By Jim Colton
Anyone associated with photojournalism in the 60’s through the 90’s is familiar with the name Henri Bureau. His image of the burning oil refineries in Abadan, Iran during the Iran/Iraq war in 1980 viewed from the back of an Iranian Soldier that is on his home page www.henribureau.com will forever be emblazoned in my photographic memory.
His accomplishments are far too many to try and list on this blog. And his larger than life personality could also not be contained on these pages. His passing this week has left me with sadness but my memory of our times together will always be with me. Let me share but one of our stories together.
Dateline: Warsaw, Poland, June 1979.
Karol Józef Wojtyła is returning to Poland for the first time after being elected as Pope John Paul II. Thousands wait to greet him as his travels will take him all over the country. It is a logistical nightmare for journalists covering the trip. His visit will include the cities of Warsaw, Częstochowa, Krakow and others. And remember, back then….no cell phones, no emails, no digital imagery. Telexes and landlines ruled the day and film was shipped on airplanes.
I was point man for Newsweek magazine whose photographic team included staffers John Ficara and Bernard Gotfryd, local contract photographer Chris Niedenthal and freelancers Ken Regan, Joe McNally and Mario Ruiz. In addition, we had the services of six Sygma photographers headed up by Henri Bureau. A dozen photographers! That’s how we rolled back then.
The Sygma team chose a Winnebago (I kid you not) as their form of transportation during this trip. It even had two mini bikes strapped to the back for better mobility. It was driven by Henri’s cousin who also served as chef for their hungry crew. While in Warsaw, all of the photographers would use the shower in my hotel room nightly, perplexing the room service staff with my request for ten towels a day.
The Pope arrived late on a Friday and the French photo agencies had reached a mutual agreement to not ship any film until the first flight out Saturday morning as there were no other flights back to Paris on Friday night. So they thought. It turned out that the very last flight was delayed and somehow, one of the competing agencies managed to get their film on it, breaking the agreement.
Henri was pissed, to say the least. And not being one to take it lying down, that night, there was a knock on my hotel room door. As I answered, I heard a phrase that I am sure I will never hear again the rest of my life. Henri said, “Jeem, I need your plane!” Newsweek had a Lear jet on standby in case I needed it other than my scheduled Saturday night flight to Paris with our film to be processed and shipped on the Concorde to New York on Sunday morning to meet our deadlines. Henri wanted to fly the plane into Warsaw that night and then back to Paris with Sygma’s film as to not get scooped.
I made the call and summoned the Lear into Warsaw that night. If my memory serves me well, it was at a cost of about $17,000 back then…to be billed to Sygma….something that the folks back at Newsweek in New York didn’t realize when they heard I had ordered the Lear!
But getting film out of a communist controlled country is not as easy as it may seem. So this is how it went down. Our local contract photographer Chris Niedenthal, who knew all the ins-and-outs of shipping, snuck us in to the Ministry of Information office after hours, I sealed the film in clear plastic bags, each twist tied with wire and clamped with an official Polish seal. Chris typed up the bogus paperwork and we were off to the airport.
By this time, the flight crew had arrived and as there were no commercial flights in or out of the country, the only barrier we had left between our film and the pilots on the other side of a cyclone fence, was a lone Polish Army soldier brandishing an AK-47. Niedenthal explained that we had a package for the pilots and presented the bagged film and paperwork to the soldier. Upon inspection, he did not like the way I sealed the packages (I didn’t know at the time there was an actual “seal” impression) and he told us this was not done properly and we would not be able to pass it through. No matter how we pleaded, the soldier was remaining firm….until….
Henri huddled us together and we devised a plan. Chris would yell at him in Polish saying the soldier would be summoned by the Ministry of Information in the morning if he did not allow this film of the Pope’s arrival in Poland to be distributed to the world…Henri would yell at him in French…and I would yell at him in English…all at the same time!
It worked! The soldier was trembling and his eyes were like saucers and with one gesture of his AK-47, we were allowed to toss the packages over the fence to the pilots and they were off to Paris. Sygma would NOT be scooped.
Chris, Henri and I were laughing so hard in the car ride back to Warsaw where we stopped at the Winnebago for some well-earned wine and cheese!
It is this tenacity that I will miss the most about Henri…as well as his impish smile. I would share the trenches with him anywhere...any time…as we did on so many more occasions.
Au Revoir mon ami! I hope the light where you are….is heavenly!