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Peter Turnley is a renowned photojournalist who has been witness to most of the major conflicts and international news events of the past thirty years. His influential work has been featured in the world’s most important publications, specifically on more than forty covers of Newsweek, and he has produced several books of documentary photography, including his most recent, Cuba–A Grace of Spirit, which is available here. On November 13, he will be honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Havana—the first solo exhibit for a North American artist since the revolution, at Cuba’s most important museum. Also, on December 13, Turnley will be presenting Cuba–A Grace of Spirit, at the B&H Event Space. We sat down with him for a brief conversation.
John Harris: Your new book, Cuba–A Grace of Spirit, has just been released at this very important moment in the history of Cuba. Is it important to you that the book and retrospective are happening at this time?
PT: I have a deep love for the people of Cuba. Throughout a lifetime of world travel, rarely have I been to a place where I’ve witnessed so much wonderful humanity. Each time I have visited Cuba, the heartfelt expression of life reminds me of what a beautiful family of men and women we are all a part of.
Photography is, first and foremost, about sharing the moments of life that I choose to frame, those that represent feelings, perceptions, and observations about the world around me. Implicit in the act of sharing is a notion of love. Whether we are sharing moments we admire or moments we dislike, the desire to enter into this visual conversation is rooted in a passion for life and all of its potential.
For more than three decades, I’ve strived to be present in places where history is being made, worldwide. This is, without a doubt, a very important moment in the history of Cuba. My strongest hope is that change and the evolving history of this unique and amazing island and country will be as kind to the people of Cuba as they have always been to me. The people of Cuba have taught and demonstrated to me so many beautiful lessons on how life can be lived well. The selection of photographs in Cuba–A Grace of Spirit is a tribute, with love, to the people of Cuba. Viva Cuba!
JH: I have followed your photojournalist work over the decades, particularly the powerful images from Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s, but I wanted to ask if there is one assignment that stands out in your memory as the most important in your career—not necessarily the biggest event or that which resulted in the most praiseworthy photos, but one that established a path for you in terms of motivation, execution, or style.
PT: Photography has been an opportunity to find a voice to speak about what I feel is important in the world around me. It has also often been an opportunity to offer a voice to people whose plight has gone unnoticed. I currently have a solo retrospective exhibition of my photography at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. This exhibit, “Momentos de la Condicion Humana,” features 130 photographs from over 40 years of work. The title of the exhibit, “Moments of the Human Condition,” is a reflection of my interest in the life of our world, from moments of beauty, tenderness, and poetry, to moments of extreme hardship, oppression, injustice, and everything in between.
My view of life includes this whole spectrum of the human condition. I have photographed wars and conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Haiti. I have photographed countries in historic transition, such as at the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square in China, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. I have also photographed the beautiful daily life of Paris, which has been my adopted home since 1978.
I am often asked what has been the most exciting or important moment I have witnessed. I avoid answering this question, as I am blown away almost every day by the amazing moments I continually witness everywhere. But, a possible response would be the profound and lasting impact I felt in seeing and photographing Nelson Mandela walk out of 27 years of incarceration from Victor Verster Prison, in Capetown, South Africa, in 1990. This was one of the most glorious sites I’ve ever witnessed!
If there is any constant for me over these past 40 years, it has been an insatiable curiosity to learn, to discover life, to travel, and to emphasize what I think is wonderful about the potential of existence.
JH: You’ve traveled the world and lived overseas much of your life, but your Midwestern background, participation in college football, and your association with your brother, fellow photographer David Turnley, have always been an interesting side note to your career. Can you talk about how you were influenced to become a photojournalist and how you transitioned from the 1972 documentary McClellan Street, shot when you were just 17, to international reportage?
PT: I first discovered photography when I was 16, while recovering from a high-school football injury, in a hospital bed in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My parents had brought me a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs. While looking at this book, I was overwhelmed how this gentleman’s vision informed me that there were so many marvels in the midst of daily life that I was not noticing. I bought a camera and began to walk and photograph the inner city of my hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is a very classic mid-size American industrial city. Every night after dinner I would develop my latest films and make prints and show moments I had seen and felt to my family. I discovered quickly, with great excitement, that I was finding a voice through photography. I spent one year in 1972 photographing the life on McClellan Street with my twin brother David. My brother took this work to New York when we were just out of high school and showed it to many of the great personalities in American photography, and a magazine article was eventually published.
In 1975, I was commissioned by the Office of Economic Opportunity to make a photographic documentary about poverty in California. I showed this work to W. Eugene Smith and he told me I had a very good heart and eye, and that I should pursue my passion. I went to Paris in 1975 and suddenly my world and curiosity opened up. I later moved to Paris, in 1978, where I lived full time until 2000. In 1984 I began to work for Newsweek and, in 1986, I became their contract photographer in Paris and from there I covered the world for most of the next two decades.
JH: There are many photo series on Cuba, wonderful examples of work from the masters of our art, as well as many series filled with the ubiquitous clichés of old cars and cigars. As I looked at your book, I was most touched by the portraiture; even in the larger scenes, there is always one face telling its story. How long have you been shooting in Cuba, and how did you edit to tell the story you wanted?
PT: Christopher Dickey, one of our great contemporary writers and journalists, wrote in the introduction to my current exhibit in Cuba, “Over the last decade, Peter has been searching, I think, for a place with a people among whom he could feel at peace, yet also find that excitement of discovery that drives any creative artist. And, clearly, that is just what he has found in Cuba. One street photograph after another captures the soul of the person in front of the lens and evokes the spirit of those people who are not: their sensuality, their love of life and color and of each other. In Cuba, Peter has found huge, rich reserves of the humanness that is central to his work, and to our experience of it.”
I am honored by his words. What I have found in Cuba since my first visit, in 1989, and now after more than 20 trips in the past four years, transcends the clichés of a certain visual time warp of old cars and architecture. What has most struck me in the midst of all of my encounters with the Cuban people has been the profound beauty of their spirit—that life is not defined only by individual possessions and pursuits, but through a vibrant sense of living together, within a community, and in the joy of movement, music, conversation, and communication with family, friends, neighbors. There is nothing more exciting when traveling than learning something that offers a guiding light for one’s own life and future. When I am in Cuba, in spite of the many challenges that the country encounters, I always leave feeling that I have learned an important lesson in life. My book, Cuba–A Grace of Spirit, is a visual tribute much of what I’ve learned and felt there.
JH: I love the title of your book. To me, “grace” is a powerful word that goes much deeper than the simple idea of elegance. How did you realize that this series of photos was best served by the book format and how did you come to that title; what does it mean to you?
PT: There is permanence about both books and signed prints for the wall that I love—something that you can hold on to and continually come back to and explore with new emotion, thoughts, and feelings. I am honored that people collect my signed prints worldwide, and very gratified by the response I receive from so many people who have ordered my books.
One of the aspects of our existence that we can influence, regardless of our station in life, is the grace and elegance with which we approach others and life in general. The people of Cuba exude magnificent grace, courage, and determination. I believe that the title of a book of photographs should always be at the service of what is communicated by the photographs, and not the contrary. I love the title because I didn’t spend a lot of time pondering it, it simply came to me one day very naturally—and I always love things, like photographs, that simply feel right.
JH: This is a self-published book. You have produced previous books with publishers, but what do you prefer about the self-publishing process, and does it ultimately create a better book?
PT: I have previously published seven books. The first book I self-published was French Kiss–A Love Letter to Paris, which has been a worldwide success, with more than 4,000 copies ordered. When I publish a book, I don’t hold back on any aspect of the process. I use one of the best printers in the world, each book comes with a slipcase, and each book is signed by me. In this evolving world of communication, highly impacted by modern technology, there is nothing more gratifying than creating a community of people with which one can interact on a personal basis. It is so exciting that today a photographer as author can directly interact with a worldwide community, as if they were their own newspaper, magazine, or book store. Cuba–A Grace of Spirit has received unanimously positive response from all corners of the world since its release. I feel a relationship has started when someone purchases my book, and I even personally inscribe the book if the person ordering desires!