x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dubai exhibit recaptures the height of reggae and Bob Marley

The photojournalist David Burnett's images of Bob Marley will be on show in Al Quoz, Dubai, from March 4 to April 15.

Bob Marley and The Wailers in Brussels, Belgium, on their Exodus Tour in Europe. May 11, 1977.  Courtesy David Burnett
Bob Marley and The Wailers in Brussels, Belgium, on their Exodus Tour in Europe. May 11, 1977. Courtesy David Burnett

Ask any veteran music journalist and chances are they'll tell you that things just ain't what they used to be. The heady days of "unparalleled access" are gone, when journalists toured and partied with rock stars as they staggered their way across continents in a blur of gigs and groupies.

More often than not, bands these days are less likely to have an "official dancer" (read Grand Hedonist) in tow than they are to bring along a battalion of PRs, who sit at the back of the tour bus, updating the band's MySpace page and blocking troubling questions from inquisitive journos.

It's a troubling state of affairs, one that the photojournalist David Burnett mourns as he reflects on the time he spent in 1976 with Bob Marley, the late great figurehead of reggae. "The conversation had no boundaries to it," says Burnett. "We had no one telling him, 'Don't talk about this', or PRs hanging around throughout. There's no way you'd get that closeness and time with a star these days, and I think that's an important reflection of how the media and entertainment worlds have drawn certain lines."

Burnett's shots of Marley, taken during an assignment to cover the rising reggae scene in Jamaica for Time magazine, are on display from Sunday to inaugurate Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) and its new premises in Al Quoz.

GPP is the region's premier festival of photography and a meeting point between magazine photo editors, creative directors and those trying to make a living through their lens. Workshops focus on the tools of the trade and honing technique, while discussions look at the state of photojournalism today.

But as a centrepiece to the event, Burnett's photographs offer a glimpse of the intimacy between photographer and a megastar-in-the-making. "Marley was just this completely cool, smart guy," says Burnett. "You could sense a commitment to justice and expression that I think stayed with him into fame.

"I still don't know if he enjoyed the attention as much as getting the message out. Yet only four years after we left Kingston, he was dead. Here was a kid from the tough side of town, who produced this very poetic body of work in a short time."

Burnett's trip to Jamaica was sponsored by Island Records in a bid to get wider recognition for reggae at a time when awareness of this musical style was reserved mostly to the Caribbean and to London. "It was only just getting exposure, so we were really there at a key moment."

A tendency to be in the right place at the right time has followed the photographer throughout his career. With more than four decades of working in the field, Burnett has shot for Life and many of America's major magazines. But Time really secured his place in the history of the field, when he came face to face with Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, just a month after the departure of the Shah.

"There was a tumultuous crowd of 10,000 people surging at the gates of the schoolhouse in Tehran where Khomeini was holed up. But after days of trying, I finally managed to get inside the room with him." Burnett's portrait of the Revolution's spiritual leader made the cover of Time in early 1980, when Ayatollah Khomeini was named as the magazine's Man of the Year, in its annual issue recognising the defining figure of the past 12 months.

"You could almost hear a pin drop in the room with Khomeini. The contrast with the crowds outside could not have been any more abrupt. He was this focal point, this calm in the room.

"It's that presence which you try to get into photographs."

David Burnett's images of Bob Marley from his 2009 book Soul Rebel will be on show in Gulf Photo Plus, Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz, Dubai, from Sunday until April 15. For more info on workshops taking place during GPP in Knowledge Village see www.gulfphotoplus.com

clord@thenational.ae