It’s not about the camera: A conversation with Peter Turnley

29th September 2017

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Renowned photojournalist Peter Turnley will host a community talk entitled “Moments of the Human Condition” at 7 p.m. on Tues., Oct. 3 in Stem Concert Hall of the Ogle Center on the campus of Indiana University Southeast.

A native of Ft. Wayne, Ind., Turnley has spent more than half of his life in Paris, where he has captured the vibrant French metropolis in tender, humorous and sensual images. Turnley worked as an assistant to the great French master, Robert Doisneau, and became acquainted with many of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edouard Boubat.

As a photojournalist, Turnley is known for his photography of the realities of the human condition. His images have been featured on the cover of Newsweek 43 times, and are published frequently in the world’s major publications, including Harpers, The New Yorker, Paris Match, National Geographic and more. He has worked in over 90 countries and photographed most of the worlds’ conflicts of the last decades, including wars in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also maintains an ongoing commitment to document the major refugee populations of the world. Turnley has covered many of the world’s most influential people including Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yassir Arafat, Pope John Paul II and many more. His photographs draw attention to the plight of those who suffer hardships or injustice, yet also affirm the many aspects of life that are beautiful, poetic, just and inspirational.

Peter Turnley spoke with Steven Krolak, academic information officer at Indiana University Southeast, about his career and creative vision.

How did your parents come to give you a book of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson?

When I was 16 years old I had a very serious injury from football, and I first came in touch with Cartier-Bresson’s book. My recollection is that the book that my parents brought me was a book called The Face of Asia, which Cartier-Bresson made with photographs from all over Asia. Both of my parents were extremely artistic and creative and aesthetically minded. My mother was a concert pianist. My father, though he was an orthodontist, which involved great eye and coordination, was extremely skillful at tons of other things. They were world-class American country antiques aficionados and they were both historians. So my sense is that their aesthetic intuition somehow took them to Cartier-Bresson, and all I can say is that their good taste in offering me a book by that photographer is right in line with the good fortune I had with the family I was born into. They were very nice, smart, compassionate people.

Compassion does seem to inform your photos . . .

While my family was not formally religious in any way, there were strong humanistic values I was brought up around. My father was very passionate about civil rights. He was involved in the civil rights struggle in the state of Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s and there was always a lot of talk at our household about the haves and have-nots, and a sense that one ought to try to do something with one’s life that would make the world a better place.

Did that foundation play a role in your decision to pursue political science rather than be academically trained as a photographer?

I’ve actually never in my life taken a class in photography. I did take one two-week photo workshop the summer when I was 16 years old in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but from the very beginning I read everything I could about Cartier-Bresson, and I really believed in his statement that vision is a function of what you know about the world and not what you know about photography. So my sense very early on was that the best thing one could do to have both an interesting vision and, secondly, to have something to say with a photograph, was to learn as much about anything and everything other than photography.

What are some of the other influences that have shaped your approach?

My relationship with the world I don’t believe is static. It’s always changing and moving and it can be somewhat unpredictable. What I think is important always is try to not only look at the world and respond to the world in the most sincere and authentic way possible, but after saying that it is always a kind of a work in progress. My whole vision of the world probably is tied not only to the values that I grew up around in my family, but also the time period of the late 1960s when I was coming of age, which we all know was a very tumultuous time in the world. It was a time when young people were questioning everything, the central sort of core institutions and ideals of society and government and the world were being in questioned right and left. That was the backdrop of how I have always looked at the world. Cartier-Bresson likes to say that it’s very important to look at the world with a questioning gaze. I think that is essential.

Secondly, my view of the world, before I ever began to travel, was influenced by The Family of Man, the famous book and exhibition put together by Edward Steichen in the mid-1950s. The premise of this book was that no matter what differences people have, based on geography, culture, religion, race, ethnicity, and on and on, the things that all people have in common are greater than the things that make us different. And the essential part of that is a notion of love and decency and honesty and fairness and goodness, equality and a sense that the only true basis upon which anyone should be judged is the content of one’s character. So wherever I’ve been in the world, while I’ve wanted to use the camera many times to shout about what is wrong with the world, I’ve also always wanted to underline when I come across moments that reinforce and remind me of how wonderful life can be.

Some of the tension I enjoy in your work comes from finding the good and hopeful amid the horrors you photograph. How do you put yourself in a space to be receptive to that hope?

It’s valid to ask, after having covered most of the wars in the world in the last 30 years and having seen life in its most dire and difficult conditions—like the famine crisis in Somalia in 1992 and the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the plight of refugees all over the world, spending the night of 9/11 in the rubble of New York, and on and on―how I can remain in any way positive and not become desperately pessimistic. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna—the things that I’ve seen definitely have left serious scars on my existence and on my heart. But I would say that in the middle of very difficult human situations, one can witness the most incredible demonstrations of goodness and decency and bravery. These moments are revelations of human beauty, of love and care and dignity and strength and courage. And having witnessed those moments is one of the things that keep me moving forward.

As a street photographer walking into a neighborhood, how do you go about building trust?

Trust is one word one could use. I also think authenticity, credibility, spontaneity, and being genuine are all words that are important. This whole realm of how one interacts with the world around one is exactly why I don’t think that the real terrain upon which visual communication takes place has much to do with cameras. It has all to do with ourselves as human beings. It has to do with body language, with our hearts, with very deep core values. These are all things that are very hard to teach in Photography 101, if they can be taught at all. What can take place is a discussion that allows each person to think about their own relationship with the world around them, and with other people. It’s extremely personal. There is no formula. I think that people everywhere have a sense of friend or foe, of those that they trust and those that they fear. And all of the visual cues that contribute to what triggers that kind of radar are fundamental. A lifetime of experience tells me that most people appreciate it if they feel like your presence is honoring them, and they feel dignity and respect.

How does photography relate to your larger vision?

In my mind, photography really isn’t that much about cameras. Cameras are a tool. I respect the tool, and I think it’s important to know the tool and to be able to master it, almost like a world-class athlete that has practiced every day for years and years, so that when their team is down by one point and there’s only one second on the clock, that’s not when you’re thinking about your stroke, that’s when you’re thinking about winning the game. But I think the most important thing about vision has everything to do with why it is that we choose to frame a moment with a camera and hold onto it for now and for time, to share with ourselves and with others. I think the verb “to share” is probably the outstandingly essential part of all of that. If you accept that premise, then the more important question, rather than talking about photography, would be discussing everything that goes into why you would want to share certain moments with other people. And that all has to do with one’s life experience, the things that make us happy, the things that make us angry, the things we want to know more about, things that confuse us. Sometimes it’s not only about who we are as people, it can also be about who we’d like to be as people. Photography can be many things: It can be an expression of what needs to be changed and a demonstration or expression of how things should be different. But it can also be an opportunity to underline what is wonderful about life, and offer a glimpse of what life can be.

Peter Turnley will present a photographic lecture entitled Moments of the Human Condition at 7 p.m. on October 3, 2017 at the Ogle Center on the Indiana University Southeast campus. The event is free and open to the public, but requires a ticket. Please call the Ogle Center at (812) 941-2525 to reserve.

Homepage photo courtesy of Peter Turnley.

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