Commencement 2007 - Colorado College

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David Burnett '68
Photo by Tom Kimmell

Framing a Life

by David Burnett '68

Commencement — May 21, 2007

President Celeste, members of the board, faculty and staff, distinguished guests and parents of students, and — members of the class of two thousand and seven. Let me just say what an honor it is to be asked to share a few thoughts with you today. I'm a proud member of the class of 1968 — the beginning of the baby boomer generation - and though none of us can believe it, we seem to be coming, ever so modestly, graying grandparents,- a few of whom I see here today to share this fine morning.  But as I remind my daughter Jordan often enough, we don't yet THINK that we look like Mickey Rooney's grandparents in all those 1930s movies.

I'm especially touched by the fact that there are some fascinating, accomplished people in our class, so I'm all the more moved at being asked.

I kind of feel at a little disadvantage here.  It's the first time in twenty-five years that I am not speaking to present my photographs, and like a number of photojournalist colleagues  have said over the years.. “I became a photographer so I didn't HAVE to make speeches…”

Well, my luck's run out, but I hope yours hasn't.

I would ask you to picture a few important moments without the aid of my photos.

Picture an aspiring young self taught photographer who arrives at a college where there are no journalism classes, and no photography classes. Nothing that would get him started in his already chosen career, except perhaps the most important thing of all: a broad based liberal arts education which will help to shape his view of himself, and the world around him.   He majors in Political Science, but curiously, the poli sci dept. doesn't have its own photo lab, so he ends up spending  late nights in darkrooms at the Worner center and the physics dept.  And most importantly, he knows where the keys to those labs are kept. 

David Burnett '68
Photo by Sean Cayton '94

He begins taking pictures of football games, the hockey players, most all the sporting events, and other stories around campus for the Tiger - now the Catalyst, newspaper. Sadly he doesn't realize that the most interesting and important thing he could do would be to train his camera on his own life. Not sporting events. Not convocations or speeches. Not the symposium. Sure, these things were interesting,  but life immediately around him - coffee at Benji's, studying at the Library, late night bull sessions in the dorm, softball games with the Thetas at Monument park,  sneaking onto the ice rink at midnight for some late night hockey practice - before the walls went up; a poker game  before lunch at the fraternity house; the anti Vietnam war silent stand-in in front of Cutler Hall every Wednesday. That was the life — those were the moments — he should have photographed and preserved.  We all have a  chance to express ourselves, and slicing life with a camera was his calling.

Picture another moment in this young man's life. He is in Professor Tim Fuller's Senior political theory class discussing Hobbes and Locke.  One classmate poses a question about the Hobbesian 'state of nature.' He asks “but how does any of this relate to what's going on in the world now?”  And Tim replies, “Mister Swim, this is not a course in immediate relevance.”  Yes, it IS possible to vividly remember One Sentence, spoken from the heart, for the whole of your life.  The power of those few elegant and eloquent words… has only grown in the young man's mind over the last forty years.

In the world we are giving you, so much is about nothing BUT immediate relevance, whether it be the fascination with Anna Nicole Smith's baby,  Brittney Spear's hair cuts, or Imus and his lousy radio jokes.  But truth be told, these are diversions from the real potential of observing life in the world, seeing history unfold everyday at our feet.

Picture the same young man a few years later. He keeps thinking that his world is about nicely packaged events which make for nicely packaged stories in nicely packaged magazines. He's had a spinal fusion from an ice hockey injury, and following that,  in the contentious summer of 1967 he takes his Army draft physical in New York City, the only one of the 300 kids in the hall that day who wore a corset - and little else, in the examination.  Most of those kids ended up in Vietnam as soldiers, but he has been classified  4F — unfit for service — yet, in pursuit of the biggest story of his day, he ends up spending two years in Vietnam as a photoreporter.  But he still doesn't quite get it and after arriving, tries to figure out what project to cover, and how he can jump start his career. Then he meets a committed Welsh photographer, Phillip Jones Griffiths, who had made it his life's work to document the war in Vietnam. Phillip was brief and to the point: “Real life,” he said “isn't about doing this or that story for TIME or LIFE or Newsweek magazine.. its about immersing yourself in the world around you.  So put 50 rolls of film in your camera bag, go upcountry to Danang, and don't come back to Saigon until you have shot every roll.”  It was one of those moments of clarity that you will hopefully have in your lives, when you look back and say to yourself  “it was so obvious, why didn't I see that before?”  Life is about staying focused.  Not simply focusing an image in the viewfinder of a camera, but keeping your eye, your soul, your mind, all in focus in the viewfinder of the life you choose to lead. 

Photographers understand that most important thing we control is the edge of the frame of our pictures. We choose where to look, how to look and when to press that button.  But if you make the effort, you'll have a life where you never stop learning. And you never stop seeing. Yes, the whole of the rest of your life is going to be a long chain of Blocks, with probably very few block breaks.  Take advantage of it.

Those are pictures in the life of a stranger — so rather than picturing any more moments in this photographer's life, I want you to picture yourselves in 2 or 5 or ten years from now. Twenty seventeen!  Where do you think you will be? What do you think your world will be like?  Will you have had a midnight cup of ginger tea on a grassy hill with a young shepherd in Ethiopia? Will you have seen the morning light on Sacre Coeur in Paris, having climbed the hill before dawn in order to see the first glints of sunrise?  Will you have tasted a simple meal of fresh pasta and truffles, thinly sliced onto the steamy plate at your table in a workmen's café in Italy? Will you have struggled, and maybe even a few times with success, to express yourself in Mandarin, Portuguese, German, Arabic or  Hindi to a cab driver who knows no English?  That could even happen in New York.  But, there are a million moments waiting out there for you to discover and make your own.  And remember that anything you do which someone describes as a “once in a Lifetime” event, is probably something you should try and do a couple of times at least.  While you may think the world has shrunk because of the internet, satellites and cable television, in many ways it feels even more insular, less like a community.  Who here believes that the manners and flaming reactions one sees on blog commentaries make  for the kind of thoughtful dialogue you would wish for when sitting around with a half dozen actual PEOPLE, having coffee and talking about those same compelling issues.  All the more reason not to stand by and accept at face value, what some cable news bimbo - and believe me, men can be bimbos, too - with great hair, a logo on their microphone,  and a  satellite uplink truck has to say — live and in color — from some farflung location.  In an age when Live trumps thoughtful, it behooves you to keep trying to peel back that onion and see what really lies inside.

Make it your goal to see that world, and find out for yourself. Embrace the upside of the new communication tools and toys which are now available: blackberrys, cell phones, laptops, and the things not yet invented, but don't become a prisoner to them.  Above all, don't give up on your own ideas, and your own thinking just because you can always text message or email some more Senior person to make sure it's ok to do something.  When in doubt, act first, apologize later.  And if I see you on the campaign trail next year in Iowa or New Hampshire, when you're running an event for some  unlikely presidential candidate, put the blackberry down long enough to have an Eye to Eye, face to face,  conversation.  Those conversations will take you much farther than the wordiest and wittiest text message ever will.

The world we are giving to you is full of its own challenges and opportunities. Everyday, new technology permits things to happen which are being done for the first time in Human History.    Yet, the great failure of my generation was to forget that common sense should be the first premise of civic life, instead of the last.  Where is the common sense when 6 year olds are handcuffed by police in kindergarten for making a ruckus? Where is the common sense, when a group 13 year old pranksters give exlax-laden doughnuts out at school and are arrested for it.  Hello!! Its called a prank.  No one was really hurt, and no one died.  In the end, there might even have been a few people made healthier by that substitution. But arrested?  Where is the common sense?  The kind of thinking which embraces "zero tolerance" adds much more legal murkiness than it eliminates.  In the end, Zero Tolerance is just living proof to children that adults are thoughtless and stupid.  

Maybe its because our generation, having been given so much by our parents after the depression, after World War II, came to think of ourselves as the Coolest generation. Not the Greatest certainly, but maybe the Coolest, and that therefore our kids… YOU ... must be the coolest kids.  And that we therefore had to make sure that OUR kids were supported, treated, and indulged, beyond all reason.  We lived through you. We yelled at your soccer coaches when they didn't give you enough playing time; we berated teachers who might not have seen your obvious genius, and we pushed our way into the front of the line at McDonald's in order to make sure that our little darlings got the Happy Meals first.  So, please, please - as you go out into the world at large, try and remember to keep a little common sense in your back packs and laptop bags.  The fact that you have had the gift of studying in the block system, and it truly is a gift — trust me having a French, Physics and International Relations final all on the same day is no picnic — take that gift and run with it. Don't be afraid to put your feet into uncharted waters or unknown territory.  The rest of the world in so many places no longer thinks of us in the  idealistic way they might have in the 70's and 80's. Yet a world which sees others more as equals could become a more welcoming place.  It's up to you to take advantage of your opportunities.  And don't forget how you got here. No one does it alone.  Think back to all the teachers, coaches, counsellors, and most especially, your families, and include them in your list of thanks for having made this trip. Not just for the financial assistance, though you'll perhaps only come to understand that when you, too, are parents.  But the emotional and intellectual support which everyone needs to flourish in a world of new ideas. Though you don't realize it at the time, your college experience is not really an end in itself.  It's about getting you ready to face that bigger world, the one which starts at the edge of campus, and never really ends. The joy of learning how to learn will let you be able to spend the rest of your life AS IF it were college, learning something new everyday. 

I've had the chance to  work in over 80 countries, I've photographed, Kings, Queens, Shahs and  Ayatollahs; Presidents and stable boys; teachers,  day labourers, Olympic champions and test pilots. Each and every time you push that button, you try and capture a moment in life, one that distills the power of that moment into something we can see, something we can hold in our hands. How you frame life through that viewfinder will decide if it's successful or not. 

One of the stories about which I felt most proud and that had the most impact on me was when I recently photographed some high school students in Cleveland.  In pursuit of a way to engage young people in the idea of service to the community, a  small group of boys at St. Ignatius Catholic high school got together and formed a Society of Pallbearers — not something  you immediately connect with an after school activity.  In the Catholic church, the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy provide a writ that any political campaign or political party could find worthy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, aid the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. With an ever  larger number of people dying who have neither family nor friends capable of carrying them to their final rest,  there was a need for someone to step in and help.  To see these high school Juniors and Seniors give of their time in those most difficult times of all, gave me great hope about the next generation. Three years ago, when they started, they performed 3 burials. Word of their work spread quickly around Cleveland, and in the last year they performed some 112 funerals. And as I moved the frame of my viewfinder, left to right, up and down, in search of that telling picture, I wanted the power and poignancy of those moments to become something which could be shared.

Spending time with those boys was a rare privilege.  There is no question that more you give in this world, the more you benefit from it.  Money and material things have their place, but nothing you can buy will equal the sense of personal fulfillment you get by service to those around you.  Two years ago,  after the terrible earthquake in the mountains of Kashmir, in Pakistan, aid was slow to arrive.  But among the people who felt they had to be there were a dozen young para medics, not doctors, but paramedics, from New York City.   They didn't wait to be asked. They didn't go as part of a political campaign or even  a governmental relief program. They saw the news, just like you and I, and felt they had to be there. They trekked by foot and mule, far up into the valleys where roads were obliterated, and entire villages destroyed.  But they did it, and one by one, each time they were able to treat someone, the world got a little better.  Why did they go? It's simple as one volunteer put it: “We're health care workers, and health care workers want to help people.” A simple act, perhaps, but profoundly important. These are the kind of people who will eventually help to bring this world a little closer.

As someone blessed with being able to spend four decades wandering the world with a camera - my work gave me the excuse to parachute into other people's lives.  Sometimes it was a tough, even frightening story.  Other times it was poignant and touching. And often it was full of humor and the kind of little person to person moments which make up the richness of life.  So you might ask, at this stage in my life, do I have regrets?
well.. maybe two:
I wish I'd had a date before I was 27.
And I wish I'd had more children, since the one I have is pretty great. She teaches me much more than I think I'll ever be able to teach her.

So now, as you leave Colorado College, to wander in the world at large, and sign up for those next 500 Blocks, put your feet on the ground and share the richness of the experience you will come to have. You can make a difference.  Look carefully at that picture of who you are, and who you want to be, keep moving the edges of that frame around. Don't settle for the first thing you see in your viewfinder, and don't snap it until you're satisfied that what you see, really will make a difference.

Thanks for posing for me, and good luck on those many roads ahead.