The Content of Our Character
December 2008

by Peter Turnley

Few times in my life have I cried from joy. The day after the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, I was returning to Harlem, where I live in NYC, on the uptown #3 subway. As I rode north, around 23rd Street, I turned to an elder Caucasian woman sitting next to me and asked, "How did you feel about the election last night?" She looked at me and said, "I am elated and could not be happier." I had made a photograph of Obama two days earlier on the Sunday before victory in Columbus, Ohio, and was returning from the photo lab with a 16x20 print of this portrait to give as a present to two young children I know who live in Harlem. I had gotten Obama to sign an autograph for the two children the same day I made the portrait and intended on giving them the photograph and autograph as a gift, as for me this election is all about the now and the future, and about hope, particularly for the children of this world.

I couldn't contain myself and asked the fellow passenger on the subway if I could show her the photograph and proceeded to pull out of a bag the large print. I held it up for her to see in view of everyone on the subway car and I could see all eyes staring at this image, a sort of real time exhibition of an image of a current event that had clearly touched almost everyone on the train. Suddenly, a middle-aged African-American woman standing in front of me asked, "Did you take that photograph?" I replied that I had and she told me it was very beautiful. Now the three of us – the elderly Caucasian lady, the African-American woman and I – began to speak rather loudly about our feelings of joy from having experienced Obama's electoral victory the night before. I could tell that everyone in the subway car was listening. At one point the African-American woman said, "I am going to say something that is going to make me emotional, and I apologize in advance, but last night, the thing that made me so proud and full of joy was how at that moment, we all came together, no matter our background, our skin color, and our origins." She began to cry, with tears streaming down her cheek, and my eyes burst with tears, and the woman sitting next to me began to cry as well. Three strangers that had never met before sat and stood crying. I reached up to touch the woman's arm with a gentle pat, and looked around the subway car and noticed that several people sitting across from me had tears in their eyes as well.

At the next subway stop, I stood up and looked at my two new acquaintances and said thank you, feeling nothing more needed to be said, and gently said goodbye. I walked out into the street and as I walked it occurred to me that I could not remember a moment in my life when I had cried from joy, and certainly not with two complete strangers on a subway car. I reflected about where those tears came from and realized that they were full of a sense of joy and hope, as well as pain.

Joy and hope, that this moment embodied a national, in fact international, decision that what does finally matter is the content of one's character and not the color of one's skin. Hope that we had gotten one big step closer as a nation to the mountaintop, and that this moment offered for the rest of time the symbol for all children that the American Dream is a dream that is a little less rigged from the outset, and that this dream can hold out some real hope for all regardless of race, ethnicity, and social origin.

But, I also thought of my tears of emotion that have come often in these last weeks, and I realized that to appreciate their meaning I needed to consider the source of pain they also embodied. Pain from having grown up in a world where I always wanted powerfully for things to be better for all, but a world that I had to recognize had too often at best left relationships, opportunity, and interactions influenced if not determined by notions of skin color, social and ethnic origins. Pain from a lifetime of disappointments and suffering from dreams literally killed of heroes like Dr. King, Malcolm X and the Kennedys. Pain from eight years of an administration that made so many hate us, and made us often hate ourselves. Pain from having attended a high school in Indiana in 1972 that was integrated by busing, with a very diverse student body I've always felt very lucky to have been a part of, but from which my black school friends would return home every night to the inner city of my hometown, while I would return to my white middle-class suburb, and have a sense that in many ways, we didn't fully know each others' worlds.

It was this childhood high school reality and a father passionately involved in the civil-rights movement that was largely responsible for my first experiences with the camera. As a junior in high school, I began to drive every night after school to the black inner city of my hometown, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and the camera helped open up my world. Nightly, for almost two years I would walk the inner city streets, spending time in peoples' homes, pool halls, taverns, and gospel churches. Photography offered me an opportunity to share a response with myself and others about what I saw and what I felt.

Now, more than 35 years later, the camera has offered me an opportunity to feel blessed to have been touched by the aura of a man and a moment and has offered me the chance to not only shed a few of my own tears, but to share with others now and for a time, the tears of joy of so many for what feels like such a necessary, hopeful, blessed, and even spiritual moment. Yes We Can!

blog comments powered by Disqus

© Peter Turnley

Peter Turnley is a renowned international photojournalist who has photographed most of the world's major news stories and important world figures and personalities in the past two decades. His images have graced the cover of Newsweek 43 times and he is a frequent contributor to Harper's Magazine, creating multi-page photo essays on themes of national and international pertinence. His images are consistently published in the world's most prestigious publications. He has won the Overseas Press Club Award and many awards from the World Press Photo competition. He has degrees from the University of Michigan, the Sorbonne, L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques of Paris, and has done a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He has two honorary doctorate degrees. He has published five books of his work: "Parisians," "McClellan Street," "Beijing Spring," "In Times of War and Peace," and "Moments of Revolution."

Turnley is a widely respected teacher of photographic workshops, and his workshops in Rio, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, and Prague/Budapest, can be found on his Web site at: He is also an acclaimed lecturer and has taught at Harvard, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, the Danish National School of Journalism, NYU, and Parsons School of Design.

Peter Turnley's images are represented worldwide by Corbis. His iconic image of President-Elect Barack Obama smiling is represented by the Peter Fetterman Gallery: Fine art prints of his work can be purchased through his Web site:


View previous Digital Journalist articles by Peter Turnley: