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‘This is the first world war of our lifetime’: Photojournalist shows the human face of lockdown

Photojournalist Peter Turnley has worked in over 90 countries, covering the most important geopolitical stories of our lifetimes, including major political events and conflicts.

The renowned French-American documentary photographer, who covered lockdown in both New York and Paris, has said that the pandemic could be the most important story of his lifetime.

Euronews caught up with Turnley while he presented his photo exhibition “The human face of COVID-19” at the international photojournalism festival Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, France.

“This is the first world war of our lifetime. We have never experienced in our lifetime a moment that affected every single person on a planet like this moment. This is a war with an invisible enemy,” Turnley told Euronews.

Turnley ended up locked down in his New York apartment in the middle of March after returning from Cuba.

On the first day of lockdown in New York, Turnley went out into the city with his camera. “I was stunned and shaken by what I saw,” he said. “It was completely empty. The only people I could see were homeless.”

Turnley began documenting the people who he met as he walked around the city.

“What struck me was that everyone had a story to tell, every single person I spoke to wanted to talk, needed to talk, and people would ask me how I am doing,” he said.

In the middle of New York’s normally bustling Times Square, Turnley met three artists: Adream, Yonte and Joran who live in Harlem.

From the newly deserted neighbourhood, they told him: “You know that something is really wrong because now you never hear any sirens.”

Turnley began to go out with his camera every day. Social media helped him to discover how his photographic encounters resonated with people all over the world.

“It was my way of survival, my way of existing. I would write the text very sincerely and [would] publish the photographs. There was a tremendous response to what I was doing,” he says.

Another photograph featured in the exhibition shows Priscilla, who was worshiping the sun.

She kept socially distant from her neighbour, and Turnley kept the same distance.

Priscilla explained: “It is so sad to stay inside all day, I had to come out and get some sun.”

During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, healthcare workers at Lenox Hill Hospital came outside every night, at 7:00pm and local residents clapped to express their gratitude, Turnley recalls.

He met Nora, photographed below, each time.

“Usually she does not want to be photographed, but this time she stopped to look me and my camera in the eye for a good while. Certain expressions and people embody the mood of a moment. Here Nora’s eyes spoke for all of us: confused fear and hope for our future, for our health and survival, while ready to engage in the present so as to reach the future,” Turnley says.

He shows a moment when young men set up an electronic organ and sound system in the middle of the street and performed “America the Beautiful.”

Two nurses, Erika and Simi, together with other workers put their hands over their hearts, an emotional moment captured on camera by Turnley.

Erika immigrated to the United States 27 years ago from Brazil. She lives in North Carolina, and volunteered to come to New York City to help out during the pandemic.

“I have photographed people all around the world in the most emotional, powerful moments of life. What I have discovered is that if you are quiet and you honour people by looking at them and truly care, most people don’t want their suffering to be a secret,” Turnley said.

At one moment during the lockdown, he met Carleen, a woman who used to deliver his mail. During lockdown, she travelled two hours twice a day to continue doing her work.

“The true leaders of this moment are the people in the streets,” Turnley said. “It’s not men and women of politics, it’s the essential workers.”

Turnley said he travelled to Paris just two days before the end of France’s strict lockdown.

“Both in New York and Paris everyone has a desire to share their story. It’s a truly universal moment worldwide. Another constant, is the emptiness of the streets. Paris feels much more like a village right now, it’s extraordinary to see it without any tourists,” Turnley said.

He also said that the new normal of wearing masks doesn’t change his work.

“I always try to see the eyes of people in my photography whether someone is aware I am photographing them or not. The true emotion of a moment comes from the eyes,” he said.

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