It’s not an image, it’s a mirror. The photograph stares back at you. Framed by blurred rifles and a few distracted compatriots, the man in the middle stands crisply and damns you with his eyes. It’s as if he knows that you are complicit in this thing that is happening to him, in his arrest, the torture, the possibility of his death. Argue if you will, but the fact remains: you are free, he is captive behind the soldiers.
Now imagine that it had been you in the tunnel that day forty years ago, that it was you behind the camera that took that picture. Imagine that it became perhaps your most famous picture in a long career. Imagine that you have spent decades honestly trying to understand what it means to make pictures of people in crisis or in triumph, and that this picture spoke as much about your life’s work as any other.
Wouldn’t you want to know who that man was? Wouldn’t you want to meet him?
David Burnett has spent his whole life in photography. There he was, winking at Gorbachev to try to get an expression. Squaring off with Mondale on a campaign plane. Waiting for just one shot of Mary Decker in agony. Or, in the beginning of his career, shacking up at a $2-a-night flophouse in wartime Saigon, losing friends in that helicopter crash over Laos that killed Larry Burrows, walking that dusty road in Trang Bang where 9-year-old Kim Phuc ran naked after a napalm attack. Dirty wars, famines, presidential palaces. He even covered music some, going on tour with a little-known rocksteady singer named Bob Marley.
It’s tempting to see him as a photographer’s Forrest Gump, crashing all these great moments in the last forty years of history. But he was never—if you’ll forgive the expression—just photobombing the shot. He had his own relentless drive to thank for his access. And he was, for much of the time, an emissary of the greatest news magazine in its prime, in the era when Time Magazine would throw its editors and publishers on a chartered plane and whisk them across the world for informal sessions with emirs and dictators and plutocrats. David was the guy they took with them.
Not that he wears those credentials loudly. Other photographers of his pedigree are scowlers flanked by groveling assistants, but you get the sense that David could hardly intimidate someone even if he wanted to. He makes jokes, does bad impressions, speaks atrocious Spanish and fluent French with equal aplomb. He may be in his 60s, but he still insists on carrying his own gear, no matter how bulky. So when he piles out of his hotel room, he is carrying a box camera the size of an old television, a bat-sized tripod, no less than three cameras around his neck and an oversized double-barreled fanny pack for his slide film. His wears beat-up sneakers and clothes that seem a size too big for him—a cousin of his, having seen him featured on a television news special, ribbed him about having a Hasid for a tailor.
David may be utterly without pretense, but he remains a perfectionist. There is perhaps no one alive today who is better, or faster, with the temperamental Speed Graphic than David. He has that talent that the best photographers have, the ability to see a complete frame in the middle of the chaos of real life.
The moment for photography after the coup was brief and brilliant.
That, in a sense, is what has brought him back to Chile 40 years after he first arrived. All careers, even a distinguished one like his, are chaos. What was the purpose? What does it mean to make pictures of history? Is it stenography or something more important? The man in the photo might know.
September 11 in the United States has its own iconic pictures: falling man, burning towers, stunned crowd. They are semaphores for a much deeper pain. Look at them and everything you choose to feel about those days comes flooding back.
Half a world away, Chile has its own iconic imagery of September 11, for a separate anniversary, older but no less painful. Forty years ago today, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende. What had been a tidy, prosperous nation that prided itself (perhaps too much) on its European heritage was plunged into third world chaos. The Air Force bombed La Moneda Presidential Palace, Allende shot himself in his office, and nearly two decades of brutal repression—kidnappings, tortures, disappearances, dictatorship—began.