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Peter Turnley : A New York-Paris Visual Diary – The Human Face of Covid-19 : Interview by Alain Mingam


Saturday October 3 at 8:45 p.m. at Carantec’s “L’Etoile” Cinema Meeting – conference – and debate with Peter Turnley, author of a “Visual journal of Covid-19 from New York to Paris”

Peter is more than an excellent professional – awarded many times around the world. After more than 30 years of “covering” wars, he remains a photojournalist, faithful to his humanist convictions. All his portraits from New York to Paris stop time and are embeded in the memory of every citizen of the world, strong images – true ramparts against the shroud of oblivion. Eye witness, heart witness who will be present to make us breathe a great moment of lucidity and solidarity.


Interview of Peter Turnley by Alain Mingam

AM: Your “Visual Journal of Covid-19 from New York to Paris” was the object of worldwide success – both at “Visa pour l’image” in Perpignan, and on social networks, why and how – has it started?

P.T: Because I am a perfect nomad who makes where I am my home at all times. I knew when I returned from Cuba to New York that Covid -19 was going to be a subject but not at this point. On March 21st in New York I woke up and realized that my personal life was totally blocked.

A.M: And what did you plan for?

P.T: I did what felt most natural to me – going out on the streets but with a lot of anguish, fear. Despite having covered – with the exception of Lebanon – all wars – for over thirty years, I was aware of a mortal danger and at the same time of the reality of an exceptional global conflict in the making. This is the only time in my life that I have attended an event that touches the entire planet, without knowing where the front line is.

A.M: Was photography a way of existing for you as well?

P.T: Perfectly, when I went out with my camera – it was with completely new references to me: no magazine order, no journalistic spirit. I went to Time Square to the south and as I walked I was completely bowled over. I only saw a completely empty city. I saw only homeless people, or ambulances with screaming sirens.

A.M: was it an emotional shock that provoked in you this quest for a masked humanity in a state of survival and the need to bear witness?

P.T: Yes, because in the face of this surprising number of homeless people, this is the first time that a neuron jump in my brain. I experienced 9/11 – I spent the 1st night there – on Ground Zero in the rubble of the Twin Towers. The “Covid 19” is my 9/11. When I came across homeless people, the unemployed, caregivers, I stopped out of respect, out of basic decency. I always introduced myself by my first name, to ask them theirs and their age. I felt their desire to tell their story. Everyone needed to talk to each other.

A.M: To capture an immediate complicity with the eyes that allows you to photograph and reveal above the mask or the beauty of a gaze, the strength of resistance?

P.T: Absolutely. After each answer I needed the person to ask me: “How are you? Because my life was turned upside down like everyone else. I was not well at all. One day in a street, a young man who recognized me asked me for advice. I just felt like I existed and urged him to make a journal with daily photos and stories. This is where it all came from.

A.M:  43 Newsweek covers bear witness. Have you drawn on your experience on major reportages, to complete your approach in these times of Covid-19?

P.T: Sometimes of course because I was very tired walking a lot – taking an average of 50 portraits a day. On the first day in New York, I had no mask or gloves on, but I decided to take the subway anyway. It was terrifying in this closed space. I wanted to see. It was a “living grave” with the poor, the homeless. I had never seen looks so anguished, with fear of each other.

A.M: Wasn’t that overreacting to fatigue?

P.T: Not at all and I’ll tell you a secret. When I leave home I do as usual. I kiss the walls near the door of my Parisian or New York studio as before leaving for Chechnya, Iraq, or Afghanistan, because I want to come back there. It was exactly the same superstition for the 700 or 800 deaths every day in New York!

A.M: So you had the feeling that death “was also watching you” that anything could force fate?

P.T: Even more, this is the first time that this has happened to me. Once I got home – I’m not ashamed to say it. I “whined” on the edge of my bed. My life was affected. I cried for everyone too. I thought to myself: “This is very serious, not trivial. The notion of freedom is completely upset for everyone like our economic life.

A.M: Among all these very endearing portraits – which one do you think is the most telling to symbolize the mission of sharing that you so forcefully claim and the success that is yours?

PT: I edited 200 which are all in my eyes – very touching but that of Erika, Cuban immigrant – itinerant nurse at Leonix Hill Hospital in New York is the one I chose to be the cover of my book. Her suffering endured with Covid-19 patients crosses time, borders to reach us in solidarity. Words are not enough and that is the power of image. We leave what we see to tell what we feel.

A.M: And the elections and Trump in the midst of this health crisis?

P.T: He is doing everything to generate a civil war!


Interview by Alain Mingam

Article first published in Le Telegramme de Brest


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