YOU GOTTA HAVE HEART! Famed Photographer David Burnett Celebrates 50 years of Iconic Images

Photo: David Burnett

Photo: David Burnett

If a picture is worth a thousand words then renowned photographer David Burnett is worth one: heart.

It's the emotional thread that weaves itself throughout his work, spanning five decades, from his war torn days in Vietnam to every presidential election since JFK, creating a tapestry of images worthy of another word: iconic.

Like the shot seen ‘round the world during the l984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles when US Olympic track star, Mary Decker– the runaway favorite to win gold– was “accidentally” tripped up by South African runner Zola Budd, knocking Decker out of the race and dashing all hopes of a medal.

While hoards of photographers angled for the best shot with a diminishing window of opportunity, Burnett stayed calm: “I very distinctly remember telling myself in a conversation that probably took about one tenth of a second, “Just make sure you’re focused.”

The split second delay paid off, producing a penetrating portrait of Decker unlike any other, revealing her apoplectic rage and pain and replacing the thrill of victory with the agony of defeat.

So compelling in its universal appeal, the photo catapulted Burnett into the upper echelon of sports photographers and won a slew of awards, most recently named by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 100 Sports Photographs of All Time.

Photo: David Burnett

Photo: David Burnett

Like many of his colleagues, the flame for his photographic passion was lit in high school. In his case, Olympus High School in Salt Lake City, Utah where he joined the school’s editorial team, taking photos for the high school yearbook. But it wasn’t until the summer of ’67, when he sojourned to New York City, that the flame intensified. He secured an internship at Time magazine, making $85 a week.

Meeting the frantic pace of the magazine’s weekly deadlines, hurriedly catching cabs, and eating hot dogs on the run, he took black and white photos of local politicians, advertising execs, and a rock and roll band he’d never heard of called the Grateful Dead.

In one GD photo, he spontaneously captured a crying child who had aimlessly wandered on stage. While Burnett admits it wasn’t a great shot, it gave the picture an unexpected story twist that added sympathetic feeling, giving the fledgling photographer a marked identity by incorporating elements of surprise that would distinguish his work in the ensuing years.

Photo: David Burnett

Photo: David Burnett

As a freelance photographer for Time and Life magazines he tackled his first assignment covering the Vietnam War taking photos of the dying, the wounded, and the not so grateful dead. In one award-winning photo, a beleaguered, young soldier’s face conveys the bewilderment, despair, and trauma of war– and perhaps even the quagmire in which America was so divisively entrenched.

“He is surely wondering what in the hell he’s doing there, so far from home," said Burnett. The photo was featured in Time Magazine's pictorial spread entitled: “The Vietnam War: Pictures That Moved Them The Most."

Facing the ever-present possibility of his own demise in the midst of that life-threatening assignment, the Vietnam War no doubt fortified his character with a crucial component in photojournalism– fearlessness.

Photo: David Burnett

Photo: David Burnett

This trait was apparent throughout his career. Whether he was covering the l979 Iranian Revolution, which resulted in Burnett’s "Man of the Year" portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini; or the highly anticipated 1985 summit meeting in Geneva between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, which yielded a striking composition reflecting the ominous power of two of the world’s top leaders struggling to communicate through their translators.

But dramatic world events like the launching of Apollo X1 and the Olympic Games in Sochi, London and Rio were few and far between compared to the bulk of assignments that dominated the landscape of his photojournalistic career.

"There are more crappy assignments than good ones," said Burnett. "I wanted to force myself to take something [great] in that crappy assignment."

In 2005, he found himself knee-deep in a particularly challenging job. In the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke in New Orleans, he was on location capturing the widespread devastation of the natural calamity/disaster. His harrowing photos, published in National Geographic, are evocative of the devastating widespread destruction left in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria earlier this year.

Yet no matter how challenging the assignment, colleagues of Burnett say he always returned with a picture reflecting a singular POV. Photos that have earned the photographer accolades in his industry, winning virtually every award in photojournalism.

Photo: David Burnett

Photo: David Burnett

While Burnett’s globe-trotting years have slowed down, the NY-based photographer has kept busy. When he’s not teaching workshops around the world, he’s writing books including his latest, “Newburgh Rising,” and signing copies of his best-seller “Bob Marley-Soul Rebel” featuring unpublished pictures of the Jamaican icon. And the torch he’s carried over the past 50 years for his photogenic mistress has yet to flame out.

"I feel lucky and honored that I have witnessed with [my] camera so much of what has gone on in our time - in a hundred countries - over the last fifty years. What better wish can a photographer have hoped for?"

What’s more, in a world gone mad over digital photography, there's always his $30 plastic Holga. "Everybody needs to have a camera where your lens choices are mountain, extended family, best buddies and one dude."


  To see the complete gallery of David Burnett photos go to


Words: Rick Sandack