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David Burnett vs Sports Illustrated


Photo editor and photography history teacher Robert Stevens discusses in a column the non-use of a legendary image by David Burnett.


In late June of this year, the American magazine Sports Illustrated published a special issue, online, with their selection of the best 100 sports photos in the history of photography. One of the truly iconic images is a photo from the 1984 Olympics of the runner Mary Decker after she was tripped by Zola Budd during a race. This iconic photograph was made by legendary photographer David Burnett. Sports Illustrated, who has used the images many times before, but decided not to use it this time. It seems more and more often publications today will choose not to use the best, iconic image, strictly trying to save money. Several emails to Sports Illustrated asking why they chose not to use the iconic image but a cheaper, less iconic image, were not answered. As publications try to save money, the public, more than ever, will be given images that do not reflect the best of photography. This re-writes and distorts the history of photography.

This is what Jeffrey D. Smith, Executive Director of Contact Press Images, Burnett’s agent, said about the decision of Sports Illustrated not to use Burnett’s photograph: “For 33 years David Burnett’s iconic image of Mary Decker on the ground after literally being tripped up by her competitor, Zola Budd at the 84 Summer Games has stood the test of time, speaking to so many elements in competitive sports, not the least of which is the ‘agony of defeat’. It was published immediately and widely and has been republished maybe 1000 times since. It is arguably Burnett’s most recognized image. It has always been in every ‘great sports photographs’ compendium, including nearly every Sports Illustrated one since 1984, until 25 June 2017 this year.”

The revisionists at Sports Illustrated driven entirely by economics, decided they’d create the 100 Best Sports Photos of All Time (that they didn’t have to pay for). The 100 are deservedly filled with every remarkable and iconic Sports Illustrated image by Leifer, Kluetmeier, Peskin, Strohmeyer, and on. Images that are part of the Sports Illustrated collection and likely don’t need to be paid for since they were staff generated. There are perhaps fifteen or so: AP, AFP, Getty images pictures in there too. Sports Illustrated chose to use a black & white image of Mary Decker that is arguably not as strong as David’s but was free or nearly so.

David Burnett’s image always carries a license fee. It’s what allows most photographers to eat or at least purchase another memory card. And as an iconic image, that image licenses more than most or at least at a premium. We were never asked, Burnett’s Mary Decker was just replaced, like so many decisions being made today, less focused on what’s best or what the reader might appreciate more but what content will cost the least and us “content providers” will let fly for less.


Robert Stevens

Robert Stevens is a former photo editor at Time Magazine, and currently a professor of photography at the School of Visual Arts.



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