Born in Zürich, René Burri studied composition, color and design at the School for Arts and Crafts in his hometown. Later on as he became a photographer, he also pursued his earlier interests in series of diary-like collages and by integrating writing, painting and photography.
From 1953-55 he worked as a documentary filmmaker and started using a Leica while he was in the military service. In 1955 he made contact with Magnum through Werner Bischof, and his first reportage on deaf-mute children was published in Life and other European magazines.
As of 1956 Burri was traveling in Europe and the Middle East on Magnum assignments. The work he did in Germany was published in his first book with a foreword by Jean Baudrillard. In 1959 Burri became a full member of Magnum; he had just spent six months in South America for his reportage on the gauchos.
In the 1960s Burri photographed artists such as Picasso, Giacometti and Le Corbusier for Du magazine. In 1963, while working in Cuba, he made portraits of Fidel Castro and of a young Che Guevara smoking a cigar, which became famous in poster form. In the 1960s and 1970s Burri reported from war zones in Vietnam and Cambodia, and from Beirut in the 1980s. He shot a number of films among which 'The Two Faces of China' for the BBC.
Burri also co-curated the Magnum exhibition Terre de Guerre (Land of War) with fellow member Bruno Barbey.