René Burri has photographed legendary political, military and artistic figures from around the world. He has captured the iconic portraits of Che Guevara smoking a cigar, Pablo Picasso at work in his studio and stunning images from every corner of the globe. Hunger TV talk to Burri as he stands poised with a paint brush signing copies of his latest book, Impossible Reminiscences. The book comprises exactly 136 pictures, most of which have never been published before and span 50 years of his work.
TELL US ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL TITLE OF YOUR NEW BOOK, IMPOSSIBLE REMINISCENCES.
The title is from a book by H G Wells. I came across his short stories and I read, The Door Behind the Wall, and it was written in a sentence, impossible reminiscences. I like the way it sounds and I toyed with the idea to call it possible reminiscences because, of course what is featured in the book was possible but it also leads people to fantasize.
HOW DOES THE BOOK PROVOKE THE VIEWER TO FANTASISE?
You have to look at the pictures, there are no captions so you have to make up your own mind, you have to look and not just read and know that it’s Chicago 1979. It’s a little tougher for the viewer this way, then in the back I have written text about each picture. Each picture has a story, when people are looking at it they work with their own memory or fantasy or whatever it provokes.
TELL US ABOUT THE USE OF COLOUR THROUGHOUT THE BOOK?
I have grouped the pictures into the colour spectrum, as white light is composed of all these colours of the rainbow. Unconsciously maybe people won’t notice but I take them through a journey of colour, just like in music it may get louder, or quieter.
HOW IS THERE A TRANSITION FROM WORKING IN BLACK AND WHITE TO COLOUE PHOTOGRAPHY?
There is no transition, there was schizophrenic double life from the beginning. I always have two or four cameras shooting one way or another.
DO YOU ALWAYS CARRY YOUR CAMERA AROUND WITH YOU?
Always. I go to sleep with my camera.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST PICK UP A CAMERA?
I didn’t pick it up, I was forced. My father gave me a camera and said, ‘Go to town, an important man is arriving’, this was in Zurich, Switzerland, 1946. I was thirteen and I took one of my first pictures of Winston Churchill that day. That was my one and only shot, I just pressed the button and when I took it I had no idea I wanted to become a photographer.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ICONIC PICTURE THAT YOU TOOK IN CUBA OF CHE GUEVARA?
The picture of this man has followed me around now for my career. In the red section of my book, you come to a portrait of a gentlemen on a poster. I was in my home town and there were posters on the wall with that same picture that I took of him 20 years back. Do you know what, I have actually started to collect and people have sent me all the pirated things with the picture of this gentleman, there are underpants, condoms, soaps, carpets, ashtrays and T-shirts some of which I bought back myself in Cuba.
DID YOU EVER FEEL INTIMIDATED BY CHE GUEVARA WHEN YOU WERE TAKING PICTURES OF HIM?
He was intimidating for the journalists. Thanks to them I could dance around him for hours as he was fighting with them all.
HAS THERE EVER BEEN AN OCCASION WHERE YOU HAVE FELT NERVOUS TAKING A PICTURE?
Never. No, it was scary of course when I had a Kalashnikov held to my chest or when I was standing in a mine field and had to get out, but you don’t get nervous, if you do, that’s it.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH WHEN TAKING PHOTOS IN A HECTIC ENVIRONMENT OR WITH LOTS OF PAPARAZZI?
At these kind of events everyone is frantic and nervous and I would just sit there like a cowboy, and then cha! I’d get my camera out like a sharp shooter.
WHERE IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE IN THE WORLD TO TAKE PICTURES?
Where ever I am in the moment – with all the beauty or the misery of the place. As a photographer from the beginning I always worked with these contradictions.
YOU TOOK PHOTOGRAPHS AT LA TOURETTE MONASTERY, ARE YOU RELIGIOUS?
I grew up as a Protestant and I’m still protesting. I have gone through Jewish rights when I grew up then I went to Pakistan and I almost became a Buddist, I did sittings in Japan, so I went through all these things, but I’m not religious. I deeply think that some religious feeling or something that we connect with should be found within ourselves.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND TO BE YOUR GREATEST INFLUENCE?
Most important influence for me is literature. As a kid I would read stories about the red Indians and from once I read the text it was already illustrated in my mind and I saw the characters like a film. So I have always read great literature. One of the greatest chaps is certainly Shakespeare. I was once an extra in the theater and I would stand in the corner, or get killed or bring in a letter without saying a word so I could listen to the whole script and Shakespeare is fantastic.
WHAT MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO?
When I was a kid I bought myself a phonograph and listened to Bach or Beethoven or jazz from the thirties like Louis Armstrong. When I work in my studio I always play classical music, right now I’m listening to a lot of Shostakovich, a great Russian composer and also Bartók.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE USE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY IN PHOTOGRAPHY NOW?
Well in my talk the other evening at The Photographers Gallery I showed a photo taken in Egypt with nine helicopters flying in the sky. I said there were actually three helicopters in the photo but I thought the image would look better in colour with nine so I photo shopped them in, and the audience gasped. I was of course, only joking and they laughed. Technology is great though, I also work now in digital. You can get 1200 pictures on a little chip, it’s fantastic. We have gained some things but also lost aspects of photography, we have lost our credibility a bit.
WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST CAPTIVATING ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY?
It is the one thing that no other medium can do, apart from film but that is different. With a photo you can stop a hundredth of a thousandth of a second and this moment will never come back. The person or the landscape or the situation is a unique moment that will never happen again.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE CAPTURED SUCH ENIGMATIC PHOTOGRAPHS THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
The camera is like my third eye it is an outlet for my curiosity. I was always curious as a kid and you have to use your senses. I wanted to meet the big giants of the 19th century, a sculptor, an artist, a dictator a musician and then I would find the pictures would just happen. You don’t capture a picture you are responding. I respond to situations and I am very fast – fastest gun in the West – even at my age.