By Peter Turnley
When I review my life as a photographer, I feel blessed and fortunate to have experienced so many wonderful emotions, the most significant being the sense of being alive, powerfully alive.
These beautiful experiences began with a book by the master French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a gift from my parents while I was hospitalized with a knee injury sustained during a high school football game. It was 1971, I was 16 years old, and that year in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, I discovered photography. Cartier-Bresson’s work awakened me to the glory that existed in the common moments of daily life. Suddenly my primary mode of self-expression at the time, sports, gave way to countless forays into the inner city of my hometown with my camera. Photography expanded my world. It has always been, for me, a medium through which I can share my observations and responses to the world.
The one thing that is always clear in my mind is that the people and their stories, and the themes of life that I photograph, are always more important to me than the process of photography itself.
My formal education in photography began and ended with a two-week workshop taken during the summer before my senior year of high school. The Belgian Photographer Gabriel DeLobbe, who taught the course, encouraged me to be aware of my surroundings because "every moment you spend looking down is a moment you are denying yourself the gifts of life that are waiting to be observed." I soon found myself discovering great books of photography such as The Family Of Man by Edward Steichen, which became my bible in high school. The images of people from around the world impressed upon me the strong potential for photographers to highlight the subtle distinctions that we possess while underlining our common humanity.
Another great work, Bruce Davidson's East 100th Street, inspired my twin brother David and me to contemplate the notion of how much life could be discovered in the defined space of a single street. In Fort Wayne, in 1972, David and I discovered McClellan Street. Its residents became the subjects of a yearlong project, which also became our first-ever published work. McClellan Street was three blocks long, its residents primarily of Appalachian and Hispanic origin. The life of the street was always full of outdoor activity, which we documented using our one camera. While one of us was out shooting, the other babysat the neighborhood's children or struck up conversations with residents of the street. In 1975, the magazine 35MM Photography devoted many pages to our finished photo essay, an incredible boost for aspiring twenty-year-old photographers.
(Note: We published a portfolio of Peter's work on Monday —Ed.)
In the fall of 1973 I entered the University of Michigan. During the second semester I commuted between the Ann Arbor campus and Indiana, where I worked as a photographer for the Urban Affairs Department of Fort Wayne. This experience led to work during the summer of 1975 creating a photo-documentary of poverty throughout California for that state's Office of Economic Opportunity. At the end of that summer John Morris, the then photo-editor of The New York Times, invited me to dinner to meet Eugene Smith to present to him this work that I later named "The Other California." Smith encouraged me to continue, saying he saw the photographs "connecting my heart to my eyes."
When I returned to Ann Arbor for my junior year, I felt strongly that after a summer immersed in the realities of the world, academia was far removed from my interests. While still in high school, the beautiful, artistic city of Paris had spoken to me through the work of great photographers like Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Boubat, Brassai, Doisneau, Izis, Riboud, Ronis, and Kertesz. Their images fascinated and inspired me and made me dream. Armed with my dreams, I left college in the fall of 1975 for Paris.
When I arrived in Paris, the city I encountered sang to my senses. My heart and mind were immediately stimulated by its light, vibrancy, and texture. The French language entered my ears like music and I was captured by the dynamic energy of my new city. During the mid-1970s and the early ’80s, philosophical and ideological debates were an active and fundamental part of the Paris scene. There were frequent labor strikes, numerous student demonstrations, and much political agitation. It was the height of the Cold War and, given the centrality of Paris in Europe, one felt in close contact with world affairs. I remember vividly the mass protest marches in Paris when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981. These activities provided strong stimulus for my young spirit.
During my early years in Paris I met many of the great French photographers who had inspired me. They advised me and touched my life in profound ways. Both Edouard Boubat and Robert Doisneau befriended and inspired me. Josef Koudelka, whom I met in the Luxembourg Gardens carrying his wonderfully beat-up Leica, taught me by example to appreciate a nomadic existence like that of the Gypsies he so often photographed. And one day, Andre Kertesz spoke to me on the balcony of my garret apartment on the Ile de la Cite about the importance of understanding light in photography. My encounters with Henri Cartier-Bresson always left me feeling blessed, because his personal presence, language, and words always reminded me that photography is not at its core about cameras or film vs. digital, but about exploring and contemplating the richness of life and the world around us.
After I completed studies at the University of Michigan, the Sorbonne, and the graduate program in International Relations at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques of Paris, Robert Doisneau offered me the opportunity to work for him printing his pictures. He also introduced me to the director of Rapho, his agency. My work at the celebrated Paris photography lab Picto, where I had worked as a printer while completing my graduate degree, prepared me for this opportunity with Doisneau, which came at a time when my professional future was still uncertain. From Doisneau I learned the power of hard work, patience, and meticulous organization.
While printing for Doisneau, Rapho began to offer me regular assignments for major international publications including The New York Times, Time, NEWSWEEK, and many French magazines. I quickly learned to satisfy the needs of these publications while following my own journalistic instincts and passion. In 1984, NEWSWEEK sent me to cover Indira Gandhi’s funeral and the ensuing sectarian violence. This first foreign assignment would change my life. I developed an insatiable desire to travel and to document people whose plight deserved the world’s attention. I worked on contract with NEWSWEEK for most of the next two decades and my images graced the cover of NEWSWEEK 43 times. Since 1984, I have covered most of the major historic and geo-political stories that have defined our world. My images have appeared in most of the significant international magazines.
The collective energy of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the Soviet-union deeply touched me. Often, I think of that day in 1991 when I watched Nelson Mandela, with his fist in the air, emerge from the Victor Verster Prison outside of Cape Town after being incarcerated for 27 years. I have been a witness to famines, genocide, and the displacement of peoples by conflicts the world over.
I recall the morning in 1989, when, after flying all night, I landed in Berlin, and went immediately to Check Point Charlie. There I witnessed thousands of East Germans crossing to the West, as the Berlin Wall, the most important symbol of the Cold War, came crashing down.
The same year I documented the pro-democratic uprising of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, who spirit was to be crushed by the military hardware of the Chinese Army.
So many people involved in these situations who have managed, in the face of immeasurable hardship, to maintain their dignity, honesty, and decency, have inspired me.
My mind lingers over memories of being in close quarters with some of the men and women who have marked and changed modern history: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Kadaffi, Arafat, Mandela, Mubarak, Thatcher, Mitterand, Schroder, Honnecker, Ceausescu, Castro, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Muhammd Ali, Princess Diana, and Pope John Paul II. I often recall these people for the characteristics that they each exuded so uniquely, whether they were courteous or charismatic or devoid of both qualities. When I recall all that I have witnessed, and all those who I have met, I often ask myself if I was able to make a lasting portrait of the people that powerfully reflects what I recall most about them.
I reflect on what one learns in the life of a photographer. I remember the calm and dignified looks in the eyes of people who have every right to despair in the midst of their plight and suffering, but who choose to approach their plight with grace, courage, and decency. I have observed this in the body language, gestures, and glances of refugees all over the world, people who have lost everything they know but their minds and bodies, and who choose not to infringe on the rights of others, who choose to maintain with pride their small tent or hovel in a clean and tidy manner, and most of all, choose to subordinate themselves and their needs to those of their family members. I often recall an Eritrean mother who lay on a hard, dirt floor for weeks next to her dying child in a refugee hospital tent in Eastern Sudan.
I am both humbled and hopeful when I think of the number of times all over the world that I have seen people define themselves not by their possessions or wealth, but by the grace, courage, and profound decency in their gestures and behavior. My mental summary of the many times that I have witnessed people in the midst of great human difficulty demonstrate such qualities helps me maintain a positive spirit during moments of personal doubt.
There are countless drivers and translators who have risked their lives to help me cover conflicts in places like Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and numerous others. I also think about how much beauty, human and physical beauty, I have known among the multitude of people who I have encountered around the globe in over 90 countries.
People often ask me how I keep my spirit from becoming cynical, jaded, and pessimistic about the human condition after having witnessed so much despair, so much suffering, and so many conflicts. I try to respond honestly and truthfully, that there are many actions of man that sadden me, distress me, and challenge my optimism. But each time I mentally calculate the sum of what I have seen, I am reminded of the many times that I have seen people of all kinds persevering despite tremendous adversity, and their example leaves me with hope.
The world of photography is ever evolving and I am encouraged and enthused by the way that modern technology and the digitalization of the industry offer an individual the opportunity to project his or her voice, and to touch people with a shared response to our world.
My own career has evolved along with some of the broader changes that have touched the world of photography. I have always conceived of the photographic experience and communication in a global sense as a long-term story. I remain very attentive to the way in which changing times can offer new opportunities, just as I do to the “decisive moments” that offer themselves as gifts to our vision.
In the past several years, I’ve published ten eight-page photo essays for Harper’s magazine. These essays have been driven by a notion of visual authorship, with almost no words except titles and short cut-lines. I have embraced the tremendous opportunity that television and the Internet offer us as an opportunity to empower our individual expression. I have produced several photo essays for television using still images combined with my recorded voice.
Photography can be a very solitary pursuit. My work has been driven by a personal passion to share a response to what I’ve seen and felt. I could not have done this alone. I have had the good fortune to be supported and surrounded by wonderful editors, colleagues, and family that have helped me along my journey. It has been a blessing to be able to share many of the experiences and joys of a life in photography with a twin brother, David Turnley, who happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. I have also been grateful to be associated with the people of three of the best photo agencies in the world, Rapho, Blackstar, and presently Corbis, that have helped me publish my visual expression worldwide.
I also teach worldwide one-week photography workshops on street photography in some of the worlds’ most amazing cities: Buenos Aires, Rio, Istanbul, Paris, New York, Seville, Calcutta, and Arles, in Provence. I partner with the Maine Media Workshops who sponsor most of these classes. I love sharing the joy of seeing wonderful moments with my students. I also feel gratified to share my life experience in photography with my students, and have the opportunity to have a sense of "giving something back," as so many have given me so much throughout my life.
While I have spent much of my life making images that were published in the world of journalism and current affairs, I have always been strongly motivated by a sense that the summit of photographic expression lies in work published in book form, or a signed print destined to remain hung on a wall for frequent contemplation. I have now published five books of my work, and look forward to working towards publishing several books in the future that I already have in mind.
I am also gratified that many of my pictures are now to be found on peoples’ walls. I love everything about the notion of a beautiful signed print that the owner can be proud of, and I continue to be enamored by beautiful traditional silver prints. I have had the great good fortune to have as a close friend one of the greatest printers in the history of photography who lives in Paris and still prints my black-and-white work. He printed for Cartier-Bresson for thirty years and has printed most of Koudelka’s work for years. And I am excited by what seems to me great potential in the future of printing techniques.
I have embraced photojournalism as a means to communicate, provoke, and inspire, as well as to document history. I have employed the camera as a voice with which I can shout out about injustice while affirming what is beautiful and good. My body and soul have been exposed to many dimensions of the human condition, from its most glorious to its most wretched.
I continue to hope and believe that the best stories are yet to occur. My quest for them will certainly require that I keep my head up and my eyes open as I walk down the street. It will require that I embrace what my dear friend Edouard Boubat once told me one afternoon over a glass of wine at La Tartine in Paris: "Peter, if you keep your heart and your eyes open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street."
The Digital Journalist.
Featured Comment by Jim Hughes: "Hard to believe that three and a half decades have passed since I published Peter and David Turnley's McClellan Street essay in 35MM Photography magazine. Over the subsequent years, I have watched with not a little satisfaction as their work has grown and matured, and their vision deepened. Their photographs have aways been marked by passion and heart. Even as youngsters, they seemed to intuitively understand what Gene Smith knew: facing the best and the worst humanity has to offer, in the end it is the affirmative eye that always sees the farthest."