Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

Author:Simon Garfield
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Canongate Books

David Burnett was the man who didn’t get the picture. He was working in Vietnam for Time, Life and the New York Times, and he was standing right by Nick Ut at about noon on 8 June 1972 when Kim Phúc and her family ran by. Unfortunately, he was one of the two photographers loading his film at the time. As he explained in the Washington Post magazine in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of the event, those born into the era of digital photography might find it hard to understand what operating a film camera was like, ‘that there was, necessarily, a moment when your finite film would end at frame 36, and you would have to swap out the shot film for a fresh roll before being able to resume the hunt for a picture’.

The hunt for a picture – surely something Cartier-Bresson would have understood, as if the perfect photo was out there in the wilds somewhere, and you just had to find it. And in those other brief moments, when you were changing a film, Burnett knew that ‘there was always the possibility of the picture taking place. You would try to anticipate what was happening in front of your eyes, and avoid being out of film at some key intersection of time and place . . . there are plenty of stories about those missed pictures.’

On that particular day and time, Burnett was changing film in one of his Leicas, which he remembers as ‘an amazing camera with a reputation for being infamously difficult to load’. He saw the plane come in with the napalm, and then faint images of people running through the smoke. As he was still fumbling with his camera, he saw Nick Ut put his viewfinder to his eye. ‘In one moment . . . he captured an image that would transcend politics and history and become emblematic of the horrors of war visited on the innocent. When a photograph is just right, it captures all those elements of time and emotion in an indelible way.’ Not long afterwards, but too long afterwards, Burnett had reloaded his film and he remembers Ut and his driver taking the kids to the hospital. When he next met up with Ut at the AP office a couple of hours later he remembers Ut stepping out of the darkroom holding a still wet print of his picture.

When he reflects on that day now, Burnett’s clearest memory is ‘the sight, out of the corner of my eye, of Nick and another reporter beginning their run toward the oncoming children’. This was a new picture: Ut actually running towards the children. Burnett says he often thinks of that day and how unlikely it was that one picture from a relatively minor skirmish became one of the most important images from any war. ‘For those of us who carry our cameras along the sidewalk of history for a living, it is comforting to know that even in today’s


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