he went right to the 4×5. The people I know who know David just refer to him as “Burnett.” Kinda like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Just “Crockett.” Actually, come to think of it, Crockett’s code name when dealing with the bad guys was……BURNETT. Go figure.

David represents something I hold in the highest regard; a real career as a witness, journalist, photographer and “newsman.” I don’t want to say people can’t do this today, they can, but things are just different now. I got a chance to sit down with him and talk social media, the industry and a little about this thing we call “photography.” Thanks Burnett.

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48 Comments on “Dispatches: David Burnett”

  1. Wonderful way to spend my lunch break, listening to this interview. I had the pleasure of hiring David to do some executive portraits (using his SpeedGrafx) for me in my day job. I also asked him to cover a special event in the “photojournalistic” style – fly on the wall, etc. Of course, his images were spectacular and boss loved them. Secretly, I was just happy to take him to dinner a few times and just talk with him about his life, work and adventures. And what he said was true…his tripod did break at one point, so we walked up to a local camera shop. Kid behind the counter (who had no idea who he was) kept trying to sell him the Humvee of tripods. Nope, he went with the cheapest, lightest one. Nice interview, Daniel.

    1. Mark,

      Keep it simple! What I love about David is his sense of humor. He’s seen a lot, done a lot and won a lot, so it’s nice to have the humor running alongside.

  2. Pingback: David Burnett in conversation….about this thing we call “photography” | Photography is Inspiration and Communication

  3. Ha ha! Listening to David always makes me laugh. Makes me remember before everything else, taking photographs makes me happy.

  4. THE biggest thrill of my professional career is when I got an email from David saying he liked a photo of mine. I try to learn from his work ALL THE TIME. Dan, thank you so much for this interview. Any chance I can get to hear David’s thoughts on life and photography is a treasure.

  5. That was fantastic. Thank you for that one. So many little nuggets, from both of you, to let sit and marinate.

  6. That was fantastic. Thank you for that one. So many little nuggets, from both of you, to let sit and marinate.

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  8. Dan,

    I was struck by your comment about social media and the amount of work posted that is not really good. I was going through James Natchwey’s “Inferno”, and was struck by how much photography posted on the Net from day to day is just pointless. Yeah, great exposure, great composition…meh. Boring. It’s simply more of the same. “What are you photographing, why are you photographing it, what’s your point?”

    1. James,
      Social is about, for many, an addiction to praise. Vast majority of feedback is positive regardless of image quality. It’s all about the likes. Consequently, it’s bullshit most of the time. Not to say there isn’t GREAT work on social, there is, but it’s buried and forgotten in a remarkable short amount of time. Sadly. Even viral events are often considered old news after 48 hours. Want your work to be considered and this presents a problem, but one that is intriguing when it comes to trying to solve.

      1. I listened to a brand/marketing presentation yesterday by Jonah Berger, professor in marketing at the Wharton School/University of Penn.

        One key takeaway….

        “Social media accounts for only 7% of all word of mouth referrals.”

        The folks on the internet would have you believe social is the end all be all of reaching potential clients and business. Yet we seem to be allocating a disproportionate amount of time to it.

        It definitely has its place. Just don’t ignore the other 93% of the opportunities to connect with real people. Start with your own family and work outward from there.

        1. Eric,
          And 93% of photographers doing video don’t want to do video. There are all kinds of alarming facts out there that people don’t want to face. I’ve met SO FEW people who have made a penny from social. Some aren’t trying, but a lot are, and I just wonder how much better off they would be if they took that wasted time and it to make better work?

          1. In a very difficult struggle with this right now. My forehead is flat and bloody.

            To me, traditional methods of reaching an audience no longer hold the relevance they once did. Everyone wants to know how large a following you have and not the value or quality of your work. Just about every discussion I had at the Telluride Photo Fest revolved around it. Didn’t matter if I was talking to an editor, creative director, art buyer or photographer. It’s completely backwards.

          2. Sean,
            Of all the industries to fall prey to this it’s the most depressing when you think about the creative world falling head first. The ONE community you would think would see through the haze. And let’s look around at the state of the creative industry. Photography, design, graphic design, illustration, etc. Would you classify these as healthy? I sure wouldn’t. The social treadmill isn’t working. Nor will it work in the future because everything we are being told we have to do today will be gone tomorrow. Twitter layoffs? Snapchat? Periscope? What’s next? Again, I wonder how much better the work would be if people didn’t have to waste so much time being phony on social?

          3. Social media should be used as a tool, which is all it is. One tool among many to market and distribute your work. Take some time to go to a meeting of a local writers or book group and you find out that old fashioned foot work and salesmanship are still required to get the word out about your work and have it sell. This is still the meat and potatoes of the book publishing industry. There’s a false narrative that “Social Media” by itself will achieve those goals. As Dan pointed out, that rarely happens. Old fashioned networking and “making an ask” of influencers and buyers will ultimately decide how your work will be received.

            This can take years depending on your commitment, the quality of your work and its connection with society as a whole. Remember, photographers like Kenna and Avedon took years to receive the acclaim they now garner. In the meantime, they worked hard as printers and commercial photographers to put food on the table.

            During their time, the industry changed to, and they changed with it. What the business cycle is now, is not what it may be five or ten years from now. All of the social media of today could be gone tomorrow. Remember MySpace? The rules of business apply to the artistic world just as they did when I was doing start-ups in the medical and construction industries. Perseverance, commitment a hard skin and yes, a bit of ruthlessness are required, if your goal is to rise to the heights of those aforementioned figures.

            On the other hand, you have to be realistic about what you want to accomplish. For instance, my background is as a radio journalist and marketing consultant. Back in 2008 I left radio. Two years ago I decided I wanted to pursue journalism as a freelance writer and photographer. A hard road. Also, married to someone whose happiness is as important to me as my own success. Without going into details, I’ve decided to take it as it comes. I have to maintain a day job (albeit a very well paying day job). I pursue photography at my own pace. I’m looking to publish several works (through Blurb). If they sell well, great. If a publisher or magazine picks them up, great. If they don’t, oh well, onto the next story, the next book. I might be 60 before it pays off. What’s important – Does it make you happy. Does it bring you satisfaction. If making money is your final goal, you will in all likelihood, be disappointed.

          4. James,
            Well done. Talk to fifteen-year-olds and they look at you in horror when you mention Facebook. “That’s for old people.” Instragram is the drug of choice at the moment, and that will fade too. The cycle will get shorter and shorter as the world begins to realize that these platforms are about entertainment. Give it enough time, society will continue to erode and one day we will all be faced with something like “Hmm, I have 10k likes today but I don’t have any water.” We will know less and less about each other, less about our neighbors and more about the things that are truly meaningless. Like how many celebrities were ALMOST pro athletes. There are simply too many unskilled workers in the creative fields to support the market. Far too many. And the vast majority want that dreamy laptop lifestyle they see on blogs of the mega-promoters. It’s not real. It’s entertainment.

          5. Dan, no, I don’t see any of it as healthy. I’m not a true believer of the social media savior but it is an interesting time to figure out how to a make a living at this. Trying to re-enter this field after several years of being away makes my head spin.

            James, thank you for your in-depth reply. Much appreciated.

            I am making much more of a conscious effort to get out, shake hands and have a conversation these days. The creative community between Denver and Boulder is massive with many talented folks. Lately, I find myself trying to meet people in other fields: illustrators, designers, writers, etc. The conversations are much more stimulating than a roomful of photographers. It took awhile to find the right ones but, I’ve got 2 or 3 now that aren’t just a gaggle of millennials staring at their phones.

          6. Sean,
            That is a really good idea. Getting into the other disciplines will open doors you didn’t know where there. I’ve been trying to do the same thing, not because I will go back into that field, but just so I can learn more about how things work. And how to better collaborate.

    1. James and Sean,

      I’m thinking of buying a Chevy Colorado Diesel pickup. Does this mean we are related?

      1. J and S,

        Colorado is only midsize diesel option. Don’t need full size truck. From about November-May I seem to get my Jetta stuck at least once on every trip to New Mexico. Or I get into a neighborhood or area and just can’t get out, so I’m ready for something that will handle winter in the Sangres.

          1. James,
            We’ve come a long way from the 6.2 liter GM diesel which I had. The most underpowered 4×4, at least at highway speed but insane mileage. My dad’s old ranch partner has been running the GM diesels on the ranch and farms for years, so if they can handle his stuff mine will be child’s play. I’m really after that midsize too. Who knows. The dodge is awesome. Have friends that have them.

  9. Dan,

    One additional observation. I am 50 years old. I was mentioning to my wife that one rarely sees kids playing around our neighborhoods. We are afraid to let them play outside or roam unattended. Adults had dinner parties. They went OUT to bowl, play cards, play baseball in the park, go to the beach, dance and roller skate. Now everyone joins a gym, plugs in their noise-cancelling headsets and works out — individually. People stay in their homes and use apps to connect.

    For the last few years, I believe the rise in popularity is in part due to the fact that we are all now starved for human interaction and empathy. Facebook is providing (we wrongly thought) the sense of community we subconsciously feel is lacking. As you said, none of it’s real. None of it is human.

    To circle this back to photography and publishing…. the Instagram and Facebook like button have replaced the photo editor. Personally…..I am starved for critical feedback of THE WORK. Both negative and positive. What a blessing it must have been to have access to a photo editor with whom to collaborate? Wasn’t that an amazing learning model? The photographer gets an assignment….going out to interact with and photographer his/her subject…often spending days, weeks, or longer getting to know the material….getting to know the people. Forming relationships. The shooter then returns to banter back and forth creatively, socially, with someone trained to help edit and to make the work stronger as a whole.

    I’m so jealous.

  10. Listening to this interview again I was thinking of the stir in the photography community made by Burberry when they hired Brooklyn Beckham as their photographer. I have no idea if he’s a good photographer or not, but it’s not lost on anyone that he has 300K+ Twitter followers, 6 million Instagram followers, not to mention his parents social media following. Burberry is making a concerted effort to move it’s brand to a younger market, and it’s no surprise they would be doing this with a marketing strategy that is as much about the photographer as the photos he will produce.

    1. James,
      I have a new post called “Don’t Shoot” which I’m sure will rankle some people. I’m not sure you even need to photograph anymore to be a photographer. Just a phone, social accounts and website. You’ll get work simply by talking about doing work. I don’t know anything about Brooklyn but he’s scaleable to clients and that far outweighs the quality of the images.

  11. Incredibly inspiring in a world full of photographers. He actually inspired me to go back to shooting my love of Polaroid. Amazing, amazing interview. Thank you.

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  13. The defining moment for my shift into becoming as David says “PFJ” was when I watched Scott Griswold interview David for the KODAK video series “Images of the Masters” in which Burnett photographed Cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell. All I will say is David Burnett was the #1 catalyst in my becoming a photojournalist – with Dirck Halstad coming in at #2. I wish I could find that video for my collection but it was only available on VHS tape when it came out in the 80’s. I’ve since lost the complete set I had from that time :-/

    1. Cliff,
      When I was JUST starting out in photography I got a call from Dennis Brack in DC. Dennis is a friend of a great fiend of my dad. Dennis found out I was starting out in photography and said “Come to Washington.” It was hit the ground running. We went to the White House, Naval Academy Graduation and I was SHOOTING. Dennis gave me gear and assignments. I was scared shitless to some extent but it was a real world taste of what was out there. Brack is one of the most amazing guys I’ve ever met. I’ll never forget it.

      1. Damn dude! Dennis Brack is another name I remember from back in my early days… Sent you a txt msg about one of the topics you discussed with David in this interview.

  14. Ok I was a photojournalist (freelance) for 12 years back in the prehistoric years. I’m pre Internet, pre social media, pre digital and what I learned from that experience is now, more than ever……get a day job. Don’t count on photography paying you anything more than shit money and no benefits. Musicians and actors understand this. Better yet, do photography to feed your soul and don’t waste a second on needless nostalgia for the “good old days” that never were. Now is all you have.

    1. Hey Jim,
      I guess it depends on the genre. I have friends in advertising/motion picture/commercial who are making serious money, even today, but most of these folks are old enough to have established relationships with art buyers, agents, etc. And clients. The problem I see, at least for those coming up, is that there isn’t anyone replacing the old guard. But I agree with you about getting a job. So many photographers I talk to put on a brave face in public, or especially on social, but then the truth comes out in conversation. They are, often times, afraid and miserable. I certainly had more fun early in my career than I did late, but early wasn’t perfect by any stretch. I think there was more of a sense of humor and there was also much more emphasis on the actual photography, whereas today so much of the equation is about hype. Followers, likes and the nonsense of today. The key is to make the pictures you want, enjoy yourself, learn and try not to mangle anyone in the process. Including ourselves….

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  16. It’s been such an intense moment listening to David Burnett and you. Thank you for this work.
    It’s weird beacause, right now, I’m in a mist, wondering if I’ll bring films and my Mamiya 6 to my next personnal documentary story. Scanning matters and all that boring digital process…
    Anyway, your commitment and sharing give faith again in photography !

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