The legendary US photojournalist David Burnett, a founding member of Contact Press Images, chaired the 2011 international jury for the 54th annual World Press Photo Contest. CPN editor Steve Fairclough caught up with David Burnett during the 2011 World Press Photo Awards Days, that were held in Amsterdam on 6 and 7 May 2011, to discuss Burnett's thoughts about chairing the jury, the role of photojournalism in today's multimedia world, and some of his current personal projects.
CPN: What is the importance of World Press Photo in the world of photojournalism?
David Burnett (DB): “First of all, I think it's important that there's a group that sees beyond one country or one little group of photographers. What has always impressed me about World Press Photo is that it is the most universal contest – it draws people from over 100 countries. The winners are always very mixed but this year, in particular, places like India and Bangladesh, that have not traditionally been very strong, are now producing great photographers.
To me the most important reason for its [World Press Photo] existence is to be this ‘international passageway' so that we can all come to meet here [in Amsterdam] and see each others' work. There's so much to see in just two days of looking at all of the work of the winners and there's so much to take away from the work. It's so hard in the course of a normal life to be able to see all of the stuff around the world unless that's all you do, which wouldn't leave you very much time to be a photographer.”
CPN: How was your experience of heading up the World Press Photo jury and did you enjoy that process?
DB: “It is an exhilarating, exhausting experience. I love World Press Photo; its staff and the way that they all enter into the work with so much passion. It's great – you get to see so much and you see it quickly in passing. As you go through the layering process, that separates out what eventually become the winners, you really start to see the depth of what's been produced in a year.”
CPN: There was a record entry to the World Press Photo Contest this time of 108,059 images – was there anything that surprised you from the entries or did you notice any particular style or photographic trends?
DB: “I don't really see any trends other than, if this is a trend and it may not be a new trend, most of the work that ended up being in the final set [shortlist] or being awarded [prizes] were projects that were coming from the photographers. It's not like they got an assignment to go and shoot something. These are things that the photographers are finding themselves and, in the end, when it's something that comes from within the photographer, that's when you see the most energy and passion in the work.
To me that's the single biggest thing in an era where resources are vastly down from what they were a few years ago, in terms of magazines being able to give assignments. Now people are going on their own and they're discovering stories near to where they live. They're doing it themselves and they're making sure that the things that they want to do is the work that they really put their energy into.”
CPN: Did any one piece of work stand out for you or was it a case of having a really good standard across the board?
DB: “There were not only a lot of entries but also a lot of good entries. When you're part of the jury it makes it more exciting that you have a lot of good work. In the end we were in a place where we were moving pictures from one category to another because there were certain things that we really liked that had far too many good entries in that category.
Some of the categories were a little weaker and we decided to try and figure out a way that made sense. I think one of the real strengths of the jury system here is that they leave a lot of those decisions up to the people that have to make that call. I feel that we've really discovered the best work – there's very little work that didn't get chosen that I really wished had [been chosen].”
CPN: In the digital age, and with the growth of multimedia, do you see this as a time that offers the opportunity for photojournalism to grow or do you have concerns about the future for photojournalism?
DB: “When you see some of the really exciting and terrific multimedia pieces that are done – this year there was nothing that wasn't very interesting or compelling – you can see that a lot of work has gone into it. For me video is not just turning a still camera over to the video setting and ‘keep shooting'. There has to be a lot more of a thought process before, during and after in terms of production and how to link up all of this material.
Our business has gone through a lot of downward pressure over the past few years so perhaps this ‘morphing' into these other ways of telling stories is going to be something that helps visual storytellers to survive longer, which I hope they're all able to do.
It's been very challenging at a time when budgets have been going down and assignments have been going down. It's hard to feel very optimistic strictly based on that but, on the other hand, when you see the work that's being done, and that people are finding new ways of presenting what would have just been a photo story a few years ago, that is exciting. I think there are a lot more possibilities coming through to make stories and get them seen by people.”
CPN: What are you currently working on?
DB: “I'm still fooling around with my old press cameras; my film cameras and, at the same time, I'm trying to figure out how to make those first few ‘baby steps' into the video world. I've tried a bit of video before but, like I said before, I know that it isn't just picking up the camera and shooting. It requires a lot of changes of perspective and thinking about the way in which you want to approach the story.
I have a couple of little projects going on that are kind of fun but I'm just happy to see that things seem to have stabilised a bit. We're not in that same crisis that we were a couple of years ago and maybe we've turned some kind of a corner.
I'm looking at older, earlier work – work from the 1960s and 1970s that never really took a modern look at. I'm moving into a new studio space near New York and I'm really excited to go back and look at the work that I did 30 or 40 years ago. Hopefully I'll discover a few pictures that I didn't see along the way.”
CPN: Do you have an idea of what you might like to do with those pictures?
DB: “Mostly, I just want to see if there's anything there. Once you get into your 60s, if you talk to anybody that's my age, we still kind of think like 25-year-olds. But then you start to imagine that something you did is 30, 40 or 45 years ago – that's a little bit astounding.
I want to treat that early work the way I've been treating the work that I do now; which is to really give it a good look and see what's there. I'll maybe find a few lost pictures that never had a chance to be looked at.”
CPN: Would you look at publishing something out of these older pictures?
DB: “I did two books about one and a half years ago; the first books I've really ever done. I have a couple of other books I'm thinking about; one project on sport and one on politics. So, maybe there'll be some kind of a ‘broader' book on my life – ‘My Life's Book' – but it has a kind of finality to it, which I'm not ready to accept.”
CPN: Would the sports and politics projects be US based?
DB: “A lot of the sports is Olympics; the politics is mainly from the US. Unfortunately, our President is kind of ‘the President of the world' whether we like it or not, or whether the world likes it or not, so it's a bigger deal than we ever thought it would be.
But I still like shooting; I still love shooting pictures. It's hard for me to slow that down and take the time to look at the older work, but I know that that's really where my energies need to be.”
CPN: You mentioned film cameras, but are you also shooting with digital cameras?
DB: “I have Canon digital cameras; I have a few point-and-shoot cameras; I have old medium format roll film cameras and a bunch of 1940s Graflex cameras with lenses that go back to World War Two – they make a very different photograph than what you can do with the new things [cameras].”