fb-pixel Skip to main content
Globe Magazine

Ken Burns: We must look at nurses, delivery people, and other essential workers with even greater respect

As many contemplated the odds in our own security, they defied them. They didn’t have the luxury of contemplation, writes the New Hampshire based filmmaker.

Ken Burns is an award-winning filmmaker.Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP file

First and foremost, I have gratitude for the challenge that all of this represents. [The pandemic] has disrupted enough of the well-worn routines that you begin to see that something new is possible. I’m grateful for my children, all four of my daughters. The two who are living at home are helpful reminders about how little I know. No, let’s make it a glass half full — how much I have to grow.

I’ve lived in Walpole, New Hampshire, for the past 41 years, and this is by far the longest stretch that I’ve ever been at home. I miss the intimate contact in the editing room, but also I am very grateful for the enhanced intimacy that our distance has required us to subscribe to. I watch as my colleagues’ babies and kids and pets come up on their screens, just as my little one comes in with a skinned knee or a question in math, or just a desire to see me. There’s a kind of elasticity that people seem to have brought to each other.


I do not want to pretend that the burden of the disease has not fallen on the least fortunate of us economically. [The pandemic] suggests the possibility of a new way of understanding things when we come out of this. If we suddenly look at nurses, subway drivers, and delivery people with a different kind of respect — as we contemplated the odds in our own security, they defied them. They didn’t have the luxury of contemplation.

I’ve spent nearly my entire professional life traveling the United States, and I know nearly every corner of it. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in New Hampshire, in which the notions of self-sacrifice, of taking care of the other, of friendliness, of neighborliness, are sort of baked in. For the most part, people are solicitous and kind and thoughtful. They want to know how you are and what they can do. If you asked about me [around town], they’d say, “Yeah, yeah, filmmaker, he walks all the time, with his dog, everywhere!” In the last few months, if someone I know passes me by, they’ll slow the car and go, “Can I make you some food for you and the girls? Are you OK?”


– As told to James Sullivan


Ken Burns is the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind The Civil War, Baseball, and many other documentaries. His next film subjects are Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali. Interview has been edited and condensed.