Interview With Photographer Peter Turnley: Moments of the Human Condition (Part 2)

"I've always conceived photography from the very outset as this opportunity to be, not only a diary and an autobiography of my life, but also a reflection of a world that I would want to live in."
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This is the second part of my interview with Peter Turnley. The first part is published here.

The interview was conducted in January 2016. In this part of the interview we discussed, amongst other topics, Cuba. It is timely that I publish this part of the interview now since we have just witnessed President Obama's historic visit to Havana. Below you will also find photographs of Cuban people I made during a recent visit to the island.

As a reminder, Peter is a remarkably talented and acclaimed photographer who has covered major news stories across the globe for several decades. His photographs have appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine 43 times.

In the gallery below, and with Peter's permission, I have included several of Peter's photos from his recent retrospective in Havana. Peter currently also has two excellent photography books available:

And in this next gallery, I am sharing a selection of portraits I made on the streets of Havana during a recent visit to the island. More of my photography can be found on my web site - www.benarnonphoto.com

Ben Arnon (BA): Is there a particular photograph that stands out as your proudest photograph. If so, why?

Peter Turnley (PT): I'm often asked that question and the absolute truth is no. I feel very fortunate that I made a point at an early age to meet a whole group of photographers who were a reflection not only of a single great photograph that they had made but whose life's work represented what the French like to call an oeuvre, or a body of work. My heroes were people like André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Edouard Boubat, and many others. And what always struck me about all these people was that while they each had made many iconic images it was more what their whole global body of work represented to me. This notion that every photograph that one makes, every moment that one stops, is part of a stairway leading to something greater. Every photograph is a step.

So I've always conceived photography from the very outset as this opportunity to be, not only a diary and an autobiography of my life, but also a reflection of a world that I would want to live in. A projection of a world I want to embrace. So I don't have an easy answer to the question is there one photograph.

I would say I've had the incredible opportunity to be present at many of the world's most defining moments over the last four decades: the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, the liberation of Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the pro-democracy mass protests in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, the end of of the Soviet Union and the transition to Russia as we know it today, and on and on. I've been present at most of the world's wars over the last 30 years.

Often moments that I recall the most are not moments of necessarily great drama but moments where I came across an individual or group of people, often times unknown to the public, whose example of courage and decency and poetry and grace really touched me and gave me a kind of a guiding light for a better way of life.

But, all of that said, potentially one of the most singular exciting moments of my photographic life was witnessing Nelson Mandela walk out of prison after 27 years. I made, with a small group of other photographers, the very first photographs of his walking out of prison. And that was an absolutely glorious moment that will always stay with me.

BA: Talk to me about Cuba for a bit. Your exhibition is in Havana. You've just published a book on Cuba and your photographs from the island. Tell me about your relationship with Cuba.

PT: One of the themes that has so often driven my most important life decisions has been the theme of grace. I found grace on the inner city streets of my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I found grace, without a doubt, when I moved to Paris. I found grace when I moved to Harlem in New York City in 2004.

I first made the trip to Cuba in 1989 with Mikhail Gorbachev. Ironically my first trip to Cuba was flying on a plane with Mikhail Gorbachev for a state visit with Fidel Castro in 1989. And I've now been traveling often to Cuba for the last 30 years. I've had this kind of modus operandi that dates back to my early days working as a photographer for Newsweek of always wanting to try to ascertain what the big stories of the moment are that are going to fundamentally affect the history and the geopolitics of the world.

Five years ago, I just had this sense, in very much the same way I had a feeling about Eastern Europe in 1989 before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had a sense that Cuba was going to be one of the next fundamental world stories of geopolitics and history. I feel grateful that at this point I was correct. This is, without a doubt, an amazing and fundamental moment in the history of Cuba.

One of my greatest life's honors was to be invited by the most important museum of Cuba to offer my work, which is a visual discussion of the world over the last 40 years. Though I've had exhibitions in other places I have never had a response to my photographs so collectively the way in which not only the Cuban people, but also visitors from all over the world, have responded to this exhibition.

In Cuba it's different. Every day I walk into this exhibition people from all the world come to me directly, often with tears in their eyes. Voices are often trembling and I can see their emotion and tell that the visual discussion they have just entered into has really touched their life. This leaves me with an amazing feeling of gratitude and fulfillment but also a tremendous sense of pride, that I can be part of this wonderful moment in the life of Cuba.

Every time I go to Cuba I leave with this powerful sense of having been offered a lesson in life. Almost categorically across the board anyone who visits Cuba from overseas comes away feeling that the people they met were among the most beautiful, graceful, joyful, kind, rich, and human people they've ever met anywhere. I think a lot of people have this sense that this is just somehow kind of organic and Caribbean and maybe even somewhat genetic. I think they miss a really important point. Even if we accept that there are things that need to be changed in Cuba, and there are certainly things that are broken, it is important to recognize that the fundamental ideas of the Cuban revolution - the ideology of the Cuban revolution - has had tremendous impact on the cultural behavior of Cuban people.

Cubans look at the world through a prism of living as part of a collectivity, a community. They don't look at the world as being only an individual. They embrace the notion of their family, of their neighborhood, of their community, of their city, and their country. I think it would be very difficult to ever meet a Cuban who is not profoundly proud of their Cuban-ness, of being Cuban. In Cuba I've witnessed at least five times when an older person falls down, people run from all directions to help pick them up. There's a sense of collective responsibility for each other that is really beautiful. Again, I just want to underline that I absolutely love the spirit of Cuba.

Throughout my life as a photojournalist I've thrown myself at many of the world's most difficult dynamics. I was present in Rwanda shortly after the Rwandan genocide. I witnessed a major famine in Somalia in 1992 where more than 200 people were dying per day of starvation in a certain village. I've witnessed the tragedy of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Haiti, South Africa, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and on and on. And in the Middle East, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and all over the world. But in the places I choose to live and work frequently I've tried to, when I can, expose my heart to places that uplift me and that are examples of life at its best. Without a doubt Cuba is this lamppost for me today. I absolutely love the people of Cuba and I always look tremendously forward to returning.

BA: To me, Cuba and Havana, in particular, is a photographer's paradise, for many different reasons - the people, the colors, the architecture, the textures, the old American cars. What are your favorite locations in the world to shoot photography?

PT: When I'm in Cuba I love to walk. I walk long hours and I like to walk by myself. I adore the the human encounters that I have on a daily basis with people. I think that it's difficult to meet anyone, particularly a photographer, that returns from Cuba not having been simply delighted by the visual landscape of Havana and the rest of Cuba, including the countryside. In many ways the country has lived within this sort of time warp since the revolution in the late 1950s. The American blockade has unfortunately isolated Cuba in such a way that the country hasn't had access to a lot of the material and technological evolution the rest of the world has known. We do often see this fascination for old cars. The quantity of amazing and fascinating, beautiful old cars in Cuba is just mind blowing. The architecture is also very beautiful and, even when it is occasionally in a very degregated state it still has this great notion of visual authenticity and uniqueness.

I think something that impacts a lot of people visiting Cuba, particularly photographers, is that since we live in a world today of globalization, for better or worse, everything looks the same. I think technology and globalization has impacted the world in so many ways to create this form of homogenization where everything looks the same. It often looks like it's made in a box and I think we all are starving for authenticity and individuality, and I don't mean that it in a collective human sense. I mean that more in a way of expression.

You find that in Cuba. Cuba is a place where everything just doesn't all look the same. It has this very unique character about it. People dress differently. They have tremendous personal expression in the choice of clothes that they wear, in the cars, in the architecture, in the way they move, the music they listen to, and I think everyone who visits Cuba absolutely loves that. I think beyond that one of the challenges for a communicator - for a photographer - is to go beyond stereotypes. I've been now photographing very avidly the life of Cuba for the last 30 years and particularly the last five years.

This last fall I self-published a book that is beautifully printed, comes with a slip case, and all copies are signed. The book is called Cuba: A Grace of Spirit and is available on my website. The guiding force for my selection of photographs for this book was that every photograph had to, in one way or another, go beyond the stereotype of simply a visual discussion of old themes like the fascination of old cars and architecture, but had to actually penetrate somewhere much deeper to be a reflection and discussion of the incredible spirit of the Cuban people. I think this is the most overriding powerful aspect of life in Cuba today - the spirit.

I also think that as I get older, I realize that I don't believe in the notion of objectivity. I don't know what that word means. Everytime we say something, the way we line words up in our oral expression is a choice. Everytime we put pen to paper, the way we write, the organization of our words, these are choices. Every time we click the shutter of a camera it's a choice. There is nothing objective. The word 'objective' has no meaning. What gives each of us power in our expression is personality and our own personal choice. I believe very much in fairness. I believe in honesty. But I don't know what objectivity means.

So I don't think as we assess life experience that there is such a thing as an objective appraisal, but if I was going to try to assess what I have most fundamentally learned over the last 60 years it is that what I have witnessed to be the most defining force in life is spirit. Much more than any aspect of material life, spirit seems to really define all. It is how people approach life. It is what they make of each day of their life.

I actually think that the work of my early hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson, has in many ways been majorly misunderstood, even by museum curators. There's this constant discussion of the role of geometry, of lines, of composition, of light in his work. And I don't deny in any way that's all there. But, in my mind, what is most fundamental about the body of the life's work of Henri Cartier-Bresson is that for him to have seen what he saw and to choose to stop those moments and to frame them, he had to have a tremendous faith and conviction that life can be interesting. Otherwise he never would've been open to seeing the things and feeling the things that he chose to stop and show.

If you think about it some people walk out of their door every day convinced that today's going to be a day just like the one before. Other people choose to walk out the door with the idea that at any moment their life could change, and I'm quite sure that is how Cartier-Bresson approached the world. That at every moment there was something interesting that could be noticed and that is what is most fundamental about his life. To me that is so much a reflection of spirit, almost bordering on a notion of faith, but certainly spirit.

BA: Today there is more producing, consuming, and sharing of photographs than ever before in the history of the world. What are your thoughts about the future of photography? Are we at a place right now where the craft of photography is devalued and not really appreciated or are we experiencing a golden age of photography where more people than ever before take photographs and are interested in photographs?

PT: I would have a tendency to say that, if we accept as a premise that photography is first and foremost about sharing, that this is probably the most exciting time in the history of photography. Never before have we had a chance to share so widely and so quickly to so many people. To touch others, to share with others, something we see, feel, perceive, observe. So in that way I'm very optimistic and very excited.

I also think that I'm of an age where, at the age of 60, I had the great fortune of working as a photojournalist in the real heyday of the traditional model of analog media publication expression. I worked with Newsweek from 1984 to 2001 and I had the great opportunity to travel to over 90 countries around the world and each time I would have a cover of the magazine which I did 43 times. I had this knowledge and sense that close to 30 million people around the world would see my photographs and that was beautiful. At the same time I never got any feedback. I didn't know who saw my pictures. I didn't know what they thought of them.

I don't want to be uniquely pollyannish. Without a doubt, in my own lifetime, the transition from this analog to digital world has impacted many of the models of the livelihood of photography. But still I'm not pessimistic. I regret that budgets have shrunk at magazines, newspapers and print publications so that staffs of photographers have largely decreased and declined. I am very aware of how that moment of change has created hardship and the necessity of transition for many people.

At the same time I'm still extremely optimistic. To me at this moment in time, the fundamental core aspect, aside from making powerful images that touch the hearts of others and that represent personal expression, is the notion of building a community of people that are interested and follow our work. And the opportunity to create this kind of community with social media - with Facebook, and Instagram, and having one's own blog - is just tremendous.

I look today to certain people like the young man, Brandon Stanton, who has the site Humans of New York, as a real lightpost. Here's a person whose daily work touches millions of people across social media and this has enabled him to publish books and to continue to do the work that he wants to do. I have been incredibly energized in my own work life by my opportunity to connect with people through social media and through online publications which is translated into the opportunity to also touch people by leading workshops around the world, by having literally thousands of people acquire signed prints of my work, by self-publishing two books of my work.

BA: I think it's very important, regardless of what we do in life, to make an impact, whether we're a photographer, teacher, businessperson, or anything else. A single photograph can make a huge impact on people's emotions and on the world. Do you think it's easier for a photographer to make a big impact today because it's so easy to distribute and to share, or is there such a proliferation of images that it's hard to cut through the clutter and was it easier back in the day - 30 years ago - when there weren't as many photographs out in the ether?

PT: I'm not overly concerned with the notion of a proliferation of images. While I love great writing and I love a beautiful choice of words and great oratory, I'm dismayed that while sight and vision are such a fundamental aspect of every human's life experience, that young people never formally study seeing in school. We all learn how to read and write but if you asked people if they've ever had a class in seeing - how to use the God-given gift of sight - almost no one has ever had a class in seeing. I think that would be a great dynamic subject to introduce in the formal elementary school education for children.

I'm really excited that while we don't have these studies of sight, I do think that the generalized embrace of visual expression young people have today with smartphones and social media is terrific. It used to be, say in 1980, if I turned to the person next to me and asked them anything about photography, 9 out of 10 people probably rarely made a photograph and if they did it would be for a family snapshot.

Today if you turn to the person next to you he or she makes photographs all the time, is very excited about the images they're making and sharing with others, and to me this all represents a tremendous opportunity for anyone who is really serious about visual expression. More than ever before there's a world of people that are very receptive to powerful visual content. So I see overall all this as very positive.

I will say I think as I look at Instagram and some of these kinds of engines of visual expression, I might be a bit critical that too often today it feels to me that there is a sense that it's enough to sort of aim the camera at something and sort of get a glimpse of things. People have become quite sophisticated often with composition, with filling up the frame with elements, and light, and color and juxtaposition of elements. What I think too often lacks in this age, when I'm looking at a newsfeed of a lot of photographs, is a real notion of heart. Or a human connection with the world that one is around. And the sharing of a story that has real direct human impact and feeling. Those are elements of a great photograph that mean a lot to me.

I would encourage young people thinking about a life in photography to study as many things other than photography as possible because I think their vision would always be a function of what they know about the world and not photography. It makes me sad when I hear that so many young people are devoting entire university educations to the study of photography. I think there would be almost nothing one can do that would be more helpful than to study languages. Languages are such an incredible opening of doors for one's life and in photography. I would encourage people to study Spanish, French, Arabic, and certainly English if they are not a native English speaker. I would encourage people to study history, political science, economics, art history, and to have as broad a background in the liberal arts as possible.

I would say nothing has opened up my opportunity in life to encounter people as much as language. It has opened up so many doors.

I still wake up in the morning and, after all these years, want to think about Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" photograph and the way in which that photograph asks so many questions and represents an enigma, but there's a human heart and an emotion in that photograph that stirs me and stays with me. I don't only admire its composition. It goes to a level much deeper than that and literally changes my life and wants me to always know more.

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