I’ve known David Burnett for a good thirty years. He was an inspiration to me before we first met. Since then, he’s been a mentor, confidant and dear friend. He was kind enough to share some thoughts and images from the Sochi Games with me and with all of you.
Thank you, David.
Kenneth Jarecke - My good friend David Burnett, how are things in Sochi?
David Burnett - Well, I never would have thought I could say, here I am in Sochi, but here I am in Sochi.
KJ - How many Olympics is this for you?
"In our business we have a way of talking about things that are fun that most other people wouldn’t have a clue of what we’re talking about." —David Burnett
DB - This is my tenth Olympics. My second Winter Games and even though it’s been a mild winter, I’m reminded of why I have a four to one edge of summer games over winter. Sooner or later, sloshing around in that gooey snow, your feet get cold. But, I’m having a great time working with a great bunch of folks.
In our business we have a way of talking about things that are fun that most other people wouldn’t have a clue of what we’re talking about. Working twenty hour days with all kinds of uncomfortable things, figuring out how to get from one place to another, but it’s fun. It’s what we do. You kind of learn how to redefine what is fun and I have to say it’s been a pretty good ten days so far.
KJ - Yeah, there’s no bad days in our business regardless of how bad they are. The worst day is better than doing anything else for a living.
DB - Actually I did have a bad day back in 1983, but I pretty much wrote it off.
KJ - Well, it’s nice you can still remember it.
DB - Yeah, when I think about it, it still pisses me off. (laughs)
KJ - Tell me about your access, you’ve got a six around your neck instead of a five I think.
"If you could find other ways in photojournalism to put talented groups of people together, good editors, our world would be damn near perfect." —David Burnett
DB - I've been very lucky. I’m working for the communication department of the Olympic Committee. Previously I’ve always worked for different magazines and I’ve gone in, like all magazine photographers. Hoping to get published. Get an Opening Ceremony picture in the magazine and that happened a couple of times. Then each week working like crazy tying to meet those deadlines. This is much more, I don’t want to say laid back, because there’s no rest for the weary, but there’s no immediately need to be published in the way it would be going through that process with a weekly magazine.
These pictures are meant to be part of the Olympic archive and patrimony. In the end, this team of photographers, which includes some really fun and smart people to work with, we’re all just out there trying to shoot great pictures.
I have to say, if you could find other ways in photojournalism to put talented groups of people together, good editors, our world would be damn near perfect. This has been a great gig. I worked for the (Olympic) Committee in London and had a similar experience.
You would think they have these passes that would let you stand in the middle of the ski jump hill or put your skates on and skate around a hockey game, but it really isn't like that. You have a pass that definitely gets you better access than a strictly journalistic pass, but you still have to work for everything you get. Some people are very open to it, the people in charge, but every sport has their own federation with their own rules. It’s not like the Bobbsey Twins go on a photo-picnic. There’s a lot of complicated stuff involved. That said, essentially you get a chance to make pictures of things that are interesting and challenging.
"There are six or seven hundred photographers here and none of them are here because they're a crappy photographer." —David Burnett
There are six or seven hundred photographers here and none of them are here because they’re a crappy photographer. Everyone here can shoot the pants off of everything they do, so even if it’s subconscious it feels like we’re having our own little Olympics trying to get pictures that rise above what we normally would be satisfied with.
You want to be part of this good group of people. You want to make pictures that you can be personally proud of, or that you feel tells a story. It’s a great honor, in a way, but also a huge challenge.
KJ - So in short, you don’t have the Vladimir Putin go-anywhere-do-anything pass?
DB - I can give you a big neyt on that.
KJ - I see many photographers working to not miss an image instead of working to make an image that is really special. How do you approach the events?
"You can learn a hell of a lot by watching, as in most things, but particularly here." —David Burnett
DB - I have a luxury in that I’ve never been the photographer who was relied upon to get the winner in that winning pose. So many photographers have great experience shooting these sports that I might see once every four or twelve years. I don’t regularly photograph hockey, curling or ski jumping. These are things that I’m just trying to walk my way into and figure out what to do when I get there. You have really good people who do this stuff all the time and know where to be, what to expect, and how to be ready for it.
You can learn a hell of a lot by watching, as in most things, but particularly here.
I don’t really feel that’s something that’s a huge problem. My mission, how I feel, and I get support from the people I’m working with, is to get pictures that give some sense of what it would be like if you were sitting here watching the games. To me that’s always what its about. It’s not necessarily about taking that six hundred and isolating somebody. I tell you the people that do that, who put a six or eight hundred in a backpack and ski down these treacherously steep alpine hills to get an action shot of some speedster flying through a gate, no one has more admiration for them than I do. That is real work.
KJ - Who’s your favorite curling photographer?
"You have to ask yourself how do I humanize this. I don’t really know the answer to that one. I’m still trying to figure that out." —David Burnett
DB - Well there is a guy named Chris who apparently does a lot of curling. It’s interesting, because he knows all the Canadian players. His father was a curling photographer. He was born into it. In the chit-chat way you have as you’re watching a match go on, I noticed that this one curler likes to stay low and he says yeah, you shoot him low with a six hundred and sometimes you can get him poking through everybody else’s limbs and he’ll be down there on the ice watching that rock go.
You see people in every sport who are specialized. There’s people who just do ski jumping or people who just do alpine skiing and people who just do bobsled. Those are not easy things to photograph, especially when people get all suited up with helmets on. Then your stuck. You have to ask yourself how do I humanize this. I don’t really know the answer to that one. I’m still trying to figure that out.
KJ - When I look at the images you’re making, it’s kind of what you’ve always excelled at, these quiet little scenes behind the competition that bring a great deal of humanity to these athletes.
DB - What interests me is the interaction between them. I have to say, ski jumpers just fascinate me. They are case studies of balance and form. They’ll spend quite a while leaping into the arms of their coach. Just to perfect the angular way they hold their body as they’re pushing forward on their skis to get the maximum amount of lift. It’s fascinating to watch. The stuff I shot today, which is pretty much all in black & white although I shot in color too, the black & white has become a more timeless look. I was looking at one today, where the coach was lifting up the player and I thought this kind of looks like what the 1948 games might have looked like.
KJ - They have a quality to them that’s not fixed in 2014, which is what we’re looking. That’s what the Olympic games are about. A timeless competition.
"There is so much history to the Olympics. Just to say it’s about today kind of misses the point." —David Burnett
DB - That’s the thing to me. There is so much history to the Olympics. Just to say it’s about today kind of misses the point. Someone sent me a link from 1924, Chamonix, I think the first winter games, these are fun pictures. They’re not great pictures photographically, but they do what pictures do best. Which is to give you a sense of what it was like to be there. The group shots of the guys with their brooms, like a real broom that they probably just grabbed from the kitchen. Like they broomed out the house and then went curling. All this stuff is ninety years old, ninety years. We think we’re masters at everything because of the technically gadgets we have, but so much of this goes back to a very basic, simplistic way of approaching a sport.
KJ - I love the pictures you’ve been making, you may have finally hit your stride.
DB - This would really be your kind of a gig too I think. It’s pretty low-key. A few times they tell you that you can’t do this or that, but the Russians I have to say, the volunteers are fantastic.
I had one of my little ThinkTank tummy bags and I realized when I got on a bus I didn’t have it with me. I had that sense of absolute panic. I stopped the bus and ran back the 100 yards to the venue. I asked around and one of the guys, a kid who speaks way better English than any of us speak Russian, went to lost and found and brought it back in like five minutes. I wrote it up as a little tribute to the volunteers, because they’re always on the lowest end of the stick. They go out of their way at the events. We should be thanking them. They’re the ones who make our lives easier. They get to practice their English on us and we get to practice being nice on them. These kids were great and I wrote it up on Facebook as the biggest Russian/American hug-fest since Brezhnev and Carter signed the Salt Two Agreement in Vienna.
KJ - So could this be the first games where you don’t lose a camera?
"They are missing the pit of worry in their stomach of not knowing whether they have any pictures on that roll of film they've just shot. I kind of feel bad for them in a way." —David Burnett
DB - You know, between losing one and trashing one... I borrowed this wonderful new lens, a 200 to 400 from Canon and when I returned it I forgot to give back the leather lens cover, it’s got velcro and everything. If you had to buy it it’s probably $480 bucks, the lens is about $15,000. It’s beautiful, f4 with a built in 1.4 converter. If you’re a sports guy this could become your go to lens because if you need to you can shoot at 2000 or 4000 ASA and the stuff looks beautiful.
That said, I have to say, living in that world and being surrounded by people who regularly shoot at 3200 ASA, they’re really missing something you know. They are missing the pit of worry in their stomach of not knowing whether they have any pictures on that roll of film they’ve just shot. I kind of feel bad for them in a way. This younger generation doesn’t know what that pit of worry is all about.
KJ - It sounds like you had no need to go to the time tested Russian diversionary tactic of yelling “smotret’ volk shchenok” and pointing in a random direction.
DB - I will tell you that so far I have not had to convince any people in authority that there is in fact a baby wolf, but I do say it occasionally just to stay sharp.
There’s been a lot written about the stray dogs, and walking home from a hockey game tonight, there was the most adorable looking dog who started walking along with a couple of photographers and me and I thought, smotret’, what a cute dog. He looked kind of like a baby wolf, but I’m not sure he had the baby wolf attitude.
The one thing I’m sorry about is that I didn’t bring any hot sauce, so if anyone else is coming bring Tabasco.
KJ - I’ll pass that along.
BD - Albest