Moments Immortalized – ‘HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST’ captures the heart of photography


Preston Barta // Editor

Not rated, 87 minutes.
Director: Justin Bare and Matthew Miele
Cast: Harry Benson, Alec Baldwin, Gigi BensonBetty Buckley and James L. Brooks

For the Instagram-loving generation — and anyone who loves to take pictures — the arrival of digital photography brought forth innumerable benefits: Images became cost-effective, ready to preview instantly, easier and quicker to share. The list goes on. Today, even the cheapest smartphone contains a camera whose quality would have seemed unbelievable a decade ago. It’s easier than ever to snap a picture, which means more and more people are doing it everyday.

Times are different and things are constantly evolving. Few have better witnessed this change than Scottish photographer Harry Benson, who’s the subject of the stunning new documentary titled HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST, which is now available on Digital HD through Magnolia Home Entertainment.

His name may not ring a bell at first, but you’ve probably seen at least one of his many iconic pictures: the photo of the Beatles having a gleeful pillow fight, or of Robert F. Kennedy moments after he was shot in 1968. Name someone — a president, celebrity or important figure from the civil rights movement onward — and there’s a good chance Benson had them within his frame.

When you’ve worked with so many celebrated individuals, it’s hard to imagine not losing sight of yourself. Where does one even begin recalling the monumental moments from the past?

“It’s not just one thing you remember, it’s lots of things,” Benson said. “I was always able to cut myself off from an event with people. They never quite got through to me, because if you become too friendly and accommodating, they’re going to tell you not to use that certain picture of them in a bubble bath, or whatever it is. You want to show them as human beings.”

Harry Benson in HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The key idea for Benson is to establish a safe and natural environment for his subjects. The photojournalist said he treats them with the utmost respect and never lets his admiration get in the way of his work.

“You only know what you read about these people,” said Benson. “I think [photographers and journalists] fall into the same category. We’re simply there to record and not be a public relations person. We’re there to tell the truth of what we see.”

Benson seizes every opportunity when capturing an honest moment — using his tools, surroundings and subjects wisely.

“Even the Beatles having a pillow fight was a moment that could not be repeated,” said Benson. “A good photograph is a glimpse that is gone forever. I learned this when I was there when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. You should never leave a good situation.”

In Benson’s experience, digital photography has made the craft more accessible, but it has not pushed the quality.

“I’m glad my career was done on film,” said Benson. “It certainly was not easy doing it that way compared to nowadays, where anyone can point and shoot. But that’s the way it is now, and granted, I’ve seen some beautiful pictures captured digitally. While you may get well exposed pictures, I’m not getting anything any more memorable than film.”

Of course, aspiring journalists and photographers may ask about the “right” camera, or the “best” lens, but Benson’s secret is beyond equipment.

“If you keep working, you’re going to get lucky,” said Benson. “Opportunity is going to come up like an express train, so all you need to do is climb aboard.”

Grade: B+

HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST is now available on Digital HD.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.