The stories that pictures tell

A Q&A with renowned photojournalist Peter Turnley

Peter Turnley has worked in more than 90 countries and has witnessed and documented most of the major global news stories of the past 30 years, including the 1991 Gulf War; the war in Iraq; conflicts in the Balkans, Somalia, and Haiti; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of Apartheid in South Africa; and Hurricane Katrina. His photographs have been featured on the cover of Newsweek 43 times and his work has also been featured in National Geographic, Harper’s, Stern, and The Sunday Times of London. His relationship with Gerald Zaltman, founding partner of Olson Zaltman Associates, dates back nearly 15 years to his time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

James Forr: I will start with a softball question. You have just published a new book. What is the topic?

Peter Turnley: It’s a book called French Kiss: a Love Letter to Paris and it is a book of 40 years of black and white photographs of scenes in Paris of moments of love. It is a book that I self-published. It is a deluxe first edition book that has a hard cover and a very elegant slipcase. It is beautifully printed and the only place where it can be purchased is on my website, which is peterturnley.com.

The book’s title relates to the fact that this theme of photographing daily life in Paris is a theme that has been very close to my heart now for four decades. While covering most of the world’s wars and conflicts over these past 30 years and man-made and natural disasters, both my eyes and my heart have been witness to some of the darkest and most horrific moments that the human condition can present. And when I return to Paris each time after all of my trips overseas, my daily life in Paris reminds me constantly of how beautiful life can be. So this book is a tribute to four decades of scenes of what we think of as life at its best which involves romance, tenderness, friendship, family, love, sensuality, joy, elegance and culture.

JF: To that point, I was looking at some of your work on your Tumblr site and one of the things that struck me is just what you were talking about. You have one image that is a scene of just the most intense human suffering, and then the next image that you show is something like two lovers kissing on a park bench in Paris. What is the role of your own emotions when you are working?

PT: I first began in photography when I was 16 years old, and a camera has been essentially two things. It has been one of a passport which allows me to go almost anywhere and have a sense of purpose for being almost anywhere and it allows me to be accepted in an incredibly wide and diverse array of situations relating to the world and human condition. And secondly, the camera has been a tool which honors me a voice, an opportunity to speak and to share.

I think probably the most important operative word for me related to my passion for photography is a way in which a photograph allows me to share both with myself and with others — for now and for all time — a moment, a scene, something that has crossed both my eyes and my heart and has touched me. And as such, the role of emotion is fundamental. I believe pictorially that photography is all about — I like to call it digital storytelling. It is a wonderful means of communication.

Like all means of communication, I defend entirely the right to a point of view. I don’t know what the word ‘objective’ means. Anytime one opens their mouth and emits words, it involves a series of choices. There is nothing objective about that. Anytime one puts pen to paper, the words we line up one after another is a very developed process of choice. And the same comes with photography. When one decides to push on the shutter button of a camera and what one decides to frame within the frame of a camera, all of this is very subjective, it’s very personal and I think that’s what gives power to this medium as a form of communication.

And going back to emotion, I spoke about photography being a visual storytelling. When we speak about the notion of a story, I think quite possibly one of the most essential questions of life itself is the question of what makes a story powerful. If one can understand or get closer to an understanding of what makes a story powerful, then we get closer to understanding of a fundamental driving force in our lives. And [as to] this question of what makes a story powerful, without a doubt in my mind a part of the answer would always have to be something that touches the heart. Not only the mind, but the heart and I use the heart as a metaphor to speak about something that touches the core of our existence, our soul. And in framing things way, without a doubt the role of emotion is essential.

JF: Do you personally have to be in a different emotional place when you are photographing two lovers on a park bench in Paris compared to when you are photographing some form of human tragedy in a war zone?

PT: I actually don’t think so. I think on the contrary. What’s interesting in storytelling is the whole gamut of what I like to call the human condition. The human condition includes life at its most extreme in terms of difficulty and hardship, suffering, oppression and justice all the way to the other end to the times in life where things are at their very best and often in my mind that would include moments connected to friendship, romance, hope, tenderness, friends and family, love.

In order to communicate, it is essential, I believe, to feel, and so I think that the process of responding and framing a moment across that whole timeline of what we call the human condition in many ways is very similar whether it is a moment in the midst of tragic conflict, or whether it is a moment in the midst of incredible love and sensuality and hope and youth. So I don’t think that it is actually a different process. I think it is very similar.

JF: One often hears that people in law enforcement tend to have almost a sixth sense about the world around them. They perceive things in the environment that the average person does not. As an accomplished photojournalist is any of that true for you as well? Do you literally see the world in a different way than an average person?

PT: I don’t believe that I can answer that question well. What I would prefer to say is that what is really exciting for me about photography and this whole storytelling is that no matter what it is we do in our lives, no matter what job we have, no matter what trade we are involved in, no matter our background, our family life, our age, in all cases, in almost every moment of our lives, our ability to observe and perceive is fundamental to how we interact with the world. So there is this whole notion of observation, perception and sight that is something fundamental to all life, and to all human beings.

What also strikes me related to this question are two things. One is that almost everyone by the time they graduate from high school has taken a rather serious class in reading and writing and creative writing, but it would be extremely rare that you could find someone who has actually taking a class during their formal education up until graduating from high school where they literally studied seeing, using the gift of sight. And to me this is very ironic given how important the role of sight and observation and perception is to everything that we do.

The second point I would make related to that is that, again ironically given this lack of formal training in our educational settings, we are now living in a time period where with the technology that is at the disposal of almost every individual, never before have so many people been interested in the visual world. Today everyone is making photographs. Everyone, whether they have a camera or a smart phone, with the various social media that exist, is extremely heavily connected to a visual world and individual expression. So in many ways I couldn’t be more excited about this moment in terms of photography. I think that this is in some ways one of the most exciting times in the history of photography.

JF: You have done some work in advertising. How do you compare or contrast your approach to that work with the approach you take as a photojournalist?

PT: Actually the approach has been almost entirely the same. I have done major campaigns for Coca-Cola, Nike, Starbucks, the NYU Langone Medical Center, and each time I have been chosen because of my photojournalist approach to the visual world. And I would say the second important element of that has been I have been chosen for campaigns because of my interest and ability to capture real, spontaneous, authentic moments, as opposed to posed moments or moments that have been created for the camera.

JF: So I guess this question is almost asking you to pat yourself on the back a bit, but when you think about those campaigns what makes them, in your opinion, different from or better than the typical campaigns that one might see in advertising?

PT: I met Gerald Zaltman in 2000 when I did a one year Nieman fellowship at Harvard. I took a class at the Harvard Business School with Jerry called the Consumer Behavior Lab. The nature of the class was that there was a lot of discussion of the notion of authenticity and it was actually following that experience at Harvard that I developed more in-depth talks and discussions with Jerry Zaltman about this notion of authenticity and then began to work with a few art directors in developing an approach, a process that would allow this type of spontaneity and authenticity to emerge.

So for example, I did a series of portraits for Bank of America for an annual report. And rather than having members of this top management team sit and pose for rather static portraits, I was brought in and allowed to attend and actually document the life in meetings where many of these managers were interacting with each other. And we treated these meetings almost like documenting a cabinet meeting at the White House, for example.

I did a couple campaigns for both Starbucks and Coca-Cola where in each case, either with a bottle of Coca-Cola or a cup of Starbucks coffee, I would walk around the locale that was chosen — and in these cases it was in Paris, Rio, Amsterdam, and Antwerp — and I would walk around these cities and actually look for moments that represented a form of a story, where there was an interaction among people that was completely independent of the product, Starbucks or Coca-Cola. Then I would approach them and ask them if they would agree to continue doing what they are doing and we would introduce a bottle of Coca-Cola or a cup of Starbucks coffee. And the idea was that the product was actually not the story itself. It certainly enhanced the story or was a compliment to or a part of the story, but it wasn’t the story itself. And this approach I believe did really very much underline the notion of a relationship of authenticity and spontaneity with these products and these brands.

I think other operative words besides authenticity and spontaneity would be believability and credibility. What is very interesting for me is that in the work that I’ve done on these campaigns, I without a doubt leaned upon my many years of experience and work as a photojournalist in very real life situations. But interestingly, since I’ve done some of these campaigns, with the necessity to be very conscious of this notion of authenticity and spontaneity and thinking about how to frame moments and how to portray them so that they would be revealed as being authentic and spontaneous, that thought process has actually also brought some real growth to my photography in a very general way. So it’s very interesting how this thought process related to how, when and why we frame a moment has impact on our communication in general.


James Forr is a director at Olson Zaltman, a market research firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.