September 11, 2001: Telling Stories Visually: `What Moved Me Was a Sense of a Life Being Transformed by an Experience in a Way That There Was No Going Back.' (Coverage of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

Photographer Peter Turnley was in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the morning of September 11. Having used his camera during the past two decades to tell stories about conflict and refugees, about natural disasters and human revolutions, Turnley, a 2001 Nieman Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning photo journalist, knew he had to get to the site of the World Trade Center attack. He shared with current Nieman Fellows his story of how he came to be one of the only photographers to capture images of the catastrophic devastation through the night of September 11 and into the dawn of the next morning. He also spoke about the role visual representation plays in helping us try to comprehend the toll of this experience on people who have been touched most directly by it. Excerpts from his remarks accompany a gallery of photographs Turnley took during 10 days he spent near Ground Zero.

I'm very passionate about visual storytelling. Always have been, and I don't miss any occasion to promote the power of visual storytelling because in journalism, particularly when it comes to photography, it's a bit of a service industry, often used to illustrate words. I feel very strongly that when photography is well done, it can be a very full-bodied compliment to words as a form of storytelling and communication. To those who work in newspapers and magazines and who are not photographers, try to think of visual storytelling in a different way.

I knew this was going to be a tough logistical story to cover. I figured Manhattan would be closed off, and I was going to be late. Journalists know what it feels like to be late on a story, but that's often a misnomer because there is no time frame. When I left for New York, I told myself, "You're definitely not early here, not with a city full of photographers." But this story was going to be around for a long time. Particularly in war situations, the most important pictures are not in the midst of the bang-bang; they are after the battle when one sees the human impact.

As I am driving, I'm imagining what this is going to be like, what it is going to look like. I'd covered four earthquakes, so I had a sense of that, but each time I heard the news on the radio ("Today, planes have hit the World Trade Center, another has hit the Pentagon, and another plane has crashed in Pennsylvania."), it would hit me and I'd think, this is just unbelievable. That was really an important part of that drive down for me, that notion of incomprehensibility.

It's now about five p.m., I'm in Man hattan, and it's getting dark. Manhattan was like a ghost town; there were no cars on the road. I drive toward the World Trade Center, and I get to a point where I can't go any further and start to see television satellite trucks and lights about 15 blocks from Ground Zero. And nobody can go beyond this point. So I put my cameras under my dark coat and try to walk past some policeman. I get about 10 yards past and somebody says, "Hey, stop. What are you doing?" He brings me back to the barrier. I start to think about how I am going to get to where I need to be. I don't feel like because I'm in New York City, with American laws, that my sense of purpose in needing to document what has happened is going to change any more than if I was in Ceaucescu's Romania trying to show what oppression looks like there. It looks dark to my left, so I started kind of going around streets, heading east. I get to a place where ambulances and fire trucks and rescue workers and police cars are going. I start to walk that way, and I don't want to blow it because, as I say to myself, "I'm getting real close. This is not the time to get thrown out of here." At one corner where there were a lot of policemen, I hid underneath an awning and just watched what was going on for about a half an hour. I didn't see a single cameraman or photographer or journalist. But I did see two people wearing fire and police jackets with cameras so I asked them whether there were any photographers at the site. …