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My First Stories, America, 1971-75
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, being 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 Ft 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, sporting activities, gave way to countless forays into the inner city of my hometown, always 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.
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 while 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 fascinating life could be discovered in the defined space of a single street. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, David and I discovered McClellan Street. Its residents became the subjects of a year-long project, which also became our first work ever published.
McClellan Street was three blocks long, its' residents primarily of Appalachian and Hispanic origin. The life of the street was always full of lots of outdoor activity. We discovered this street one summer day while tracking down a man that had been in a photograph I had made that won a Kodak Scholastic Awards competition. I needed his release signature to claim my prize. We found him sitting on a porch on McClellan Street and there was something about his street that made a strong impression on us-a sense of community that was different from our own middle class neighborhood. There was an openness among the people there, and we had a feeling about the place that was very strong and positive. We documented those blocks during the year of 1973 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. As we gained acceptance and entrance into the world of McClellan St., it was important to us that our motives be clearly understood. We didn't go there to make a sociological study or to draw any conclusions. We kept going back because we liked the people there, and liked being around them. I saw them more as friends than as subjects for our photographs. We had good times there, some of our best times, and being accepted by the people was a wonderful experience. Their lack of pretense and their spirit in the midst of constant problems, even disasters-gave me a pure and optimistic feeling. It was important to us that our pictures never rob the residents of their dignity.
The children of McClellan St. seemed to assume a lot of responsibility and were very precocious. In other ways they were like children everywhere and had fun and worried about little. Their carefree faces contrasted dramatically with the harder, weathered faces of the adults. The people of the street never complained about their condition to us. I remember an elderly woman stopped my brother one day and asked, "why on earth you would to take pictures of this mess?". When he responded that it was because the people seemed pretty happy, she replied, "Son, if we spent any time thinking about where we live, none of us would ever make it."
We gave everyone prints of the pictures we made, and when we went back to visit in the following years at Christmas time, many families would pull out their scrap book of the pictures Dave and I had given them; some of the families had albums that contained over a hundred of our pictures.
In 1975, "35 MM Photography" devoted many pages to our finished photo-essay, an incredible boost for aspiring twenty year-old photographers.
In the fall of 1973 I entered the University of Michigan. In February of 1974, during my second semester of college, I started working as photographer for the Department of Human Resources of the City of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and I commuted between there and the Ann Arbor campus. During the year and a half prior to that I had taken pictures steadily, finding my greatest pleasure in taking pictures of people. In the new job I found that I was getting the same kind of satisfaction from photographing the city-that the city, too, had a character and emotions, and it reflected the physical and social attitudes of its people.
I was excited by photography's ability to explain the city's problems while complimenting its' progress. I realized that photography had the power to persuade. This was a little frightening, for I felt the obligation to express a truthful idea with consideration for its moral consequences in a political atmosphere. I hoped that my pictures would be socially and possibly spiritually beneficial.
One of my first assignments for the Urban Affairs Department was to take pictures of a public housing project, Westfield Village, on Ft.Wayne's southwest side. I was asked to take pictures that would show that the project was not suitable for human habitation. My interest in urban planning, my first college major, and primarily its effect on people, caused me to be in disagreement with the work I was being asked to create. I felt that the relocation plans for the Westfield Village residents did not provide the tenants, the community and the city with a justifiable alternative to a realistic and feasible rehabilitation program for the project. I ended up making photographs and writing a paper that were used in the public debate over this dynamic, and was very gratified that the honest and enlightened policy makers of the city government were willing to consider and expose my point of view.
While working for the Urban Affairs Dept. I made what were to become my first documentary news photographs. I spent several weeks photographing an emergency medical unit of my hometown. I will always recall one ambulance I was riding with, being called to an inner-city church on a hot, Saturday afternoon, and the medics being asked to revive a young woman laid out on the hood of a car experiencing hyperventilation. It turns out she had been the brides-maid in a wedding, and when the minister asked if there was anyone that had any objections to the couple being united in marriage, she began to wail uncontrollably, and stopped the marriage in its' tracks with her convulsions. I always remember the look on the groom's face as he put his hand on her arm to appear as if he was concerned for her. His stare into the distance seemed to me to betray his true feelings, which must have been more centered on his realization of what this brides-maid had just done to his near-term destiny.
This experience led to work during the summer of 1975 creating a photo-documentary of poverty throughout California for the state's Office of Economic Opportunity. The director of this department of government, one of the many enlightened programs under the very progressive Governor Jerry Brown, believed in the power of the photograph to evoke and remind people of a need for change. He believed that strong and honest photographs might serve to inspire and provoke government employees, too often distracted by a maze of paperwork and statistics, as well as remind the pubic in general, of the need for an effective social assistance program in California. I traveled up and down the state of California for 5 months in my Volkswagen, with just enough expense money for cheap hotels, diners, and gas money, and photographed people living under the poverty level all over the state. My pictures were exhibited in the fall of 1975 in the capitol building of the State of California and they were also published in publications of the 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".
I returned to Ann Arbor for my junior year, feeling 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 Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Boubat, Brassai, Doisneau, Izzis, 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-1970's and the early '80's, 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 the Russians entered Poland in 1981. These activities provided strong stimuli 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. Edouard Boubat and Robert Doisneau both inspired me and befriended me. Josef Koudelka, whom I met in the Luxembourg Gardens carrying his wonderfully beat-up Leica, taught me by his 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.
After completing studies at the University of Michigan, the Sorbonne, and in the graduate program in International Relations at the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques, 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 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 I was 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.
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 Verstad Prison in Capetown 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, whose 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, Quadaffi, Arafat, Mandela, Mubarak, Thatcher, Mitterand, Schroder, Honnecker, Ceausescu, Castro, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton. Muhammad 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 these people that powerfully reflects what I recall most about them. 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.
While trying to communicate the human dimension of world events has exposed my sense of inner peace to countless horrors, the one constant in this often wrenching and frenetic existence has been that I always return to Paris, a city that had been the key to my recovery. The elegance and warmth of the Parisian "art de vivre" has always offered a soft landing from painful experiences my heart might prefer to reject.
I reflect on what one learns in the life of a photojournalist. 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 frequently 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.
I will never forget the man in Armenia in 1988 who had only the day before lost his wife, children, and his home, all casualties of a massive earthquake in which 35,000 people lost their lives. As I drove with my twin brother David in a Russian taxi in this devastated region, we stopped to pick up an elderly man who was hitchhiking. He sat in the back with me, motioning upon realizing by the tired look on my face that I had been working many days without much sleep, to put my head on his shoulder. As we drove, he recounted to the driver that he had lost everything in the disaster. As I drifted off into sleep he sang softly in Armenian.
When we arrived at his village, Leninakan, he directed the driver to the spot where his house had once stood; all that remained was rubble. As we got out of the car to say goodbye, the man fell to the ground sobbing and pounding the earth. Minutes later he rose to thank us for the lift. We expressed great sorrow for him, inquiring if there was any way in which we could be of help. The temperature had dipped to below zero Celsius, and the only material possessions this man had left were the clothes he was wearing. Despite this, he chose to remain near the ruins of his house for a while longer, insisting that he would be all right. As I reached out to give him a hug goodbye, he put his wool scarf around my neck, telling me that he wanted me to be warm. I politely declined and put it back around his neck. This was the only material item that this man had left in the world, yet he selflessly offered it to me. I will remember this man and his gesture always.
One of the beautiful aspects of a career in photography is how the process of telling stories with images brings me together with so many different people in such diverse situations. I have preferred to be a generalist, remaining open to new challenges and opportunities. Sometimes, the pursuit of my passions and the acquaintances I've made in my travels have coincided with grand moments of geopolitical change.
I think of Claudia Sadowski, the courageous East German woman, who helped me in 1989 get my film beyond the Iron Curtain. Those photographs showed East German Staszi repressing one of the first major and violent uprisings by East Germans fighting for greater freedom under the then Communist regime of Erich Honnecker. Claudia worked as my translator during the 40th Anniversary of the East German state. Having never traveled outside of East Berlin, she would ask with inquiring eyes what it was like to fly in an airplane, to go through a customs check-point, and what it was like to be free.
The East Germans had mistakenly given me a visa that lasted two days past the end of the Anniversary celebrations. I took advantage of their bureaucratic error. As we drove together through the night in the East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg that was at the heart of the resistance we suddenly saw a startling scene. Under a subway overpass hundreds of young East Germans were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the riot police of the East German Staszi who were retaliating with German Shepherds to attack the protesters. I knew that the West had rarely seen images of such scenes in East Germany.
We parked our car and I positioned myself behind several protestors as Claudia asked two men to allow me to balance my camera on their shoulders, in order to make a long exposure without flash, of the line-up of Staszi and their dogs who were biting the protestors. After making many images, I was suddenly swept off of my feet by several undercover police officers. I was sure that I would loose this important film as I was taken to a paddy wagon and asked to surrender my film and cameras.
Claudia whispered, " Say you are a guest at the Anniversary ceremonies." I whispered back, "That's the last thing I should do." Finally, just as the agents were about to strip me of my cameras, I resorted to Claudia's suggestion-I declared myself a guest of the 40th anniversary of East Germany. Suddenly the agents stopped. "Why didn't you tell us so?"-and they let us go. Unbelievably, I was allowed to leave with my cameras and film.
The following morning at 6 am, I crossed the Iron Curtain on a subway car en route to West Berlin. I raced to the airport and flew to Hamburg, Germany, to show this film to "Stern Magazine". My images were immediately published prominently for all of Germany to see. Only later would the world discover that those preceding days would be among the last of the East German state. I look back at this moment, warmed by the thought of Claudia eventually experiencing the things that she had asked about, and that she too would experience freedom.
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 85 countries.
Traveling the world has been my way of life for many years now. During the last 25 years I've been a witness to most of the world's major news stories while working as a photojournalist. My work has been published the world over and my photographs have been featured on the cover of "Newsweek" over 40 times. I've had the great fortune to travel professionally to so many countries that a friend recently remarked that I should publish a world map on my website indicating the countries that I have yet to visit. I took this amusing approach to geographic autobiography as a compliment.
In the fall of 2000, I received a Nieman Fellowship, awarded each year to 12 American and 12 foreign journalists to attend Harvard University for one academic year. After many years of a fascinating and fortunate career that involved endless travel, this was one of the few times in my adult life that I would remain in one place for such an extended period of time. The following year in September 2001, I assisted Robert Coles, a great humanist, writer, editor, and professor, teach the course "The Literature of Social Reflection". Besides this experience as a teaching fellow at Harvard, I have taught many photography workshops and have enjoyed doing so tremendously. I always have the feeling that I learn as much from my students as they do from me, and feel gratified by the sense of giving back something, as so many have so generously given to me.
The first day I taught at Harvard, a dormitory cook entered the room and announced, " I think you all should go home because our nation is under attack." This was my first knowledge of the news of September 11th, 2001. After my initial reaction of disbelief and shock, I decided that I must reach New York immediately to participate in documenting this important moment in history. I arrived in Manhattan late in the afternoon of September 11th, and succeeded in getting to Ground Zero by early evening. There, I spent the entire night until first light the next day, sitting by myself in a blown out office in the building adjacent to and overlooking the horrific scene where the towers once stood at One Liberty Plaza.
I walked among the rubble of "Ground Zero" at first light the morning of Sept.12, 2001, and upon seeing the faces and eyes of firefighters who had spent that entire first night desperately searching for their fallen comrades, I understood better than ever before the depth of tragic emotion that creates the expression known as "the thousand yard stare".
I will always remember how moved I was by the sight of so many men and women from all walks of life, who had arrived so quickly to use their skills in any capacity. I saw so many welders, construction workers, crane operators, nurses, medics, firemen, police officers, and common citizens give of their time and energy to assist others in the midst of this great tragedy.
People often ask me how my spirit refrains 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.
Recently, my diverse work has included, covering the War in Iraq, documenting worldwide the 100th Anniversary of Harley- Davidson, shooting the photographic content for the Bank of America annual report, teaching workshops on the photo-essay and humanistic traditions of street photography in Paris, and preparing a new photographic book. 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.
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 to want to believe that the best story I will ever have known is one that has yet to occur. This quest 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 "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."
© Peter Turnley
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