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Interview with David Burnett

From JFK to the Iranian revolution, the Sochi and London Olympics – David Burnett has photographed it all.

Has your work in war territories influenced your photography?

Anytime you are in a place where people are victims of war it makes you as photographer more aware, something that got loss on the line. There is an additional sense of drama and need to understand what is really happening. I can not give an exact moment where I changed the way, I work, or see the world, but I am sure like most photographers everything I do is a product of what I have done before.

How would you describe your style?

I am trying to find some other technique or physical location that might yield the picture that is little surprising. That is what my goal is, to find something that can have a little bit of a difference look to it. It is more a motivation, technically speaking I don’t do so many things that are different or amazing or all together differentiated from what other people do. I am just someone who gets a great kick out of trying to capture the elements of the world around me. I don’t try to have a strong opinion about what it is before I go. I just want to react to what I see.

How difficult is sport photography?

Sport photography can be very challenging, it is easy to take interesting action pictures but, taking the picture to the next level gets to be very complicated. It requires a certain understanding of what is going to happen so that you can anticipate. Photographers have powers of observation, you look for a while and then you decide if it is going to be like that. The hardest aspect about Olympic Games is being able to concentrate. You are drawn by the almost magnetic power of all these different events happening at the same time. It is very challenging the sighting and where to be and what events to cover and then when you get there you are surrounded by great photographers who you somehow know are already doing great work.

You seem to work mostly with fast lenses, why this preference?

I have usually f2:8 or 4, I tend to like the way the wide apertures isolate the subject, it gives you a little bit of technical advantage in terms of trying to cut the subject out from everything around it that and the fact that if you want to use a higher shutter speed you have to pretty much open the lens up, anyway and with a large camera, I really love the way everything looks with that lens wide open.

How do you achieve the retro feel in your photos?

One of the ways of making something look retro is to use an old camera, I like the idea of trying to mimic and make pictures which have the same sort of physical qualities of as pictures from 50 years ago. It doesn’t always work, the dress, the athletes are very different from the past, so when you look at it no matter how different the camera, maybe the rendition of what you have looking at has changed a great deal from previous generations. Anyone who has grown up in the digital world would do themselves a huge favor to buy an old camera, just to have the experience of shooting film. It is something that my generation has, a very different attitude about shooting. I think everyone will benefit from having a lack of assurance and embracing the lack of certitude which film necessarily delivers.

Sochi, Russia   Olympic Winter Games - ©2014 I.O.C./David Burnett
Sochi, Russia Olympic Winter Games – ©2014 I.O.C./David Burnett

Do you have the final images planned out before the shoot or do you make it up as you go along?

Occasionally I try to plan something but I am terrible about that, I just arrive and look around, I like the energy of discovering things. Sometimes I miss a very obvious thing that I should have seen or understood but by enlarge, I like the discovery of what I am going into to maximize it. I think with so many things you just have to react as the world is because when the events happen in front of you there is no telling what can happen. We have to be ready.

Best piece of advice you ever received about photography?

Do your homework, know as much as you can about where you are going, whether it is a foreign land, try to speak a few words of the language. Photography is not just about pressing the button, it is about those relationships.

There are hundreds of photographers who shoot sport. What do you see that others miss?

Because I use older cameras I am forced to slow down, I am searching for one picture not a whole series. I hear all these cameras going off around me and I don’t really understand why they shoot so much, when one would do. If you try to shoot one picture then all your attention is involved. That is the person that I am.

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