Documentarian Ken Burns Breaks His Impartiality to Denounce Trump

Perhaps the most famous person in the art of documentary filmmaking is Ken Burns. The act of panning and zooming around a still image has been coined "the Ken Burns effect"; it was made famous in his historical documentaries. Burns has been notoriously impartial throughout his career, making sure not to include his own bias in his films, but he has decided that Trump has gone too far. 

During a speech at Standford Burns recently said:

...a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties, and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and — they feel — powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that — as often happens on TV — a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

Burns has since gone on CNN to make his views public.  

I have never in my life come forward and spoken as I have. All of my films have been consciously neutral, but there comes a time when you have to say: we have to wake up. This could be like Germany in the early thirties or Italy in the early thirties, and the world cannot afford that again.

Critics are saying that Burns has stepped outside of his bounds by choosing one candidate over another, but Burns believes the issue is much deeper than basic political policies. 

This is not a liberal or conservative, republican or democratic, red state or blue state issue. This is an American issue. We, as American people, reject this kind of thing.

Burns' message was more about treating everyone with love and compassion rather than being overrun with fear — a fear he believes Donald Trump is exploiting. 

As an American citizen who loves his country, it is time to just say no.

I'm sure most photographers look up to Ken Burns and many of you reading this may be Trump supporters. So, what do you think? Was he out of line for making his beliefs public, or is he honorable for doing what he believes is right?

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54 Comments

Personally I thought this was a website for and about photography...to me political leanings shouldn't be here. There are plenty of venues for espousing one's political point of view. IMHO this is not one of them or should I say should not be one of them.

Jeremy Hohertz's picture

Focusing on a topic is good, but compartmentalization is an artificial construct. Think of fstoppers as the online equivalent to inviting a bunch of guest speakers to your local photography club. When was the last time that 100% of all conversations at a photo club meeting were purely about photography?

But to address your point in another way, fstoppers has repeatedly reported on artistic and journalistic freedoms and rights (drones, street photography, photojournalist layoffs, etc.). I think it is entirely valid to discuss the way a well-known and well-respected documentarian views the future of his freedoms and rights.

Bill Wells's picture

I don't recall too many political speakers at the good ole' photography club meeting. This speech/interview was totally political.

Jeremy Hohertz's picture

Not a formal political speaker per se, but the idea that any conversation will tend to drift away from strictly photography, whether it be a child's upcoming wedding, a vacation, a driver that cut you off on your way to the meeting, etc. This not-really diversion happens to be political.

I have my own views which I purposefully left out of this post. I hoped this would become a debate about bias and one of the most well known documentary film makers of our time, not about Trump.

While I agree with the intent of what you were trying to initiate, this is an election year and as such when someone espouses his opinion/bias towards a particular candidate how can it not become a political issue? Especially since his comments aren't in relation to photography but are his opinions regarding a particular candidate.

I certainly knew that the comments in this post could turn political but I count on the comments on many of my posts to take a negative turn.

Henry Louey's picture

One thing i found interesting is that his voice in this video is much higher pitched than in his documentaries. Those are much deeper in tone.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Lee, are you implying that the "Ken Burns Effect" has had an inherent bias in his previous work? Because he has not made a Trump film (yet) the speech is just his opinion as a historian, he has a point of view as does everyone and this is reflected in the films he chooses to make and how he presents them.
I am not sure what dialog you were looking to initiate with this post.

Bill Wells's picture

Not only is this inappropriate for the site. Ken is taking a political position that is based on errors. First, let me say, I didn’t vote for trump, I’m not a strong support, but I will vote in the election.
Burns position that he has done everything for himself and his bottom line, only thinking about his business. While that is true, isn’t that his job? He’s a businessman not a Politician. Anyway, that just one of many errors or assumptions that he made. Right or wrong they are assumptions that his whole idea is based on. Plus he would have said the same about McCain, Romney or Reagan.

Are ethics not relevant? Photojournalism is a big part of photography for many and around that topic is the discussion of impartiality and neutrality. Here is one of the most successful historical documentarians of our generation, who uses a lot of archive photography in his work, speaking about his perpsective and his experience as a creative. It's relevant.

It's not enough to stay silent these days when issues like this have such negative impact on our lives. For those of us who work outside the bubble of America as photographers and filmmakers a Trump presidency is an additional disaster that has dire consequences we should all be concerned about.

After covering conflict and genocide for the last 14 years and interviewing leaders responsible for this death and destruction I can say that Trump shares the same characteristics as these people and shouldn't be anywhere near a position of influence.

Yes ethics are relevant, however what does this article have to do with ethics it is one man's opinion of a particular candidate? Most of which seem to be based upon assumptions of how this particular candidate is going to act or not act. I for one just don't think it is relevant on this forum and again it is my personal opinion.

Sean Gibson's picture

Based on errors? You didn't say anything to dispute that Trump is a self-serving punk. Plenty of CEO's show they care about their communities and people in general, with both words and actions. Trump does neither. Burns is right; Trump is an issue for Americans, and anyone with half a working brain who isn't racist or extremely gullible should say that this is not the kind of person we want speaking for us, or representing us around the world.

PS. Someone should tell Trump that when he ruins the country, he can't just file bankruptcy and walk away.

Bill Wells's picture

Trump does a lot for the people that work with and around him. Burns position is because Trump hasn't released his taxes, so he must not contribute to charities. He assumes that because "HE" hasn't seen Trump express any kindness r charity to his employees, that means Trump doesn't do that kind of thing.

He as no proof, right or wrong, of most of what he says. He just assumes that what he thinks is correct.

You are the type person that just takes from the government on welfare and food stamps and you think everything is all about you and everything should be handed to you. Well I work and pay my own way.

Sean Gibson's picture

You're a fool. Now you're making assumptions about me. I was actually unemployed for over a year once in may life, and never took a dime of unemployment. I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats in my life, and will do so in the future.
We don't have to assume anything about Trump. The idiot says the dumbest, most racist, womanizing and bigoted comments from his own spray tanned lips on a weekly basis, and they have all been caught on film.

Bill Wells's picture

I was just saying that to make a point. Just because I assume something doesn't make it true. Burns position was as wrong as mine. He assumed since he hadn't seen Trumps tax returns (no legal obligation to release) then Trump must not give to charity.

So you see I made up assumptions about you (based on nothing) just like Burns did about Trump. I hope you didn't take it personal, just a way to drive home a point.

The potential election of a person that regards individual rights as mere suggestions at best is most certainly a valid topic of discussion for a community of photographers considering the increasing importance of such individual rights with regard to photography.

Joakim Drake's picture

A potential leader of the free world is still peddling conspiracy theories. Just after his crowning speech yesterday he is still thinking Ted Cruz father was involved in the JFK killing and referencing the National Enquirer as truth.

I believe this is a defining moment for America. And I think Ken Burns do too.

https://twitter.com/JGreenDC/status/756507351667007489

Mr Hogwallop's picture

This is just gonna get ugly.

Patrick Hall's picture

To bring this conversation back on topic, I believe having a completely unbiased angle on anything you produce is damn near impossible. No matter how hard you try to not take sides, you will inevitably wind up making a stronger case for one side or the other. As much as people don't want to believe this, I think this is particularly true among legislators, judges, police officers, and justices. Deep down your opinion on how the world works is based on experiences and gut feelings and you can't just push those off to the side and force yourself to showcase both sides (or all sides) of an argument completely fair and without bias. It always makes me laugh when Fox News says "Balanced and Fair" because a few like minded individuals run that company and there is no way they can give an opinion and make it fair and balanced.

The closest way I think you can come to presenting an unbiased documentary or report is to simply not know ANYTHING about the topic and share as many views as possible without coming up with a view yourself....but that would be super boring and you would border on being completely inaccurate if you actually didn't know the issues thoroughly.

All that being said, it brings up an interesting point about celebrities and entertainers making political statements. Usually we all scoff at them and quickly point out that they are "entertainers" and we don't care to hear their political beliefs yet we give free passes to almost everyone else in other fields and careers. In many cases we tune into radio, news, our facebook feed, twitter, etc to hear other points of view yet we hate it when other humans we deem less qualified take a stance. We love Michael Moore because he takes a side yet we condemn Ken Burns for taking a side. It seems like we want to have our cake and eat it too.

I think the difference is that Michael Moore's entire career is making extremely biased documentaries while Ken Burns is known for historical ones.

Patrick Hall's picture

Well historians can also share their opinions on how things happened without being as polarizing as Michael Moore. In fact, all history is basically an opinion on what actually happened based on the author's understanding of the facts. I bet if you watched Ken's documentaries again you could find a bias even if it isn't as obvious as his latest statement about Trump

Patrick Hall's picture

Eh, I don't know if I totally believe that. I don't think anyone is flat out lying but rather using specific facts to support their point while ignoring other points that discredit their point. The absolute best scholars would acknowledge the other side but then point out why they think those ideas are not founded. While Michael Moore is def polarizing, and I typically do not agree with most of what he says, I still think he has some valid points even if his overall conclusion is not totally accurate.

I'd love to watch a Ken Burns documentary if someone wants to throw a title out.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0122741/

Michael Moore is not making unbiased documentaries, I think he would laugh if some one said he did.

Agree. In my opinion, journalists and photojournalists should present the news without bias. In this instance, I think the historian has switched careers to a futurist; and I have been alarmed as well.
I cannot understand how both parties have nominated (or will next week), the worst of the possible candidates. Republicans has something like three dozen choices; whereas the Democrats wanted to limit the choice to one (and Bernie's no better).

michael andrew's picture

I always thought Trump running was a joke, I am baffled that he stands a chance to become our president. This shows how useless and utterly archaic our political electoral process has become. For anyone who thinks trump cannot win, just remember, Bush W won twice... twice.

Sean Gibson's picture

True. What it really shows is how uneducated and/or gullible most people are.

Chris Collins's picture

And so did Barack Obama....twice. Pretty amazing.

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