Peter Turnley: Moments of the Human Condition, Part Two

“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.”

Peter Turnley is an acclaimed photojournalist who has, for more than 40 years, used his cameras masterfully to create an enduring legacy of memorable images that reveal the depth, joy, and pathos of our common human existence. Last week we published part one of his remarkable story. Here, is the second installment of the amazing and inspiring story of his life’s journey, a continuing voyage of self-expression and self-discovery, told in his own eloquent and insightful words. We pick up his narrative nearly 25 years ago, at a pivotal and defining point in world history.

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 Verster Prison outside of Cape Town 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, Kadaffi, Arafat, Mandela, Mubarak, Thatcher, Mitterand, Schroder, Honnecker, Ceausescu, Castro, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Obama, 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 the people that powerfully reflects what I recall most about them.

The Life Lessons of a Committed Photographer

I reflect on what one learns in the life of a photographer. 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 often 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.

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 90 countries.

People often ask me how I keep my spirit 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.

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.

My own career has evolved along with some of the broader changes that have touched the world of photography. I have always conceived of the photographic experience and communication in a global sense as a long-term story. I remain very attentive to the way in which changing times can offer new opportunities, just as I do to the “decisive moments” that offer themselves as gifts to our vision.

In the past several years, I’ve published ten eight-page photo essays for Harper’s Magazine. These essays have been driven by a notion of visual authorship, with almost no words except titles and short cut-lines. I have embraced the tremendous opportunity that television and the Internet offer us as an opportunity to empower our individual expression. I have produced several photo essays for television using still images combined with my recorded voice.

Photography can be a very solitary pursuit. My work has been driven by a personal passion to share a response to what I’ve seen and felt. I could not have done this alone. I have had the good fortune to be supported and surrounded by wonderful editors, colleagues, and family that have helped me along my journey. It has been a blessing to be able to share many of the experiences and joys of a life in photography with a twin brother, David Turnley, who happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer. I have also been grateful to be associated with the people of three of the best photo agencies in the world, Rapho, Black Star, and presently Corbis, that have helped me publish my visual expression worldwide.

I also teach worldwide one-week photography workshops on street photography in some of the world’s most amazing cities: Buenos Aires, Rio, Istanbul, Paris, New York, Seville, Calcutta, Mumbai, Havana, and Venice. I love sharing the joy of seeing wonderful moments with my students. I also feel gratified to share my life experience in photography with my students, and have the opportunity to have a sense of “giving something back,” as so many have given me so much throughout my life.

While I have spent much of my life making images that were published in the world of journalism and current affairs, I have always been strongly motivated by a sense that the summit of photographic expression lies in work published in book form, or a signed print destined to remain hung on a wall for frequent contemplation. I have now published five books of my work, and look forward to working towards publishing several books in the future that I already have in mind.

I am also gratified that many of my pictures are now to be found on peoples’ walls. I love everything about the notion of a beautiful signed print that the owner can be proud of, and I continue to be enamored by beautiful traditional silver prints. I have had the great fortune to have as a close friend one of the greatest printers in the history of photography who lives in Paris and still prints my black-and-white work. He printed for Cartier-Bresson for thirty years and has printed most of Koudelka’s work for years.

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 believe that the best stories are yet to occur. My quest for them 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 La 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.”

Questions and Answers by the Photographer

Q: Which of your personal characteristics do you consider the most crucial in your ability to sustain a career as a top-tier photojournalist and artist for more than four decades?

A: Photography at its core is all about sharing, sharing an expression of our feelings, perceptions, and observations about the world around us, for now and for all time. The camera is simply a tool in this process – what is most important is what we communicate. The tool we choose to use for our visual storytelling is like a close friend that helps us and accompanies us on our journey and it is important that we choose a good friend that we like and even admire.

What we have to say with photographs has so much to do with who were are as a person, and even who we want to be as a person. Photographs are an expression of our passions, the things we like, the things that make us happy, that make us angry, that make us confused, that we want to know more about, and in the end, photographs are not only about the stories/poems about the world we see, but they are also a testament and legacy of our individual lives.

I have been very fortunate that since I was a child I have had a tremendous passion and curiosity for life and people. I feel that I learn something valuable from every encounter and experience, and from everything I see and perceive. I have also had the great fortune to encounter so many people in this world, who have offered me an example of the power of decency, dignity, generosity, and sincerity, even in the midst of tremendously difficult human conditions, and these examples have taught me a powerful belief in how wonderful life can be and this has given me strength to pursue my passion for sharing life’s stories.

Q: What advice do you have for emerging photojournalists and art photographers in expressing their passion effectively, and establishing themselves in the field?

A: We are in the middle of one of the most exciting times in the history of photography and visual expression. Never before, with the evolution of technology and the Internet, has everyone had the opportunity to share, which is at the core of the photographic experience, our individual visual language so widely and so quickly. As with many other great forms of communication, writing, music, film, dance, etc., it is important that we think about everything that goes into making us who we are as an individual, and to think about what it is we would like to say with photographs. This doesn’t have to be overly cerebral, in fact a very spontaneous expression of our observations and perceptions of the world can be most powerfully communicative. But, maybe more than thinking about photography, it is worthwhile considering what one would like to communicate with photographs.

Great writers and novelists rarely discuss the pens they use or their laptop computers, they discuss the ideas that writing can communicate. Photography is a fully embodied means of communication, and in this respect, no different than other forms of expression, and maybe more than discussing cameras and technique, it is fundamental to consider what we would like to communicate and discover and share with ourselves and with others. It seems to me that this is a strong foundation for a life in photography. Most importantly, one should always follow one’s heart and instincts – they will offer us our most valuable compass in our life pursuits.

Q: Considering the vast and varied body of work you have created what do you regard as your legacy or as the most important things you have accomplished in your long and distinguished career?

A: Throughout my life in photography, I’ve tried to draw poignant attention to the plight of people that deserve greater attention for their suffering of hardship or injustice and also affirm with my vision the many aspects of the life that are beautiful, poetic, just, and good. I would be moved to think that through my photographs and the stories they share and communicate, that the many moments of life that have touched my heart so much, might also continue to touch the hearts of others.

-Leica Internet Team

To view more of Peter’s images in this series, visit Moments of the Human Condition. His website is www.peterturnley.com where you can also learn about his workshops. Peter is also on Facebook.

Peter is the first speaker in the Leica Lecture Series with stops in Austin, TX, on April 18; Washington, D.C., on May 2; and New York City, NY, on October 11. These lectures are free and open to the public. To register, email RSVP@leicacamerausa.com.