A photographer’s journey: Peter Turnley has been eyewitness to history’s biggest moments

  • A young refugee from Mozambique's civil war walks among bright yellow latrines in a refugee camp in Malawi. 1988.

    A young refugee from Mozambique's civil war walks among bright yellow latrines in a refugee camp in Malawi. 1988.

  • A Rwandan orphan, Zaire-Rwandan border, near Goma, Zaire, 1994.

    A Rwandan orphan, Zaire-Rwandan border, near Goma, Zaire, 1994.

  • Bernard Laine in his bathtub on the roof, Ile St Louis, Paris, 1996.

    Bernard Laine in his bathtub on the roof, Ile St Louis, Paris, 1996.

  • Mustafa Xaja, Kosovar-Albanian refugee, Kosovo-Albanian border, Kukes, Albania, 1999.

    Mustafa Xaja, Kosovar-Albanian refugee, Kosovo-Albanian border, Kukes, Albania, 1999.

  • Kosovo-Albanian border,1999. A Kosovo Albanian mother and her child are taken in a bus from the Kosovo/ Macedonian border, towards a Kosovo-Albanian refugee camp inside Macedonia, during the war in Kosovo in 1999.

    Kosovo-Albanian border,1999. A Kosovo Albanian mother and her child are taken in a bus from the Kosovo/ Macedonian border, towards a Kosovo-Albanian refugee camp inside Macedonia, during the war in Kosovo in 1999.

  • The Seine River and the City of Paris, 1991.

    The Seine River and the City of Paris, 1991.

  • Peter Turnley (Photo by Mark Tatem)

    Peter Turnley (Photo by Mark Tatem)

  • The legs of a woman leaving the Paris Metro station at St. Germain-des-Pres. 1981

    The legs of a woman leaving the Paris Metro station at St. Germain-des-Pres. 1981

  • Bosnian-Muslim displaced refugees, Croatia, 1995. Muslim refugee children swing on a rope swing amongst the rubble in a roofless building.

    Bosnian-Muslim displaced refugees, Croatia, 1995. Muslim refugee children swing on a rope swing amongst the rubble in a roofless building.

  • The famine in Somalia, near Baidoa, Somalia, 1992.

    The famine in Somalia, near Baidoa, Somalia, 1992.

  • Peter Turnley (Photo by Mark Tatem)

    Peter Turnley (Photo by Mark Tatem)

  • Several Sikh refugees stand in a line. The men fled from the violence between Sikhs and Hindus that occured after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

    Several Sikh refugees stand in a line. The men fled from the violence between Sikhs and Hindus that occured after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

  • Marine recruits from Lima Company, series 3117, 3rd Battalion, from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego taking part in a culminating excercise known as the

    Marine recruits from Lima Company, series 3117, 3rd Battalion, from Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego taking part in a culminating excercise known as the "Crucible" at Camp Pendleton, a three day, non stop grueling exercise, involving many obstacle courses and challenges.


In Croatia, a small child swings on a rope in the rubble of a burned out building while her older brother looks on. They are joyful despite the devastation around them. In Paris, a man sits in a bathtub perched on a rooftop smoking a cigarette and reading Archimedes. In Haiti, a priest prays over the coffin of a victim of the 2010 earthquake.

These are just a few moments captured by photographer Peter Turnley in a 40-year career. Mr Turnley was recently in Bermuda to give a lecture at the Bermuda National Gallery (BNG); invited by the French Consulate.

Mr Turnley’s pictures have appeared on the cover of Newsweek more than 40 times and have been featured in many other magazine’s including Harper’s. He has won the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, and the University of Missouri’s Pictures of the Year competition, among many others awards.

He has been there for some of history’s worst moments, the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Ground Zero, New York City on September 11, 2001.

“The life of a photojournalist and my life in photography has been extremely dangerous,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to still be alive. That is all I can say. Unfortunately, I have had friends who perished. I have witnessed not only photographers and journalists being killed, but ordinary people. I have witnessed a large amount of human suffering and hardship.”

When asked how he leaves it all behind we he goes home at the end of the day, he said he does not leave it behind, and does not want to do so.

“My interest is to participate in an active discussion and dialogue about the world of my times,” he said. “I have never wanted my life as a visual communicator to be compartmentalised as being only a war photographer or conflict photographer or only a photographer of daily life. For me, I am interested and fascinated by the true realities across the whole spectrum of life.”

He said he shouts about what is wrong with the world using his camera, because, ultimately, he is convinced that life can be wonderful and beautiful.

“People ask me all the time about how I avoid becoming jaded by the difficult things I see,” he said. “My answer is that in the midst of many difficult moments one can observe gestures that show how incredibly decent and honest people can be even in moments of extreme sadness or frustration.”

As a small example, he recalled being at Ground Zero on the evening of the terrorist attacks. He was walking among all the debris and smoke and a nurse passed by and offered him her face mask, as he did not have one.

“In the midst of this day of acute suffering, and even evil, I saw with my own eyes that thousands of men and women had come with their God given skills as construction workers, firemen, nurses, policemen, doctors, or whatever, to help. They were risking their lives in the middle of this difficult situation.”

Of course, he has also witnessed some of the world’s more joyous moments, such as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“The year of 1989 was one of the most exciting and memorable years in terms of my life and world history,” Mr Turnley said. “Tremendous change took place in 1989 with the Romanian Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, Tiananmen Square Uprising. I was present in South Africa during the anti Apartheid struggle which was at its peak that year. The Berlin Wall coming down was a symbol of people literally tearing down barriers to freedom and to a more creative and universal dialogue. The fall of the wall will stay with me as a tremendously exhilarating time. I had been in East Germany filming the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig.

“When I heard about the wall I flew to West Berlin. I arrived in Berlin on the first morning after it began to fall. People began to come over the wall the preceding evening. It was a process that went on for several days.”

He said he did not want to be known as a “war photographer” but as a photographer of life. Many of his pictures depict every day life Paris. He lived there full time between 1978 and 2001 and now splits his time between Paris and New York City. He is currently working on a book called ‘French Kiss’ about love and romance in Paris. He has published five other books including ‘Parisians’ in 2001 and one with his brother, David, called ‘McClellan Street’.

“At this point in my life, I am most excited by photographs that ask questions and provoke questions, but don’t offer easy answers,” he said. “I like photographs that provoke contemplation, mystery enigma, and excite the senses. When we are told what we are supposed to think with simplistic explanations then that form of communication often deadens the senses.”

He first became interested in photography as a teenager growing up in the 1960s in Fort Wayne, Indiana, after suffering an injury that stopped him from playing sports. Until then he had been an avid sportsman.

“I came from an area that was very conservative, but my family was very progressive with their political points of view,” said Mr Turnley. “My father was very passionate about civil rights. There was a lot of social awareness in my household and a lot of discussion about social issues.”

After being inspired by a book of photographs by the great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mr Turnley began photographing people and events in the inner city of Fort Wayne.

“The camera became two things — a passport to enter new worlds where I otherwise might not have felt welcome, and it also became an opportunity to frame stories that I could then share to express my feelings about the new worlds I was encountering.”

He said that right now is possibly one of the most exciting times in the history of visual expression, because it is so easy for anyone to get their hands on a camera.

“I think what is most important about photography is the notion of sharing,” he said. “We have never before had the opportunity to share so quickly and with so many people our impressions of the world around us.”

For more information about Mr Turnley see www.peterturnley.com.

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Published Mar 4, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 3, 2013 at 7:29 pm)

A photographer’s journey: Peter Turnley has been eyewitness to history’s biggest moments

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