Ian Berry moved to South Africa in 1952, where he soon taught himself photography. He worked under the tutelage of Roger Madden, a South African photographer who had been an assistant to Ansel Adams.
After some time as an amateur photographer, Berry began photographing communities and weddings. During this period he met Jürgen Schadeberg, also a European immigrant and photographer. Schadeberg was offered a position with the new African Sunday newspaper eGoli but declined, suggesting Berry apply for the position instead. After working there only 10 months, the newspaper closed, and Berry began working for the Benoni City Times, but he soon became more interested in freelance work.
Ian Berry returned to Great Britain and traveled for some time but returned to South Africa in the early 1960s and worked for the Daily Mail. Later Tom Hopkinson, previously editor of the British Picture Post, hired Berry to work for Drum magazine. He was in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960, when a peaceful protest turned violent, leading to the deaths of 69 people and the wounding of 178 others by police. There were no other photographs documenting the events, and Berry's were entered into evidence in the court proceedings proving that the victims had done nothing wrong.
Berry was invited by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum Photos in 1962 when he was based in Paris; five years later he became a full member. In 1964 he moved to London and began working for Observer Magazine. He has since traveled the globe, documenting social and political strife in China, Republic of Congo, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Israel, Ireland, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union. He has contributed to publications including Esquire, Fortune, Geo, Life, National Geographic, Paris-Match, and Stern.
Berry's photographs have been exhibited world-wide and some are now included in the Magnum Photos: Photographic Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.