Photographer Turner brings new focus to Brazil’s culture



Ghana’s Elmina Castle rests upon the country’s western coast, overlooking a sandy beach and pristine waters. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but the 532-year-old structure bore witness to atrocities.

Erected in 1482, Elmina was the first European slave-trading post in Sub-Saharan Africa engaged in transporting slaves to Brazil.

At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, award-winning National Geographic photographer Tyrone Turner will begin this week’s theme of “Brazil: A Rising Superpower” by looking back on his journey through Brazil with photos that not only show the beauty throughout the South American country, but also its history from the people on whose backs it was built.

Turner’s lecture will feature the Glue Kids of Brazil, with the opportunity to see life through the lens of the youth and Quilombo communities, composed of descendants of runaway slaves.

Approximately 4 million slaves were imported to Brazil before South America’s largest country abolished slavery in 1888. Turner will explain how the will to survive the mental and physical fetters, for many enslaved Africans, meant retaining their culture and making communities of their own.

“Slave masters were not only importing humans from Africa,” Turner said. “They were also importing the culture. In Brazil, they were bringing culture, food and a way of life. So all of that was mixed up and fused with the Catholic religion in the same way it happened in the Caribbean and the United States. Brazil didn’t have any North that the slaves could run away to. There was a long tradition of slaves running and forming these communities in the backlands or far enough away that the plantation owners or the people who were going out to find slaves couldn’t find them. Those are the origins of the Quilombo people.”

A native of New Orleans, Turner received his first camera as a present from his mother. Because he was active in sports throughout his youth and throughout college, photography did not become a primary interest to Turner until he worked with a photographer friend and completed an internship in the mountains of Mexico.

“When I was working in the mountains of Oaxaca, I decided that this is really what I want to do,” Turner said. “I said ‘this is what I want to do and this is how I want to work,’ and I just shot people and the culture.”

Turner spent many years freelancing for newspapers in suburban Virginia, and for six years had returned to his roots and worked in New Orleans. Even in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, Turner frequently visits his old stomping ground and continues to document its progress.

“It’s been great to be able to go back and engage with where I’m from,” he said. “It was devastating to see the effects of Katrina and see the BP oil spill and to ride around and see my high school and where I grew up flooded. But then now to see it coming back has really been encouraging.”

Another encouraging project that is near and dear to Turner is his work with communities in Brazil. As a fellow for the Institute of Current World Affairs from 1998 to 2000, Turner and his wife, Susan Sterner, lived and worked in northeastern Brazil documenting culture and everyday life.

Turner has chronicled the richness that weaves itself throughout Brazil’s culture  and diversity. One of the celebrations caught by Turner’s lens is Bumba Meu Boi, a three-day-long celebration filled with music, food, dancing and costumes touched by every color of the rainbow. Based on the folklore of the death and resurrection of a bull, Bumba Meu Boi is a celebration that Turner said continues the rich traditions of a strong culture.

“It’s a wonderful festival for three days, and it’s this continuing of telling these stories back from the time of slavery that forms the backbone of the culture of these areas,” Turner said.  “They’re maintaining these traditions.”

Though photography has taken him all over the world and allows him to share with others insights they may have never discovered, Turner said his greatest lessons are learned from observing and listening.

“I feel like you get more out of it than the people who are teaching you about their lives,” Turner said. “You feel very grateful and humbled in the fact that they open their lives to you. When you’re allowed in it’s a tremendous feeling of gratitude and you feel like ‘I have to make something good out of this.’”

Turner said his main motivation comes from being able to make audiences feel the images. The acclaimed photographer said that knowing he has a good shot is a physiological reaction.

“You know you’re in a good place if you’re looking through the lens and you’re looking at something that makes your heart flutter,” Turner said. “You’re always trying to reach and get to something that really says more than what is depicted that will really touch people’s heart. Everything else is working towards that. Once you’re behind the lens and snapping the picture — that is the best place to be.”

Turner said that he is happy to be in Chautauqua and is ready to begin a dialogue during a lecture filled with history and an appreciation for what is often not spoken about.

“I’m really looking forward to sharing these images and stories with the audience at Chautauqua and I look forward to their questions,” Turner said. “I’ll be speaking about these experiences that my wife and I had in Brazil and I really look forward to how people will receive those and what questions they might have about these areas that are often not depicted in Brazil. I’m really looking forward to what the viewer sees that I don’t see.”