American Dream on Trial
March 4, 2013 | by Sheryl James
In 2008, David Turnley first headed down a mountain road into the small, coal mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. “I immediately knew I would spend at least a year of my life making a film there,” he says. In the end, it wasn’t one year—but five.
The town’s charm and the strife were at once apparent. The way the church steeples dominated the town’s humble skyline. The way the aged town sat, so tidy, in the valley against the Appalachian Mountains. It instantly reminded him of the hamlets in Europe, where Turnley, 57, has spent no small part of his life as a world-renowned photojournalist. He was also drawn to the town’s rich immigrant heritage, and its important legacy in fueling the industrial revolution in America with coal.
Turnley had also heard that four high school football players in the town had been charged with the beating death of an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
He was in no hurry to tell this story. He wanted to immerse himself into the life and traditions of this community, including the high school football team, so extremely important to the culture of this tough town with a fiery and colorful history. He would visit each weekend, making the three-hour drive from his then New York City home. In the film Shenandoah, he wanted to address the contemporary realities of a coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania, that, not unlike so many towns in the post-industrial Rust Belt in this country, is facing tough challenges.
As a result, the film is not a predictable accusatory portrait of four young men who became murderers; it’s much deeper, much more layered than that. Turnley wanted to understand what stirred four high school students who had never previously committed crimes to suddenly beat a man to death. The viewer is immersed into the town’s traditions, as well as issues of immigration and economic decline, in this deeply affected community. In this way, it is also a powerful, compassionate reflection of the challenges facing contemporary America.
Photo: © David C. Turnley
“I wanted this film to offer the possibility to look at ourselves through the story of Shenandoah,” Turnley says. “Where do we stand as a nation that has always defined ourselves as an immigrant nation? How do we find our way towards our better angels, even in times of extreme challenge?”
The film has become increasingly relevant as the debate about immigration reform has taken center stage in our national dialogue.
In many ways, Shenandoah is also a culmination of Turnley’s work throughout the world in a long, dedicated photojournalistic career. He has covered the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, the student movement in China’s Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Soviet Union, genocide and famines in Rwanda and Somalia, nationalistic wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, the conflict in the Mideast, and the sectarian war in Northern Ireland…
And yet Turnley says, “This film is perhaps one of the most compelling projects I’ve ever worked on.”
The documentary reflects many of the same dynamics he has witnessed in war zones all over the world. Yet, Shenandoah, he says, “has been a coming home story.”
From early reviews, Shenandoah is receiving powerful acclaim. “The film is screening in several cities across the country, and we’re very proud of the response it is receiving. We are hearing so many people saying it is one of the most provocative, compassionate films they’ve seen. They come away very disarmed with reflection that stays with them for a long time.”
A Michigan Man
With all due respect to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and the film named for it, Turnley himself could be documentary film subject matter.
The young boy, with strawberry-blonde hair, grew up in a modest home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his father, an orthodontist; mother, a music professor; grandparents, also teachers; and his identical twin brother, Peter.
The boys played football, just like their father and grandfather. In high school, they were linebackers; Peter was an amazing punter as well. One day, Peter suffered a knee injury. During his convalescence, his parents gave him a camera and a book of Henri Cartier Bresson photographs. He quickly fell in love with photography.
David followed suit. Together they set off to photograph the racially mixed and poor inner city of urban Fort Wayne. Eventually they decided to attend the University of Michigan, where they fell in love with U-M and Ann Arbor. Both brothers were also briefly walk-on football players on Bo Schembechler’s football team. “Very quickly it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting playing time, and realized we had better learn how to study. But it was an honor, even for those few days, to play with the Michigan team.”
Photo: © David C. Turnley/Department Of Defense/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
During David’s sophomore year of college, he moved to Paris, where he studied intensive French at the Sorbonne while living in a $75-a-month maid’s quarters—without hot water—next to the Notre Dame Cathedral. He sold ice cream and walked around taking pictures. Peter moved to Paris the following year. They returned to U-M to earn degrees in French Literature, graduating from LSA’s Residential College in 1977.
“I loved my time in Ann Arbor,” Turnley says of his undergraduate days. “I was in the Residential College, which was just great. It was a very socially engaged environment.”
The two went on to work as photojournalists—David for newspapers, Peter, who thereafter lived in Paris and New York, for magazines. They’ve won awards and have become nationally recognized. For the better part of 25 years, where there has been drama, there have been Turnleys. In fact, a 60 Minutes profile on the twins, appropriately titled “Double Exposure,” reported that colleagues defined the importance of stories by whether they were a “one Turnley” or “two Turnley” story.
Along the way, Turnley says, “I have always thought of myself as a teacher with a camera.” He was a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, and has taught workshops and mentored photographers all over the world.
“I always knew that at some point that I would love to teach as a professor, and when the day arrived, I would be honored to teach at my alma mater, the University of Michigan.”
That day arrived in 2012, when Turnley accepted a full-time, tenure-track joint appointment with the U-M School of Art and Design and the Residential College. He and his wife, Rachel, and their 10-month-old daughter Dawson, moved to Ann Arbor. (Turnley has a son, Charlie, from a previous marriage, who attends college in South Africa.)
The Midwest premiere of Shenandoah at the Michigan Theater on March 27 seems a fitting conclusion to this imaginary biopic.
Today, along with his teaching duties, filmmaking and photography continue to occupy Turnley’s professional time. “Photography is always at the signature core of my storytelling. As a photojournalist you become so immersed in people’s lives and learn their stories in such poignant ways. I found myself increasingly excited to make films to offer all of these layers that tell the stories of people’s lives with moving image and with sound.
“I feel so extremely privileged to live the life of a photojournalist and filmmaker. I am always motivated by what I take very seriously: that we are all created equal, and that the world is a much more exciting place when we can confront fear and the divides that create barriers between us.”
Photos (top and homepage): © David C. Turnley