The Digital Journalist
Steady Vision On A Complex Humanity

by Claude Cookman

June 2006

"To see life steadily and see it whole."

-- Matthew Arnold

In his call to witness life without flinching, the 19th-century British poet, essayist and cultural critic Matthew Arnold cited Sophocles, author of the Oedipus tragedies, as his primary example. Were Arnold writing today, he might well relate his challenge to the photographic work of Peter Turnley. A direct line extends from the humanism of the ancient Greeks to the vision of Turnley, who has practiced his profession as a photojournalist and documentarian since the mid-1970s.

A photographer of wars, but not a "war photographer," a photographer of famines, earthquakes, rebellions and upheavals, but not a "disaster photographer," Turnley has witnessed the dark side of the human condition. His images of the famine in Somalia, the charred remains of Iraqi soldiers along the "Mile of Death," and Ground Zero at the World Trade Center on September 12, 2001, come immediately to mind. As a contract photographer for Newsweek magazine from 1986 to 2001, he worked in over 90 countries, producing 43 cover images on the major geo-political news stories of this period.

But Turnley loves life and loves people too much to confine his vision to the bleak end of the human spectrum. Without shrinking from the world's harshness and mankind's cruelty, he balances them with images of joy, selflessness, resilience, and hope. His pictures range from a kiss shared by a waiter and customer at a Parisian brasserie to children playing on a makeshift swing amid the rubble of a bombed-out home in Croatia, from an Afghan amputee playing soccer on crutches to a Romany mother nursing her infant. In the tradition of such French humanist photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Edouard Boubat, Turnley finds the moment when his own emotional response aligns with the human intensity of a situation.

His own words from his Web site journal express this best:

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.

After publishing his work in four books, in Newsweek and on the World Wide Web, Turnley is now engaged in a new venture, creating photo essays for the readers of Harper's Magazine, a "journal of literature, politics, culture, and the arts," which has published continuously since 1850.

Flying back to New York after covering the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, Turnley encountered Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham at an airport in Paris. When Lapham asked about his impressions of the war, Turnley showed him the images on his laptop computer. When they met again about six months later, Lapham offered him a position as a contributing editor/photographer with the commission to produce one photo essay a quarter. Since the summer of 2004, Turnley has produced seven essays. With Lapham's retirement, Turnley's series will continue under the new editor, Roger D. Hodge. The next essay is scheduled to appear in Harper's' October issue.

To suggest their range, the essays include the mourning and burial of slain American and Iraqi soldiers; wealthy donors at the 2004 Republican National Convention; dispossessed victims of Hurricane Katrina; the joy of dancing in Argentina, Brazil and Cuba; and a pointed comparison between National Guard members departing for Iraq and Ivy League graduates at their commencements. Ranging between 13 and 20 images, the essays each receive eight full pages.

In an age when print journalism has all but abandoned displays of multiple pictures, Harper's' commitment to such long-form photojournalism is remarkable. The National Geographic still champions photographic stories, but otherwise, in the United States, the big picture magazines are defunct, and the newsweeklies and other magazines relegate photographs primarily to the role of illustrating stories. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, which a dozen years ago published important photojournalism, now devotes its photo space to fashion spreads. Many of the great photo newspapers have died or fallen victim to the corporate profit motive, with MBAs calculating the cost of newsprint as too prohibitive for stand-alone photojournalism. Photographs are used to illustrate stories, but few newspapers publish enterprise projects generated by their photography departments. Splashy design and graphics, and single, large section-front pictures are the norm. Most significant long-form photojournalism has been relegated to the Web or books. That Harper's is willing to counter this trend is more than laudable.

To sharpen the point, it is not merely a commitment of space, but one of trust, openness and a full stake in the editorial process. Even in the golden days of magazine photojournalism, photographers typically turned in their takes to the picture editor and went on to their next assignment. W. Eugene Smith's famous battles with Life for editorial control notwithstanding, at most publications the photojournalist had little or no involvement in selection, design or verbal framing. When Lapham offered him the position, Turnley recalled that he "asked me how I would feel about being treated like an author with photographs, the same way that writers at Harper's were considered with words." Although other editors and even the president and publisher occasionally join the process, the Harper's essays result primarily from a collaboration among three individuals: the photographer, the editor and the art director, Stacey Clarkson.

Harper's gives his work a straightforward presentation appropriate to the essay format. Most of the images are horizontal and are presented two to a page. Vertical images receive a full page. There is no cropping, no mortising and no attempt to guide eye flow by varying the size and proportion of the photographs. Headlines appear only on the opening page. Captions are brief and confined to the bottom of the pages. There are no stories or even blurbs, in the firm belief that, if the viewer is willing to read them, the pictures are sufficient. In short, the collaborative team has achieved the ideal that design should serve the content. The photographs are allowed to speak for themselves.

Because it is relatively rare now, it is important to note that Turnley works in the photo-essay genre, embracing the notion of visual authorship, similar to a writer creating an essay with prose. The narratives he creates often express a point of view about a broad subject. The visual language, grammar, and punctuation of his expression are connected implicitly to choices of layout, pacing, juxtaposition and linkage of visual elements. Instead of focusing tightly on a single situation or individual, he connects his images thematically. Instead of seeking a single, high-impact photograph that encapsulates an event, he records subtle images that require more work from the viewer. Instead of news, he offers us ideas.

The May 2006 essay entitled "Between Two Worlds: Photographs from Bolivia" illustrates the essay approach. Instead of producing a news story pegged to the Bolivian presidential campaign and elections, Turnley probes the contrasts that divide this land-locked South American nation. He includes one photograph of Evo Morales shaking hands with voters, before he was elected president. But more than a dozen other pictures juxtapose poor coca farmers, miners and street vendors with wealthy plantation owners, fashion models and stockbrokers. They help the viewer understand why this Andean nation embraced Morales and his Movement to Socialism Party. They also show the pressures that modernity imposes on the indigenous population. The essay closes with a photograph of an Indian mother in traditional dress watching with a dubious expression as her daughter rides in a brightly colored toy car on an amusement park ride.

Turnley never preaches, but he does show us important things that receive scant attention in our current national consciousness, such as the funerals of both American and Iraqi soldiers.

If there is a constant running through his essays it is the belief that comparisons yield understanding. While this approach animates the Bolivian and Iraqi/American burial essays, it registers most powerfully in the September 2005 piece entitled "Commencements & Departures." In May 2005, he photographed 4,300 members of the National Guard's 48th Brigade Combat team departing from Fort Stewart, Ga., for Iraq. The following month he documented commencements at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The essay collapses the separation in time and space, juxtaposing Guardsmen in combat helmets, night-vision goggles and jungle fatigues with graduates in mortarboards, shawls and gowns. A graduating daughter embraces her father, while a departing medic hugs his young son. Harvard dignitaries in top hats and tuxedos gaze across the page gutter at flag-bearing children in T-shirts and sneakers, one holding a handmade sign that reads: "We Love You Daddy SSG Layfield." A group of law school graduates wave their gavels while the solitary wife of a guardsman is left holding a yellow ribbon. Turnley does not judge the graduates or their families; within the photographs themselves there are no awkward expressions, no displays of excess, no editorializing criticism. But the cumulative effect of aligning the two groups of photographs forces the viewer to think about the social structures and governmental policies that burden America's working class with such a disproportionate share of the cost of this war.

This writer came away from an evening spent studying these seven essays with two overriding conclusions: First, that given a willing editorial partner, there is no limit to the complex issues that an intelligent, perceptive photojournalist can illuminate. Again, Turnley articulates this best when he describes "the power of speaking with a series of images, where often, the individual images combined with others … allow two and two to add up to five rather than four."

Second, in contrast with postmodern art photography where irony, conceptualism and cynicism dominate, Turnley demonstrates that the western tradition of humanism still has the emotional power and conceptual depth to inspire contemporary photojournalists. But it is the full gamut of human experience that he shows us: a Russian bride casting a sidelong glance at her new husband contrasted with the futile attempts of doctors to save the life of 10-year-old Worood Nasiaf, who died needlessly because her father could not get her to the hospital during the U.S. military's "Shock and Awe" attack on Baghdad. Or wealthy Republican donors in their jewels and big hats considered in relation to the 82-year-old Miss Tiki-Tiki, in her yellow skirt and matching sandals, dancing with selfless grace in the streets of Havana.

For those who accept Matthew Arnold's challenge to see life steadily and see it whole, these essays by Peter Turnley offer a good starting point.

© Claude Cookman

Claude Cookman enjoyed a journalism career of more than 18 years, primarily as a picture editor at The Associated Press in New York, The Louisville Times — where he shared in the Pulitzer Prize for Photography — and The Miami Herald. He earned a Ph.D. in the history of photography from Princeton University and has taught visual communications at Indiana University's School of Journalism since 1990.