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© Peter Turnley

The Family of Harley-Davidson
by Peter Turnley

I once heard my colleague and friend Neil Leifer refer to an assignment he had done leading up to one of the Olympics as, "not only the best assignment he had ever had, but the best one I¹ve ever heard of". I remember thinking what a great feeling it would be to be able to say this. I am now fortunate to be able to say that I have had a similar unique and great opportunity. This past full year I was commissioned by Harley-Davidson to document the commemorative events and celebration of the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary.

This assignment consisted of photographing the 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour in 5 North American cities; Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Toronto, and in 4 international venues; Sydney, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Hamburg. The year of celebration culminated with the Ride Home, a trip from Las Vegas to Milwaukee in August with thousands of Harley bikers, and finally with the celebration and Party in Milwaukee. My work has been published in photo essay form throughout the year on Harley-Davidson¹s Web site, and has been exhibited, and will be used and published in many different forms.

All of my life, I¹ve been motivated on some level by the concept of the "Family of Man" which underlines the essential of what people have in common the world over, while respecting their differences. Prior to this assignment I had never had much contact with the world of motorcycling, aside from having ridden for a few years a small "foreign" motorcycle in Paris.

I had been fascinated by the role of motorcycles and particularly Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the popular culture and history of my childhood, during the sixties and early seventies, and also had been moved by the insightful and powerful imagery of bikers by several photographers whose work was part of the overall inspirational backdrop of my photographic background, photographers in particular like Robert Frank and Danny Lyons.

When I began this assignment, I knew that I would be exposed to a world that would be very "cool" and "sexy" and exciting. I wasn¹t aware though, until plunging into the world of Harley-Davidson, to what degree I was going to be exposed to an international "family" for whom a Harley-Davidson is the starting point of a common shared language among millions of people- a "language" encompassing themes of spirituality, independence, freedom, diversity, sensuality, rebellion, shared experience and intimacy. I also discovered that while certain aspects of the stereotype in popular lore of the "bad boy" and "naughty" image of the late sixties bikers linger relatively innocently on the edge of this international culture, that the core of the soul of the community I witnessed is one of acceptance, tolerance, openness, and welcoming.

Having documented conflict and hardship the world over for more than twenty years, I was fascinated and delighted to discover one of the most uplifting and unifying themes of shared experience I¹d ever experienced, among the "Family of Harley-Davidson". I met people along the way from all social classes, extremely diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds, and discovered a theme that both men and women seem to enjoy with equal pleasure, I also noticed very frequently the role that the motorcycles seem to play in bonding couples and families in a shared passion and experience, and in creating on-going, lasting, and always new friendships among people that might not otherwise ever come in contact with each other.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the past year, was from a biker from Texas that I met in Sturgis, South Dakota, last summer. I asked him why he liked to ride a Harley. He thought for a minute and with a strong Texas twang, drawled, " Well, I guess maybe it¹s the smell of fresh cut grass, the smell
of the pine trees, you know, bikers are the only people in the world who understand why dogs put their head out the window of a car when it¹s moving".

In March of this past year, I left directly from a commemorative event of the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour event in Sydney, Australia, to cover the war in Iraq. I will always remember the stark contrast of leaving a scene of seeing so many people joined together around the theme of their common passion for riding Harleys, to the one of conflict and human suffering that I witnessed in Irak. I think, among other things, it was the dimension of this stark contrast of the world of so much hardship that I have frequently witnessed in the past throughout my very fortunate photojournalistic career, with the one of such overall harmony and joy that I experienced with the "Family of Harley-Davidson", that moved my heart so much during the past wonderful year of assignment during the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary. Ride free!

© Peter Turnley


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