Pulitzer Winning Photographer David Turnley’s Advice to a Class of Photojournalism Students


I had a wonderful opportunity today in that I got to enjoy the company of Pulitzer Prize-winner photojournalist David Turnley in the setting of my very own classroom. He was very personable, very intelligent, and even made us all stand up and touch each other’s faces to make the point of what photojournalists, street photographers, and portrait photographers do: we create a more intimate viewpoint into someones life that we typically (and this especially true for us mid-westerners) don’t experience on a day-to-day basis.

The portraits that we, as photographers, create of strangers, friends, and relatives give us details familiar to those individuals that, due to our own societal norms, we normally don’t experience or get to enjoy. This is why it’s important for us to know how to behave while shooting strangers.

David Turnley had so much to say on the matter of street shooting and his experiences of so many decades of work, and I was so overloaded with joy and the relevant information he brought to the table based on real experience from a career as a humanitarian and war photographer, that it was hard to capture everything he was saying, but some important things he shared with us did manage to stick with me.

Five pointers on street photography by David Turnley:

1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (seriously), open up the lens (f/1.4-f/4), and set your ISO to 400 (1000 in the dark, 1600 in the darkest).

Now focus on your subjects. When it comes to shooting on the street, your light is always changing, you’re always walking between light and shadows, and when it comes down to it, all the adjustments that you’re making while you take all of this into account steals away a decent portion of your mental faculty from focusing on what really matters — that person, that expression, that gleam of light, that moment. When you’re shooting — and let’s make a point not to confuse adjusting your settings with taking a picture — that is when you’re working.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fairly seasoned photographer too, and personally it’s hard for me to take technical advice regarding how to use my camera; I usually assume that whoever is presenting basic technical how-to advice is presenting it to beginners. In fact, if anyone in the past 8 years had told me to set my camera to something other than manual, I would almost be insulted. I think it’s almost an inferiority complex type of thing — people are always looking down at photographers, so some of us always feel the need to prove ourselves to ourselves, and some of that means not coming off as an amateur. I don’t want to be ranked in with the newbies because I’m not setting my own ISO, aperture, and shutter speed all of the time. But when it comes down to it, I think you’ve made a next step in your journey to professionalism when you’re able to let go of having to shoot in manual all the time and learning to shoot otherwise when it’s more efficient to do so.

No, I’ll never give up manual mode in the studio or while shooting a solid landscape, but this was really solid advice, and I think it’s a mark of my own confidence and security as a photographer to take it.

2. Make your subjects comfortable.

This ties in a lot with the first point, in that you don’t want the camera to be this thing that you “shoot at” people with. You want to deemphasize the camera. There are many ways you can do this, and you should make a practice of doing all of them.

One simple way to tone the camera down is to cover over the “Nikon” or “Canon” brand with black tape. Sure, it has the potential to be discouraging to one thief once every three years, but Turnley remarked that the real reason he and many of his colleagues black taped their cameras was that they found the flashy logo was intimidating to their subjects.

But above all, making others comfortable with your shooting them mostly has to do with your posture and body language. If you’re shooting your big DSLR like a gun, it can appear threatening to many people, and in many ways, it does resemble a gun. With your arm cocked back, holding the barrel, your eye behind the sight, and your finger on the trigger, and when you see your shot you hit the shutter with your finger, and your camera bounces down like it has recoil — it all puts a bad mental image in peoples’ heads.

Really, the camera should be less of a thing you hide behind, and that’s another reason why you should set your camera to aperture priority mode. A better posture is to stand in your normal standing posture, hold the camera at its base with your hand flattened out, the camera in the palm of your hand, so that when you lightly press the shutter release, the camera doesn’t shake and it looks more like what it is — a light capturing box and less like a soul stealer.

3. Be comfortable as a photographer.

Naturally, this is something that will make others more comfortable as well, and therefore ties right in with the second point. If you’re comfortable, people are going to feel comfortable; if you’re anxious, people are going to see it in your eyes and feel anxious with you. You need to be comfortable with yourself and with your surroundings.

If you’re invited into a stranger’s home to shoot their life, they offer you a seat, and you’re sitting at the edge of their couch, they’re going to translate as though you’re anxious with them and don’t want to be there. They might even be offended because what they have isn’t good enough for you. If you’re offered food or a drink on the job, even if the water looks like lemonade from being so dirty, just drink the water (this is coming from Turnley, don’t look at me!). These people are letting you into their communities, their homes, their own personal lives, and they’re taking a shot at being open to you — and when you reject that, you put the whole situation on edge.

Sure, a lot of this comes with confidence, and I understand that everyone is at where they are right now, and you can’t change that over night, but the more you go out and shoot and practice, you can change! But confidence is king.

David Turnley told this story about the 80’s when he was in the black communities of Detroit, shooting lives of the lower class to exhibit how their lives were just as rich and lively as those of the people in the upper class, and there was one night where he was at a dance and he when he looked around he realized he was the only white person there. He kept asking girls to dance with him, and he kept getting rejected, and then he would see these same ladies later on dancing with other men. “Is it because I’m skinny?” he thought, “Is it because I’m white?” Turnley he watched as yet another young black man came up to the last girl who had just rejected him, but this time he watched what the young man did. The young man approached the lady cool and confidently, looked her in the eyes, smiling, leaned forward to grab her hand, and said “come with me,” and away they went dancing. The young man didn’t ask to dance with her, and she didn’t have the chance to reject any questions. He asked her with his confidence.

Turnley remarked that verbal questions like that have a very awkward nature about them, in that they make the asker seem unsure about himself, and that it gives the chance for the person on the other end to think, “Maybe this is something I should say no to.” He took the man’s method, grabbed the next girl, and went dancing in a place where he was totally out of his environment.

Turnley says — and I’ve heard this before from other professional photographers but it’s something else when you’re told in person by a veteran professional — ask with your eyes. I’m not sure how to go about this completely, but I’ve got an idea. Just like at the dance, when you ask to do something intimate such as taking a portrait of a stranger on the street, it’s going to be awkward and you’re far more often likely to be rejected. You have to ask with your confidence. When you’ve got ahold of your confidence, and you have the camera in your hand, make eye contact with your subject and notion with your camera that you’re about to take a picture. Perhaps disarm the prospective subject with a smile, a wave, and a nod with your camera.

I’m going to relate this to another story I’ve heard about food. It was observed that individuals who are walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood are less likely to be pestered if they’re eating something while they walk, such as an apple, because naturally, people tend to eat where they’re comfortable. In fact, we’re trained, whether we realize it or not, to notice that if a person is eating food, they’re probably pretty comfortable with where they’re at.

This is something I’ve not only heard, but experienced myself. I worked at a 7-eleven as a clerk for a little over a year, and I remember that every time someone walked in while I was eating food, they were a noticeably more relaxed while being in the store. Perhaps it was because they thought my attention might be a diverted off them by my food, but I still made sure they knew that I was watching them because that was my job. Personally, I’d like to think that it was because we eat where we feel comfortable, and when we feel comfortable, others feel comfortable around us too.

4. Care about what you’re doing

If you’re shooting other people, even random people, make it known that you care. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need be all about that person, what they’re wearing, and what their favorite sandwich condiment is, but to be present, in tune, and respectful and empathetic of their life as a human being. Turnley talked about how some poor communities, one in South Africa and one in Harlem, New York, had a growing resentment towards upperclass white folk who began taking “tours” through their communities on a double-decker bus as if they were taking a trip to the zoo and could view them and shoot photos of these individuals from behind their glass. I can see why that would feel awful. Amongst all the things that this portrays, it tells me that these people don’t really care. It’s such a cold interaction, and I don’t care where you’re from, nobody likes drive by shooters! Nobody likes people with big lenses who just walk by, take a portrait with your face, and passes on without a second glance as if you weren’t worth a dime more than the 30Mb file on their memory card.

In addition to asking people with your eyes, make conversation, tell them how their eyes are the windows to their soul, and that you’d like to take a moment out of their every day routine to capture this beautiful soul that so many others miss. BE COMFORTABLE WITH STRANGERS, and be confident with your own position as a photographer. DON’T shoot real people like animals with your big Canon rifle.

This is only al the more pertinent when you’re covering a story, such as a riot, political activism, or a war scene. When you let people know you care about their life, cause, meaning, etc, they’ll let you in, because they want the world to know.

5. Shoot every day

David Turnley has worked under and built relationships in his life with many, many other great photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson. One thing he noticed about older photographers was that they lived to be in their 90’s. What David Turnley also noticed about these photographers was that they went out every day, even in their nineties, with a camera and some film, and they practiced photography. He attributes their longevity to this practice. Not only does it provide consistent physical and mental exercise, but it gives them something to express, and work to live for. While this can almost seem to be contradictory in a sense to the fourth point, you really just need to be present and open to the life around you — that in itself is caring about what you’re doing.

These five points are something I’m about to put into practice. I hope you all found them useful. Hope you enjoyed.

About the author: American visual artist John Dykstra is a working illustrator and a student of photography hailing from Detroit, Michigan. He was first drawn to photography because of his fascination with light, the way it operates, and our ability to manipulate it in a way that evokes a visceral response. With 8 years of photographic practice under his belt, John has technical experience ranging from DSLRs to 4×5 field cameras. Pursuing his creative endeavors under the alias ‘Jondy’ as of 2014, Dykstra has plans to undertake numerous creative projects over the next few years.

John has a new website in the works where you will be able to read more of his articles on photographic technique and creative vision in the future, so make sure to follow the ‘Jondy’ Facebook for further updates. This post originally appeared here.