Assignment Iran: David Burnett

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David Burnett born in 1946 is a renowned photojournalist . He graduated from Colorado College in 1968 and began working as a freelance photographer for Time and Life magazines. In the winter of 1979, David Burnett found himself in a unique position. He was one of the few Western journalists to remain in Iran during the throes of revolution — to witness and report live the historic overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's corrupt monarchy, and its replacement with the first Islamic Republic, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Over the course of those 44 consecutive days that changed the world, Burnett photographed the initial uprisings and mass demonstrations. He also captured the celebrations of Iranians upon the fall of a monarch. His work from the 1979 Iranian Revolution was published extensively in Time magazine. His work includes "Man of the Year" portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. His extraordinary photographs of the Iranian revolution, many of which were published in Time magazine, have been compiled in “44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World”. Now, more than 30 years after the event, he looks at his photos and relates his experience of being in the heart of Revolution along with his memories from that time.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “My name is David Burnett, I am a photographer. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the western part of the US.

And on Christmas day I flew from Karachi to Tehran and there was something about it and I can’t even say what at this point; but I just had a feeling that came out of that day that this was going to be something that wasn’t going to go away quickly.

They announced at that New Year’s Day press conference that he was going to take a vacation. Everyone interpreted all of that means the Shah’s leaving the country, which he actually did some days later; kind of proved to be the last attempt of the Shah to retain power but that didn’t work.

Half a million or maybe a million people at a rally it was just gigantic. And the scale of it was hard to believe. And active story it was changing all the time and no one really knew what was going to happen next.

My name is Davis Burnett. I’m a photographer; been a photographer for close to 50 years. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah in the western part of the US. And when I was in high school at age 16 I started taking photographs. I was shooting pictures for the high school newspaper and the yearbook. And I knew really nothing about photography until my junior year in high school and that’s when I kind of figured out that it was really fun to take pictures & to develop the negatives and for me it was really a transformative experience. And even though I had wanted to be an engineer and to work in a space program, that had been my long term hope, I think. Once I started taking pictures I pretty much knew that that’s what I wanted to do and all through college even though I was a major in political science I ended up taking pictures through all 4 years, both for the college and occasionally selling them to a magazine.

And then I began working as a freelancer for Time magazine at first in Washington DC and then later in Miami. And then on the summer of 1970 I decided that there was still enough work & questions to be asked in Vietnam which was getting to be near the end of the Vietnam War but it was still a place where there were a lot of things going on and a lot of work for a photographer. So in the fall of 1970 I bought a ticket to Saigon & I ended up staying there for 2 years working for both Time and Life magazines. When I came back from Vietnam in 1972 I was working for Life magazine as a contract photographer. And that was right. I was hoping maybe someday I would be a Life staff photographer. But the magazine closed up in just a couple of months after I got home.

So in the beginning of 1973 I had to really figure out what I was going to do. And I ended up spending 2 years working for the French agency, Gama and hit stories all over the world in that two years. And then after a couple of years working with Gama I decided to start my own agency with my editor friend, Robert Pledge we started Contact Press Images.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “And that really who I worked for, for almost forty years. Or worked with, I wouldn’t say worked for, but been a partner in the agency for all these years. And the good years and the bad years, and then the rich years and the lame years and of course everybody has some of each. But it’s been a great experience & I’m still working now even though the magazine world that I used to work for has pretty much disappeared. There’s very much fewer assignments & work available than there used to be in the magazines. And the editors are much less inclined to want to pay for it. So it’s really created a very different situation in that which I had in the first 40 or 45 years of working with. There were a lot of magazines and they had a lot of pages to fill and a lot of budget money to be able to have photographers create that. A lot of that is just simply gone away.

But it’s a great thing to be able to be a photographer & you know I sometimes think I’ve never had a real job because I’ve only worked as a photojournalist doing something I really liked doing. And I consider myself because of that, pretty lucky. Not many people get to do what they enjoy doing for a job.

The shah of Iran came to US and had State visit in Washington which I covered. and that was the trip where much of the oil money from 73, 74 was being spent to upgrade the Iranian Air Force and I remember they said all this: oh, the Shah’s been out on an Air Force Base testing out the goods, he’d been out flying an F14. And I think that’s when the original deal happened that Iran was buying F14 fighters. I didn’t see the Shah again until I arrived in Tehran in 1970… I arrived just at the end of 1978. There was a press conference that he & Farah Diba had on January 1st, on New Year’s Day at one of the palaces, I think, I forgot which palace it was frankly but it was the last time that he met with the press. And it was at that moment where I had been in Tehran for about a week. Most of the stuff I had been doing was on the street or was related to street demonstrations. On this particular day I went to the palace & made pictures of his last press conference. And it was a few more days until the next government was name which was the one led by Shahpour Bakhtiar. & which kind of proved to be the last attempt of the Shah to regain power; but that didn’t work. And he announced at that New Year’s Day press conference, he said he was going to take a vacation which everyone interpreted as, oh that means the Shah is leaving the country. Which he actually did some days later. And I remember going to the airport hoping to be able to get a picture of him getting on the plane, or you know some kind of a picture of departure.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “All we ever saw was the tail of the airplane. We never actually saw him again, the whole way that I even got to Iran was that I had been working in Pakistan & Baluchistan and for a couple of weeks in December of 1978; finished a story there, and rather than just getting on a plane and flying to the States, those were still the end when you would try & figure out how to maximize the value of an airline ticket. So that if someone was sending you from New York to Pakistan & virtually half way round the world, you wouldn’t want to just get on the plane to come home, you’d go somewhere else and try to figure out what else to do. And on Christmas Day I flew from Karachi to Tehran & within a few hours of being there and checking in at the Time Magazine bureau, I was in my first street demonstration & it was something that really stroke me very strongly that I had just arrived but I was just right in the middle of the battle between the soldiers & a bunch of demonstrators. And there was something about it & I can’t even say what at this point. But I just had a feeling that came out of that day that this was going to be something that wasn’t going to go away quickly.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Protester’s slogans: “I will kill the one who murdered my brother. Down with Bakhtiar.”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “I ended up spending a little over 7 weeks in Tehran and it was so interesting because you could see things happening on a daily basis which led to a sense of a real change. You know, it was the shah’s departure and tend to form a new government. And the return of Khomeini & Mani Bazargan being named the new Prime Minister, it was a lot to happen in a couple of months. And to which you had to kind of add that every few days or every couple of weeks in some cases there would be these enormous rallies in the street where you would have half a million or maybe a million people at a rally. It was just gigantic. And the scale of it was hard to believe but I mean that’s a you know you can say the word one million people or say those words in a kind that mean something but photographically, it’s really hard to photographs a million people you know. You have to photograph a piece of it & let it seems like a lot of people but the difference between 10,000 people and a million people you know one is 1% and the other is a 100 percent but It’s very hard to in pictures give a, create the sense of what that many people is like. So that was constantly a struggle just to show these huge demonstrations and what they were all about.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Protester’s slogans: “Down with the Shah.

Say, Down with the traitor Shah. We’ll burn down Niavaran Palace to ashes…

We swear to the martyr’s blood that we will kill you, Shah

We’ll burn down Niavaran Palace to ashes…

We swear to the martyr’s blood that we will kill you, Shah

Down with the Shah”

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “Many people have a hard time separating the fact that say I was an American photographer from the American regime. And even though you might try & explain it you would sometimes get in these very long discussions. I never once had any really bad times except for the fact that I was chased by the army and the police a couple of times. But the people by and large were very friendly.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “They wanted the story told and we were there to help just tell the story and that included what people were up to like in a big demonstration. It was really interesting after a couple it was so interesting because you could see things happening on a daily basis which led to a sense of a real change. Oh, it was the shah’s departure and tend to form a new government. And the return of Khomeini & Mani Bazargan being the new Minister, it was a lot happening a couple of months. And to which you had to kind of add every few days or every couple of weeks in some cases there would be these enormous rallies in the street where you would have half a million or maybe a million people at a rally. It was gigantic. And the scale of it was hard to believe but I mean that’s a you know you can say the word one million people or say those words in a couple that means something but its really hard to photograph a million people you know. You have to photograph a piece of it & make it seem like a lot of people but the difference between 10,000 people and a million people you know one is 1% and the other is a 100 minutes. It’s very hard to in pictures create the sense of what that many people is like. So that’s constantly a struggle just to show these huge demonstrations and what they were all about.

Many people had a hard time parading the fact that say I was an American photographer from the American regime. And Even though you might try to explain it would sometimes get in these very long discussions. I never once had any really bad times except the fact that i was chased by the army and the police a couple of times. But the people by and large were very friendly. They wanted the story told and we were there to help just tell the story and that included what people were up to like in a big demonstration. It was really interesting after a couple of weeks when there had been a few incidents in some of the marches of press people being bothered by the crowd. One of the reporters sent a message to his office in Paris saying please try and get word to Khomeini’s people that when there’s a demonstration you know, that the press is not the enemy here. We are just trying to report the story. So in one of the next broadcasts that Khomeini made from France he said something to the effect I don’t remember how exactly it was worded, but something to the effect that the foreign press should be treated as our guests.

And I know that the next rally that I went to people went out of their way trying to be nice and actually it was hilarious at one point. You know when you have thousands of people gathered you can, and you are only my height, you can really, I don’t know what I am in meters it’s like 170 or something. I’m not very tall. But when you are trying to see what’s going on unless you’re really elevated you can’t see so many people, but you need a Little elevation. So one point these four boys came along saying hey, where are you from. And I said well, I’m a French photographer and that was ok. I got very used to saying I was French. And well is there anything we can do for you? And I said oh, the only thing I can do now is see the. Is there any way I can get up? I had barely even finished saying the word up and they all grabbed my feet and just lifted me up high, like 1.5 meters, 2 meters high and all of a sudden I had my private little human tripod. And I was able to take some pictures then they let me down and I thanked them. And there were a lot of things like that happened at these big demonstrations. It wasn’t just all politics and all serious all the time.

There is a story I tell about my friend Patrick Schovel at one of these big demonstrations I was up on top of a truck just to get a little height. And slowly coming through the crowd was a bus filled with demonstrators and on top of the bus was Patrick Schovel the French photographer. And he saw me. He kind of waved and held up his camera and I don’t know how I knew it but basically he was just kind of pointing and shrugging his shoulders like I’m out of film. Can you spare me a roll of film? So he’s moving through the crowd ,& I think between us there was probably about 25 or 30 meters, I reached through my pocket I got a role of triads and I tried to figure out where he would be and I threw it as hard as I could throw it. Now between us were like several thousand people, the demonstrators who probably after several hours of standing around listening to these messages were probably getting a little bit tired of what’s going on, a little bored maybe. So all of a sudden there was something happening that was interesting for everybody to watch. And I threw this film and it kind of went jumping through the air tossing over and sort of like a scene from a movie about the Olympics. But instead of landing right in where Patrick was, it fell short into the crown and they was this giant collective groan of people going owe!!! Because they had all seen me throw this film to him and it didn’t make it and the a few seconds later this hand pops up out of the crowd and in it is this roll of film and then it just gets passed from hand to hand to hand all the way over like a little caterpillar right over to where the bus was and he reached out and the hand reach up & he got the film and everybody was like yeah!!! It was a great moment for journalism.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Protester’s slogans: “It’s our day of victory, through our martyrs are no longer with us.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_26:02

SOUNDBITE [English] David Burnett, Photojournalist: “Well I only had spent that one time in Tehran. I left in February, I made the mistake of leaving for an R&R day or two in Paris & it happened to be a very critical day when the government was on the verge of changing hands. But I managed to get back the next day on a charter plane. & you know I stayed through the end of that 7 weeks. But I haven’t been back since & I had not really been there before so for me it was a very new place. & when you go to a place for the first time, you’re I think much more aware and in tune of what’s going on. You know you kind of have a sense of knowing what you don’t know. And the more you begin to understand the place, the more comfortable you feel with it. But in Iran I, honestly I don’t think I can say I ever felt completely comfortable with understanding what was going on or how to find things out.

One of the really interesting things is that when I talk to young people now, anybody under the age of thirty, they have no idea how you could operate as a photojournalist without a laptop and a cell phone and high speed data lines and the internet; none of which we had in 1979. And when all works were still shooting 16milimeter film I was shooting codochrome 35 mm film at triax black & white very much old school. But there was no way that you could just operate in the same way that a digital photographer operates no which is to shoot it and look at it immediately. I mean we didn’t know for days or sometimes weeks if we even had a picture. So you grime on your caption where you hoped was a picture & please for the editor to look at it and find it but it didn’t always happen & they didn’t always find it. But in many cases they would find things that you would either have forgotten about or didn’t even think were that sensational & make them into something sensational.

This is an office that I have in Newburg New York, which is when I moved from Arlington Virginia up to New York; Just a place where I keep all my gear & pictures and on light box I had to editing here in the light box. You know there is still a lot of stuff that I do is not done with digital. Like these are Polaroid prints from trying to test out a camera I’ve got. All these cameras that I like using that are not, you know some of these guys are not. It’s like it’s not a digital camera you know. It’s like a real camera. It’s like a real camera. & you know it’s one of these guys that has just woah. This is what, this is how they used to take pictures you know like you look at those pictures in the White House or Buckingham Palace from 1920, this was what they had, so they crank up the shutter, they focus in here. Pull a dark slide and when they see the shot that would be it.”

   

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