A girl behind me loudly whispers, “This guy is like … a huge deal.”
David Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, is a name often heard throughout the halls of the University’s Penny Stamps School of Art & Design. I heard whispers from students in his class on his eccentric genius, his passion, his expertise and even his anger. Rumors of students fleeing his class in tears from harsh critiques created mixed associations of fear and awe. I welcomed covering the Penny Stamps Lecture as a chance to see for myself what made him tick, hoping to see the man beneath the layers of mystique.
Turnley is a storyteller. While his medium is photography, he is also incredibly eloquent. His stories flow seamlessly from one unbelievable destination to the next. He does not spare any details when speaking about his accomplishments, yet any hubris feels justified for a man who has accomplished so much. It doesn’t seem physically possible for a man to witness so much, much less capture it on film.
Turnley starts his story in Johannesburg in 1990, where he was covering the Apartheid for the Detroit Free Press. He then gets a call from the Free Press’s Director of Photography, telling him that Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait and asking him to fly to Baghdad to cover the impending war with America. There’s just one problem: no American photographers were to be granted visas. While photographers stayed close to the airports awaiting permission, Turnley found another way in. He bought a ticket for a flight with journalists who were granted visas, and snuck through security amid the chaos. Once on the plane, however, the officer went around collecting passports and checking credentials. He was questioned by the officer, expecting to be kicked off the plane. However, when the photographer explained that he was working out of Detroit, the officer perked up. The officer had family in Dearborn and allowed Turnley to enter. He was the first photographer to arrive in Baghdad since the beginning of the war.
Once there, he faced yet another obstacle. American photographers had to be escorted by Public Affairs Officers, who attempted to control what the media exposed regarding the war. No images of violence or suffering were permitted. Turnley was not one to play by the rules, though. He sought out an elite mash unit of the American Medical Corps and asked if he could join them to document the war. This unit did not have a Public Affairs Officer, but he convinced them to let him join regardless. This freedom gave him the ability to take pictures of the war that ended up on the cover of every major publication nationwide. To the crowd, Turnley explained, “to allow for serendipity you can’t force things to happen, you have to have the stamina to really be in people’s lives in a full immersion.”
He was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a series of 19 photographs at Check Point Charlie as the Berlin Wall fell. He explained how he had hired a motorcyclist to weave between traffic to get him to the point in time. Again and again, a combination of fate and his pragmatic approach put him in direct contact with moments that defined the 20th and 21st centuries.
“I have never felt comfortable with the notion of calling myself a journalist. I have never felt myself to be objective. I see through my eyes, my heart and my life experience. It is a priority to try to be fair, which is why I’m trying to touch your hearts with the common threads of humanity,” Turnley said.
So, who is David Turnley?
David Turnley is:
-The first American photographer to arrive in Baghdad to cover the first Gulf War.
-The only American photographer in Iraq traveling without a Public Affairs Officer — allowing him to document the tragedy without governmental restrictions.
-One of the first western journalists to receive visas to 13 countries in the Soviet Union.
-A witness to the Rwandan genocide in the mid-’90s.
-A witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
-A witness to 9/11, documenting the Twin Towers’ fall from a block-and-a-half away.
-A family friend and companion of the Mandela family for over 20 years
But much of his talk was not spent on his coverage of memorable events, rather, on his experiences with people all around the world, both witnessing and joining their walks of life. From a homeless man to an aging farming couple and professional dancers, Turnley stresses the importance of building relationships with a diverse swath of people.
He summarizes the mantra of his life and work by saying simply, “It’s not a job assignment or a vocation. It’s a way of life, a camaraderie, a sense of heritage — seeing what you can do with your camera to make a difference.”
As the event drew to a close, the lights dimmed and he concluded with a slideshow of his photographs. The veil had been lifted, he had been humanized. Yet my feelings of fear and awe not only remained — they were amplified.