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DB and the Chopper

Feb 11

In Friends, history at 7:03am

Got a note this week from David Burnett, long time photojournalist, who this month is chairing the judging committee over at the World Press Photo awards. Judging that contest is a massive task, requiring a couple weeks, lots of coffee, a love of visual storytelling, a point of view, and probably some eye drops. Thousands of images a day pass by the judges.

If you don’t know David’s work, you should, and almost certainly you have seen it and been moved by it, even if you didn’t know who was the author of it. He has covered the globe for virtually every major magazine out there, and done so with an intelligent eye and an open heart. Back in the day, when magazines actually let photojournalists act on a hunch, or overstay a trip just in case something might happen, David was in Iran. Sensing a seismic shift coming, he hung in, and his visual document of the toppling of the Shah, and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini is gripping and complete. He was perhaps the first Western journalist to gain access to the Ayatollah, and gave us a look at the Muslim cleric who changed Middle East politics forever.

David got this picture, and others, by being David, which means he stuck with it, went with the action, made good choices, sidled along with the crowd, created an opportunity, and most importantly, was ready photographically, when the door opened and he had a brief window with Khomeini. His coverage, and the thought process behind it, is presented, remarkably, in the book, 44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of the World.

DB continues his wry observation of the world from his blog, We’re Just Sayin. He pointed my attention to a recent entry about the day in Vietnam he didn’t get on a chopper.

The war wasn’t going well, and the official US position on moving the press around had changed. Instead of flying aboard American choppers, flown by more experienced pilots, the press was being ferried about on VN Army birds. On board this flight were Larry Burrows of Life, Henri Huet of the Associated Press, Kent Potter of United Press International, and Keisaburo Shimamoto of Newsweek. David was denied. He argued and pushed, but the answer was no. The bird was too crowded, too heavy. It took off, and never came back. All four shooters perished.

I never knew how close DB came to getting on that doomed helicopter. Reading his blog reminded me all over again of the essentially shaky nature of being a shooter. Even engaged in the most routine assignments, success is never guaranteed, and nothing is certain. It is always a risk, always a leap. For war correspondents, the leap of faith taken every day is staggering.

Like the one Burnett took by staying in Iran. There were no guarantees, no certainty of outcome, just a feeling that something momentous was about to happen. He stuck with it, which is sometimes, as a photog, all you can do. And then pray you’ll be ready with a camera to your eye when the moment you thought you needed to wait for implausibly, inexplicably, and suddenly, happens.

David’s been taking those leaps for years, quite successfully. It is sad to recall that tragic flight, of course, and the lives and talent lost. One positive note for me is that David didn’t fly that day. If he had, we would all be the poorer for it….  more tk…..

23 Responses to “DB and the Chopper”

Kyle jerichow says:

on February 11, 2011 at 7:16 am

I got into photography because of Robert Capa, and I took several journalists out on patrol with me in Baghdad who I still keep in contact with. They deserve a lot of respect for what they do and the risks they take for their stories.

I have been following the story of Joao Silva since he was wounded in Afghanistan by a land mine…he just took his first steps on his new legs the other day…



Ed Loziuk says:

on February 11, 2011 at 7:41 am

Good Morning Joe,

I love reading your blog posts. As always they are insightful and thoughtful.

Keep smiling

Big Ed (from the Great White North in Ottawa)

R.J. says:

on February 11, 2011 at 8:44 am

Thanks for sharing this Joe…great story.

Lars Petter says:

on February 11, 2011 at 9:19 am

Hi Joe, good story and a great photojornalist. By the way, is your new DVD out for sale bye its own now? I live in Norway and cant come to the show :-( Have only seen it bunddled with thickets to the flazh bus tour……

Ted McAusher says:

on February 11, 2011 at 9:23 am

I love the post. Your passion for what photography can offer the world is nothing short of inspiring. IMHO… a picture is not made to be art with just the push of a button. Art needs to be unique. Simply put, I’ve learned largely from you that if a picture is worth a thousand words, than a good picture should be worth a million. I’m looking forward to following David Burnett’s blog. Thanks again.

Tim Skipper says:

on February 11, 2011 at 9:41 am

There is a teaching in the Bible that says live for today because tomorrow is not guaranteed. It is events like this that remind us that we are all here on a temporary basis. We get to choose how we will live, we just have to choose carefully.

I have a saying “Time and words are the two things in life you can never get back. Be sure to use them wisely.”

Fred Mullane says:

on February 11, 2011 at 10:27 am

How bizarre you bring this up. A very old friend of mine gave up his seat on that chopper to Larry Burrows because he had, what he thought at the time, was a better news angle elsewhere. Strange how it all works out.
Love your work and what you are doing to advance photography. I’ve been in the game a long time myself (moving in a different orbit) and we have worked for a lot of the same people but never met.You are one of those rare photographers that no one has anything bad to say anything about, which is a huge compliment to your professionalism and humour.

阮之梦ruanzhimeng says:

on February 11, 2011 at 10:44 am

Joe,thanks for you book. hot shoe daries

frank says:

on February 11, 2011 at 10:47 am

Wow! Thanks for posting this information!

Christopher Martin says:

on February 11, 2011 at 11:26 am

Hi Joe,

Thanks for shining a light in David Burnett’s direction. There are many who didn’t know his work and know will. And that is a very good thing – there is much to learn from David’s current and historical work.



Paul Alers says:

on February 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm

David is after all David. Nuf said.

Ahmed Al-Ibrahim says:

on February 12, 2011 at 7:24 am

Thank you for posting article

Lech says:

on February 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for sharing some of David’s work and his perspective. I appreciate it greatly when a photographer uses his/her skills to help bring clarity and understanding to our world. Wonderful.

Steve Jones says:

on February 13, 2011 at 12:16 am

David is one of those rare “shooters”, like yourself, who have helped the people of the world better see those things that few of us will ever be able to see and experience in person. DB”s images “speak” to the point that the viewer often wonders how in the heck the image was actually created. As you yourself has often done so many, many times. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Always appreciated by us old shooters.

Amryl Malek says:

on February 13, 2011 at 6:18 am

Wow, just wow. I’ve seen the picture of Khomeini and now I know who shot it. Thanks for sharing.

Damon C says:

on February 13, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Joe, I check your blog feed everyday and when I saw this post it took my by surprise! I thought I had mistakenly embarked upon one of my Iranian bookmarks

As a Persian(Iranian), I loathe seeing picture Khomeini, but a very interesting article. I never knew who this photo was taken by.

After seeing what happened in Egypt people have renewed hopes once again since it was crushed 2 years ago. Activists are organizing a day of protest in Iran for tomorrow. Let’s hope it goes better this time, and the damned Ayatollah’s leave the regime once and for all!

To freedom and democracy!

Thailand Reisen says:

on February 14, 2011 at 10:47 am

You made me think for the first time about the untold stories behind those pictures. It’s fascinating – I guess sometimes the stories BEHIND the cameras are just as interesting (if not more) than the stories in front of the cameras.

Steven King says:

on February 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Another reason that it’s interesting that you write about the helicopter incident. I just read this article this morning:


about a recovered and returned Virgin Mary medallion that was worn by Huet at the time the helicopter was shot down.

Douglas Woods says:

on February 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I had the pleasure of assisting David on some of his shoots many years ago. He’s not only one of the most talented photojournalist living but just a decent human being. And might I add, has quite a gift for gab. I learned from David that it’s not enough just to have a good eye. You have to also interact well with your subjects. I think this where both David and Joe both shine.

Hamid Moradi says:

on February 18, 2011 at 9:56 am

thank you Joe for sharing this post

bycostello says:

on February 23, 2011 at 5:17 am

there for the grace of god go I, as they say…

Arash says:

on February 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Hi Joe ..
I am Iranian and I would say that Ayatollah Khomeini did not change Middle East politics , Uk & Us did that.He was a stupid guy who destroyed Iran and now you can see how is the situation in Iran,pity people there.Anyway I surprised when I saw this photo here ;)

Thanks for sharing

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