Photo Journal: Peter Turnley - Part 2

  • PHOTO JOURNAL: PETER TURNLEY - FRENCH KISS

By Jim Colton

continued from Part One: Moments of the Human Condition

Peter Turnley's New BookJC: Many of our years of collaboration were when you were a contract photographer for Newsweek, where I also worked for 17 years. I know this will be a hard question, but could you narrow down to a few, some of the highlights of working for Newsweek during those years?

PT: In 1981, after graduating from Sciences Politiques in Paris, I called the great French photographer Robert Doisneau – simply wishing to meet one of my heroes. He agreed to meet me at a café before an exhibition opening and after looking at my images, he asked me if I’d like to be his assistant, and if I’d like him to introduce me to the director of his photo agency, Rapho. I said yes to both. I began to go to his atelier to assist him on a daily basis, and soon began to get freelance assignments through Rapho for publications like the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and some French publications. From 1981-1984, I did most of the photography for the Paris office of the New York Times on a freelance basis.  

In 1984, the Paris office of Newsweek sent me to Normandy to complete a one-month story about the living veterans of D-Day, for its 40th anniversary. The Newsweek bureau chief Fred Coleman showed my photographs to owner Katherine Graham who happened to be in Paris. I was later told that one of my photographs of a veteran, who was seen kneeling in front of a friend’s grave with whom he’d stormed Omaha beach, would be the cover of Newsweek. This would be the first of my 43 covers for the magazine.

Coleman told me I should go to New York to meet the people in the photography department. I went to New York and this is when I first met you, Guy Cooper and several other members of the photography department. I began to receive regular assignments and when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, I called you and asked to go to India to cover the sectarian violence that followed her death, and her funeral. This was my first foreign assignment ever, and it would change my life. I developed an insatiable urge to go anywhere and everywhere; the more difficult, exotic and even dangerous, the better. In 1986, Newsweek offered me an annual contract that I maintained until 2001. During that time, I traveled to more than 90 countries, and covered most of the major news stories of those times.

I never made a call to go anywhere without first knowing that I could get a visa to go the country, that I had a flight to get there and would know exactly when I would land and how I would be able to get access to a story. I believe that a notion of credibility was essential in the relationship I had with Newsweek. I needed to be able to count on their support and the magazine needed to be able to rely on me when I said I could get to a story and cover it. 

There are a few other aspects of my relationship with Newsweek that I’ve rarely spoken about but that were significant. Shortly before I first began to work on assignment for Newsweek in 1984, two Newsweek photographers had been killed while covering conflict for the magazine; Olivier Rebbot and John Hoagland. When I accepted a contract to work for Newsweek, I was perfectly aware that this was a deadly serious business. I also discovered that no one at Newsweek would ever ask me to go to a war zone – I’d have to offer to go there. I consider working for Newsweek -- with the kind of people that worked there that not only devoted their lives to covering world news but also actually gave their lives to do so -- to be the highest of honors. 

There were few assignments in the late 90s where I didn’t leave home kissing the wall of my apartment, hoping I’d come back alive. I covered most of the conflicts of the past thirty years, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Haiti and certainly others. I never spent much time speaking about the emotions and danger involved in doing this kind of work with the editors of the magazine, and we didn’t need to. There was always an unspoken level of mutual respect and trust in one another that I will always cherish. 

I have always hated the expression that there isn’t a photograph worth dying for. It implies a notion that we are able to choose our destiny. It’s an expression that seems disrespectful to those that have given their lives covering news and conflict. I feel extremely lucky that I have survived this far and very grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had. I am deeply touched by the courage that so many of my friends and colleagues who didn’t survive demonstrated in trying to communicate the realities of our times to the world. I believe that there are certain themes of life that we photograph that are worth living for!

It is very difficult to recount the most exciting moments I have had as photojournalist. I’ve witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolutions in Eastern Europe in ‘89, the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in China in ‘89, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa. I was in New York at Ground Zero on Sept 11, 2001, in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Haiti after the tragic earthquake of 2011, and Egypt during the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  I’m currently working on a long-term project on daily life in Cuba, “Cuba – A Grace of Spirit.” I’ve made portraits and covered many of the modern world’s most influential people: Obama, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Mandela, Arafat, Gaddafi, Clinton, Reagan, Lady Diana and Pope Jean Paul II, among others.

Something I must highlight as well about my relationship with Newsweek was the opportunity I had during those years to photograph the daily life of people wherever I went. I took advantage of this opportunity to make thousands of rolls of film, and to create an archive of work from which I will continue to share my visual expression for the rest of my life. Discovering and working now with some of the more subtle, timeless, daily life photographs that have not received much attention until now, is something I’m greatly enjoying.  

JC: Since those years at Newsweek, you've moved on to some very diverse and interesting projects...including a stint as a contributing editor/photographer for Harper's magazine and later conducting photography workshops all over the world, which you still do. Please tell us a little about those two endeavors.

PT: In 2003, I covered the beginning of the war in Iraq. I spent most of the first six weeks around Basra and then in Baghdad when the Americans first took over the city. While in Iraq, I photographed mostly the effects of the war on the Iraqi people. What I saw most prominently in the eyes of Iraqi citizens facing the invading western forces, was mistrust at best, and open aggressive hostility at worst. 

When I was returning from Iraq, standing in the waiting area of Charles De Gaulle airport waiting to board a plane for New York, I saw a very dapper gentleman standing alone.  I went up to him and asked him who he was. He responded that he was Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine. I introduced myself and told him that I was just returning from Iraq and that for the second time in ten years, the war that I saw in Iraq was not the war that the American people seemed to have seen or heard about. He told me he wanted to hear more about this and I told him I could more easily show him than tell him. I found him on the plane and showed him my photographs from Iraq and we discussed life and the world for a couple of hours.

Several months later he called me one morning in New York and I met him at a café in Soho where he offered me a contract as a contributing editor/photojournalist. From 2004-2007, I created ten photo essays for Harper’s and am very proud of the communication we achieved using the juxtaposition of photographs to initiate debate and discussion. I enjoyed an opportunity that any photographer would dream of – to choose my own stories, and tell those stories with eight pages of photos. 

I also teach many one-week workshops on street photography all over the world in Paris, Rio, Istanbul, Sicily, Seville, Mumbai, Calcutta, New York, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Havana. Participants are passionate about street photography and come from all over the world and from all walks of life. I now have almost 800 alumni of my workshops who represent a fabulous community of new friends and acquaintances with whom I continue to share a passion for life, visual storytelling and photography. My workshops embrace the joy of finding and developing one’s personal vision. In the workshops I’m surrounded by people whose main concern is to experience interesting moments of life and frame those moments with a camera. 

JC: As someone who has transited the analog to digital market, what is your take on the current state of photojournalism and the value that is placed on the professional photographer? What would you like to see being done differently?

PT: Many things have changed over the last decade and I am very grateful for the good fortune to have worked as a photographer during a period that many refer to as the heyday of photojournalism. I am very aware of the challenges that this new era represents, and sensitive to the difficulties presented by shrinking budgets at newspapers and magazines. I sympathize with the many people who have devoted their lives to visual expression at newspapers and magazines, only to see these structures fold while they are still in full stride in their creative lives. However, we must always try to look forward. 

Without dismissing the obvious economic challenges, there may be some ways in which this transitional, digital era is the most exciting in my lifetime and perhaps in the history of photography. I believe that photography is primarily about sharing, and we have never had the ability to share our photographic expression so freely, widely and immediately as we do today. In the past, when I would have a cover of Newsweek, I knew that approximately 30 million people worldwide would likely see my photograph but I rarely received any direct feedback. Today, I receive inspiring feedback directly from people all over the world via social networking, websites and blogs. 

With opportunities presented by television and online publications, I can make sure that one way or another, an international audience will see any story I create. In the past ten years, I’ve done many pieces for television using my photographs and voice, notably for CNN and Nightline. I’ve done pieces on Obama’s inauguration, the earthquake in Haiti, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the War in Iraq. I’ve also created many galleries and posts that have been featured on The Online Photographer (see link below) a photography website with an incredibly large international audience. 

Another area that has been very exciting for me these past years has been signed collector prints. I will never forget the moment I first saw Henri Cartier-Bresson walk into Picto and watched him sign his name on a print. From that moment, signing one’s name to a print destined to be on someone’s wall has represented, for me, the summit of the photographic act. In recent years, I have been excited and inspired by the worldwide audience that now collects my prints. Besides gallery representation, I’ve also taken advantage of the opportunity to be involved in some amazingly successful online sales of my prints.

The economic challenges of these times are very real, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. In this new era, we all need to maintain a dynamic entrepreneurial approach, stay open minded to new opportunities and embrace the way in which innovations like social networking can generate interest in and create a community around important stories and photographs. 

I strongly advise anyone wishing to be a photographer to educate themselves as broadly as possible. Learning the technical skills necessary to create multimedia pieces can offer great new opportunities for photographers in having a powerful voice. While I love photography, I have always thought that the themes of life I am driven to photograph are more important than photography itself.

JC: You have produced many books during your career and your latest one, "French Kiss-A Love Letter to Paris," is self-published and now available for purchase on your website. Please tell our readers what to expect.

PT: My new book, French Kiss – A Love Letter to Paris is an expression of moments of love in Paris; moments I have observed and loved in my adopted home over these past four decades. I have traveled around the world, and I can say with confidence, that there is nowhere on earth where one can see romance, love, tenderness and affection expressed so freely and so frequently as in the streets, riverbanks, cafes, restaurants and parks of Paris. Paris is the world capital of love! I have had the great fortune to know as close friends and mentors, many of the photographers that have expressed the romantic and humanistic realities of life in this city in the past. Since first arriving in Paris, I actively sought out to meet many of my heroes who have created the great photography of Paris in the twentieth century: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, André Kertész, Willy Ronis and others.  All of these people taught me through their vision that as visual communicators we don’t need to reinvent the world, we need simply to be able to see and feel the poetry and the magic of the world around us.

Edouard Boubat once whispered to me over a drink one afternoon, “Peter, if you keep your eyes and heart open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street.” As I have walked the streets of Paris now for decades, I have witnessed that the wonderful expression of love and romance seen everywhere and at every moment of the day is very much a reality of the present, as well as the past. With French Kiss – A Love Letter to Paris, I feel honored to continue to share with others the very vivid, vibrant, and living expression of the magnificent beauty of Paris. The ubiquitous scenes of love are one of the reasons this city is a place where I have always found a balance and equilibrium for my heart and emotions; especially when returning from scenes of conflict and human distress elsewhere in the world. This new book is my personal love letter to a city that has touched and inspired my heart with an expression of how wonderful life can be. 

I have published five previous books, but this is the first I am self-publishing. I am treating this process just like a major publisher, using one of the best printing presses in the world. The book will be a beautiful deluxe limited first edition and all books will be signed, with an option for personal inscriptions. Each book is hardbound with a dust jacket, and a beautiful cloth covered slipcase. The book can be purchased on my website. (See link below)

JC: It is the opinion of this photo editor that you are one of the best at "capturing a moment," which really is what photography is all about. What is it that you look for within those four borders of your frames...and what keeps you excited and motivated?

PT: Thank you very much for this very wonderful compliment. I’ve always thought that photography is not really about cameras, which are simply tools. Photography is about sharing – sharing our feelings, perceptions, observations about the world around us, with others and ourselves, for now and for all time. It is important to think about all that goes into making us the people that we are; what has influenced our vision, our passions, our loves, and dislikes – what drives our heart.  

I feel fortunate that from a very young age I’ve had a passion for people and for life. It’s not fashionable to say that photography can change the world. One way or another, I believe profoundly that photography can help people around the world know each other better and can bring attention to the plight of people whose situation needs to be noticed and cared for. My parents brought me up to think that a noble notion of a civilization is when we think of the needs of others and particularly those of people that have too little as opposed to too much and that we are all members of one large human family. I am interested in the whole spectrum of the Human Condition (See link below), from the extremes of life when it is less than what it can be, to when it is at its best…and all that is in between. I am very grateful that photography has been, and continues to be, a process through which I can give meaning to my existence and offers me a very strong sense of purpose. I have seen some really tough aspects of life throughout my career and I wouldn’t say that I haven’t been emotionally and existentially scarred by certain things I’ve witnessed. But what might not be intuitive is how the gestures of decency, honesty, goodness, and compassion that I’ve witnessed so many people demonstrate in the midst of extremely difficult human conditions, offers me a sense of profound hope and optimism and memories of many of those gestures stay with me always and help me confront my own challenges and maintain a strong sense of hope. 

JC: Lastly, what's on the horizon for Peter Turnley.... and what words of wisdom or sage advice can you offer to those who may want to follow in your footsteps?

PT:  I’m very inspired by the thought that I have many books to harvest in the coming years both from long term themes I’m currently focusing on and my life’s archive. I’m working on a new book of photographs about life in Cuba during this pivotal time in its history. For the past six years, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time photographing the life of one barbershop in Harlem. Within the walls of this barber shop, I’ve witnessed an amazing spirit of community. Sometime in the future, I will make a book about the life of this barber shop. It’s been a project much like McClellan Street was for me in the early 70’s. At some point, I plan to make a photographic memoir of the many stories of my life and experiences over these past several decades. 

I photograph now as much or more than ever before, and am more excited than ever before to wake up each day and walk and look around, wherever I am.  I remain connected to the news of the world and have organized my life to be flexible, so I can still react quickly if something exceptional occurs that I feel moved to document.  I’m now most often interested in developing long term stories and projects.

I continue to contemplate all that I truly care about and try to find ways to share these themes visually. I still hope and believe that the best stories and photographs are yet to occur. My quest for them will certainly require that I keep my head up and my eyes and heart open, as I walk down the street.

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