Three years ago, Harry Burton walked away from a career at Coles determined to change the world...


Br Peter Clinch, prior to his imminent move to Rome, sent the College a package of material he thought may be worthy of inclusion in the St Virgil’s archives.  Among the items was a February 10, 2002, copy of The Sunday Age Magazine – Sunday Life.  Its cover contained the following promo.    


Three years ago, Harry Burton walked away from a career at Coles determined to change the world.  Last November, the 33-year-old cameraman was murdered on a dusty highway in Afghanistan.


Harry Burton attended St Virgil’s College 1980-1985.  He died November 19, 2001 – just over twenty years ago. His story is a source of inspiration and is very much worth the telling.  The five page article was written by Rosemarie Milsom and what follows is a series of extracts that provides an insight into this remarkable man whose life was cut short.

Harry was the eldest boy in a family of eight children – four boys and four girls.  Their father Harry was a scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division, receiving the 1987 Antarctic Medal and would spend lengthy period away from home.  His mother, Anne, a social worker with Centrecare died suddenly in 1989.

  • In the couple of years between finishing school and further studies, Harry worked as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory, on fishing boats in South Australia and as a fruit-picker in Victoria.
  • By thirty, he had gained an Agricultural Science degree from Dookie College in Victoria was in a well paid position as the National Technical Manager of Coles Myer in Melbourne.
  • “He developed reservations about the corporate world.  He was trying to discover meaning in what he was doing,” says his sister Zoe, an actress.  He wanted to discover what was his purpose in life. We would talk about how we could do more, how we could make a difference.”
  • In 1997, Harry was one of thirteen selected for  a Vincent Fairfax Fellowship which facilitated a challenging 18-month program, designed and delivered by the Sydney Office of the Sty James Ethics Centre with the aim of fostering ethical leadership.
  • Participants travelled to the Northern Territory  and Canberra in the initial period of the Fellowship.  During this period he became inspired by the life of Neil Davis - an Australian combat cameraman who was recognised for his work as a photojournalist during the Vietnam War and other conflicts in the region and who was killed in Bangkok in 1985, while filming a minor Thai coup attempt.  
  • Harry chose to resign his job with Coles Myer and spent three weeks of his fellowship research project in the highlands of Papua New Guinea near the border of Irian Jaya.  With a Sony digital camera, obtained after presenting a convincing sponsorship pitch, Harry captured footage of Papuan freedom fighters.  It was his first camera work and he was hooked.
  • In 1999 decided to follow his partner, Joanne Collins to Singapore.  Joanne was a Reuters journalist.  Upon arrival, Harry set about in convincing the Reuters higher-ups that he be given a chance as a photo journalist.  Persistence paid off.  According to Des Wright, who later became Harry’s boss in Jakarta, “he came long way in a short time. I’d send him out and he’d come back with pictures you’d expect from guys who’d been in the game for years.  He had a great eye and captured f=different angles.  And he was really good at drawing people out, getting them to talk to the camera.
  • Harry quickly gained Reuters respect and he was handed greater responsibility.  He covered Indonesia’s hot spots, was detained by Fijian coup leader George Speight and established a solid reputation as a cameraman after co-ordinating a small bureau in East Timor during its struggle for independence. It is estimated he produced and/or shot 80 per cent of the footage from East Timor shown on CNN ,  the BBC and Australia’s commercial networks.
  • “I will never forget the pictures of the aftermath of the church massacre at Suai where some 200 people were slaughtered by fleeing militia,”  recalls Reuters television producer Mary Binks. “The bodies were never found, but Harry’s pictures left no doubt as to what happened and how.  Much of the territory’s early independence might not have been documented had it not been for Harry.” …. Harry earned his stripes in East Timor.
  • Harry understood the risks of being on the front line.  Reuters had sent him to London to complete specialist defence training and he was known for keeping a cool head.  He could diffuse a volatile situation with his smiling blue eyes, wide grin and easy going manner.
  • Senior Reuters correspondent, Ted Friel, recalled, “ We started talking about journalism and soon got onto Harry’s favourite subject – outrage  He believed you couldn’t be a real journalist, a really good one, without a sense of outrage.  He was talking about what the powerful do to the weak, the rich to the poor, and the violent to the peaceful.”
  • The fall of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, occurred in mid October 2001.  Harry was in Pakistan at that time.  He was of first group of journalists to cross the border and reach the Afghan city of Jalalabad after it had suffered heavy US-led bombing raids.  
  • Within a week Harry made the decision to join a media convoy heading to the capital along the rugged, centuries old road linking the two cities. Harry was in the front in the eight-car convoy.  Because of the rough terrain, and the blinding clouds of dust the cars were separated by several hundred metres. About 90 km from Kabul the two leading vehicle were stopped by a group of armed men wearing black turbans and long robes, their faces swathed in cloth.  Then Harry and the other journalists were stoned and shot three times in the back.
  • A memorial service was held for Harry at St Mary’s Cathedral in Hobart, and he is buried beside his mother at the Pontville Cemetery.

At the memorial service Harry’s partner, Joanne Collins, said, “I still can’t believe this has happened, and we have lost Harry forever.  However we must keep his memory alive to inspire others who want to live out their dream and fill the huge hole he has left behind".

Remembering Harry Burton (SVC 1980-1985)

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