René Burri Winston Churchill

The René Burri Interviews #3 early days of Magnum

René Burri on why Magnum photographers felt like Samurai Warriors - and occasionally church mice

In our third interview with Swiss photographer René Burri, he remembers the early days of Magnum Photos, and what it meant to be thrown out into the world, fresh from art school headlong into the biggest photo stories happening around the globe. We chatted to René when he visited us in the Phaidon offices two weeks ago.

“I remember I was just out of art school and Chim (Magnum co-founder David  Seymour) threw me into the Suez canal (crisis) I got bashed and almost killed. People didn’t really notice that I had a Swiss passport! At the time they just took me as anyone else! So as a Swiss citizen, going through post-colonialism in Egypt or in Iraq or in Syria, well it was quite a long march to become a citizen of the world!

“In those days magazines had maybe 10, 20, 30 photographers on their staff, so we as the Magnum photographers felt like- the Samurais on the move! But that’s how we survived because every editor at the time, no matter whether he had five or 10 of his own photographers, he wanted to buy something that was the best.

"And sometimes we survived in a marginal way on what we could do. Sometimes I felt like a church mouse, picking up the crumbs from the floor or coming like Sancho Panza going on a donkey, tilting against the windmills!  

"I think maybe what we had in Magnum was this rebellious anti-magazine-going-against-the-mainstream thing - and that’s maybe one of the reasons how the company has stayed alive, even 65 years later. It’s getting tougher and more difficult of course, but it’s a continuous thing and I hope that the young photographers coming along, in and out of Magnum, can go and do some pictures that will tell people in 20 years time what the world looked like now.

René Burri

René Burri – self portrait with iPhone May 11, 2012


"Everybody now has a cell phone and can take snaps which is great – even children. But my advice for young photographers - what I think young photographers should do - is to go and cover things that nobody else is thinking about. Put your nose into things. Use the third eye of the camera and don't be completely dependent on photoshop or the way other people want you to cast the world. Go and discover for yourself, because the fantastic thing about photography is that you are able to freeze a moment that can never come back.

"I’m not against 'concept' but if I do 'concept’ I pick up my pencils or my brush and I start doing it that way. But photography is a very precious thing and I’m sure there will always be people in and out of Magnum who will practice this in the future.”

Look out for our fourth mini interview with René in the coming days. And make sure to browse the store where you'll find our great René books. And if you're in London check out Rene's Larger Than Life at The Atlas Gallery.