David Burnett

David Burnett

Member, Freestyle Advisory Board of Photographic Professionals


David Burnett was born on September 7, 1946, in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He launched his photographic career in 1967 as an intern at Time Magazine while still earning a degree in political science at Colorado College. He went to Vietnam as a freelance photographer in 1970. Time magazine regularly published his pictures. Following the death of photographer Larry Burrows in February, 1971, he became the last photographer hired by Life. The famed magazine ceased publication the following year. He then joined the French agency Gamma before co-founding Contact Press Images with Robert Pledge in New York in 1976.

His coverage of the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean Coup d'Etat earned him his first major award, the Overseas Press Club of America's prestigious "Robert Capa Gold Medal" for "outstanding photography demonstrating exceptional courage under difficult circumstances". Many prestigious awards would follow, including the 1979 World Press Photo "Premier Award" for his documentation of Cambodian refugees and the 1986 American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) "Philippe Halsman Award" for his contribution to photojournalism over the last decade. His immortal picture of Mary Decker's anguished fall at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games has likewise earned numerous awards and graced many magazine covers.

In his career that has spanned nearly 40 years, David Burnett has visited more than seventy countries. He has covered stories as diverse as the French and American Presidential elections from 1972 to the present; the famine in Sahel in 1974 and in Ethiopia in 1984; the Iranian revolution following Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Tehran in 1979, and the Summer Olympics from 1984 through 2004.

During his career Burnett has photographed every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In March 1990, Time magazine chose him to shoot Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for their exclusive cover-story interview. He likewise accompanied Time senior editors to Cuba to produce a cover portrait of Fidel Castro for their Cuba feature. Recently he produced "The 10 Best Senators" for a Time essay. In addition to assignments that have taken him all over the USA and both Western and Eastern Europe, Burnett found time to revisit Vietnam twice, producing a very personal picture essay in black and white in 1994, and a color picture story published in Fortune magazine on the profound changes since the war. His black and white photo essay for Time on the occasion of the centennial of the Olympic Games in 1996 earned him the first prize in the International Olympic Committee's quadrennial contest in Lausanne, Switzerland. These images were published in magazines all over the world and later expanded into the exhibit and catalogue, E-Motion: Grace and Poetry: The Spirit of Sport. That same year he completed an eight-month project called "A Mile Around The White House" which he produced along with two other Contact photographers for Life.

David Burnett continues to be the photographer-of-choice for many magazines with his in-depth coverage of the Washington political scene, including the Monica Lewinsky episode and the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, and the Washington as it copes with the post 9/11 world. His 52 image show "Measures of Time" originally exhibited at The Colorado College in 2002, has since been on exhibit at a dozen universities. He speaks frequently on the topic of photojournalism and information in the digital age.


  • 2006: White House Press Photographers'Association 1st prize Presidential for a photograph of George W. Bush
  • 2006: National Press Photographers'Association 1st prize Portrait/News for Valerie Plame & Joe Wilson
  • 2005: World Press Photo Foundation 1st prize for a series on the Athens Olympics.
  • 1996: International Olympic committee "Best of Sport", 1st prize, black and white portfolio category.
  • 1991: White House Press Photographers'Association 1st prize/Sports Feature for Art Monk-Washington Redskins Wide Receiver.
  • 1986: American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) "Philippe Halsman Award for his contribution to photojournalism over the last decade.
  • 1984: World Press Photo Foundation 1st prize/Sports for Mary Decker's fall.
  • 1984: Overseas Press Club of America "Olivier Rebbot Memorial Award for "Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad" for Famine in Ethiopia.
  • 1979: World Press Photo Foundation Premier award for "Little Feet" - Cambodian refugee mother and child.
  • 1979: University of Missouri and National Press Photographers' Association Magazine "Photographer of the Year Award".
  • 1979: Overseas Press Club of America, "Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad" for both the Iran Revolution and the Cambodian refugees.
  • 1973: Overseas Press Club of America, "Robert Capa Gold Medal" for coverage of the Aftermath of the Coup in Chile.


  • "E-motion: Grace And Poetry: The Spirit Of Sport", Grazia Neri editions, Milan, 1996.
  • "François Mitterrand, Le cercle des intimes", Editions La Sir ène, Paris, 1995; with Gilles Caron, Jean-Claude Coutausse and Patrick Artinian.
  • Contributor to the "A Day In The Life" book projects (America, Australia, Japan, Hawaï and Hollywood).
  • "Chili", 'Reporter objectif', special issue, Paris, 1973, with Raymond Depardon and Chas Gerretsen.


  • 1984: "On Assignment" produced by BTC, Inc. and televised in the USA on PBS.


Ask The Experts

Dear Jose, Thanks for the note. It's interesting to try and think back about what inspired me. In my Junior year of high school, I applied to be on the school yearbook staff, and was invited to join the photo staff. I knew next to nothing about taking pictures, but it seemed like fun, so I jumped right in. I loved seeing those first prints develop in the darkroom trays, and found out quickly that I could watch sports events from right on the field (basketball, football, drag racing.) I began selling pictures to the local paper within 6 months or so of starting, and by the spring of my Senior year had a regular gig working for a little weekly paper. We all subscribed to LIFE in those days, and like many kids, I was entranced by the pictures, and eventually met a few Time and LIFE photographers on their visits through Salt Lake City. The one single book that probably inspired me the most was Yankee Nomad by David Douglas Duncan. A great adventure story of a young photographer. (David is still carrying on now, well into his 80s). I studied political science in college, and did photography on my own, and still feel that it's a smart way to go. The important thing is to read, learn, travel, and study so that in addition to knowing HOW to take a picture, you begin to develop a sense of your place in the world and how photography can help you to be a part of it. Good luck.... Also.. recently published is a great book edited by Life photographer John Loengard, called "What They Saw" about the photographers of LIFE.. i recommend it. Thanks,