When I’m at home, I feel uninspired. It’s much easier for me when I travel. In a new place with new people, I ooze motivation. But at home in New York City, a place I’ve lived and gotten used to for over 18 years, I go blank.
In hopes of igniting a spark of creativity, I took a week-long street photography workshop with famed photojournalist Peter Turnley, and I wanted to share the experience.
Below you’ll find an overview of the format, key lessons I learned, highlights from the week, and my thoughts on the experience as a whole.
Peter Turnley Workshop
New York is filled with photography workshops, I chose Peter’s because I admire the versatility in his work. As a former photojournalist for Newsweek, his powerful images of war and social injustice earned him 43 covers and world acclaim.
But his pictures from years spent roaming the streets of Paris and Cuba show that he’s also adept at capturing romance, mystery, and a sense of beauty in everyday life. In short, his photos inspire me, which is an essential component when choosing a photographer from which to learn.
Daily schedule overview
9:30am to 12:30pm
I was one of 10 participants of varying skill levels and experience. Most hailed from the States but there were also photographers from Uganda, Canada, and India.
We met every morning at 9:30 am for lectures, discussions, and photo critiques in a hotel conference room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Peter screened documentaries, videos, and slide shows featuring his life and photography, then led discussions about technique, framing, composition, and what I gleaned the most from, how to approach people on the street.
He also shared other photographers’ works such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by most to be the father of street photography, and Lene Marie Fossom, a severely anorexic artist whose portraits of Syrian refugees resonated with Peter.
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After our morning sessions, we photographed the city on our own. Peter escorted us on two group excursions to Times Square and Coney Island, though we shot separately once we arrived.
There were no specific assignments other than to find moments, interactions, and people we wanted to photograph and then select up to 30 of our best images for review the following morning.
To help those new to New York, Peter provided a list of locations such as Harlem, Chinatown, and Grand Central Terminal, which are typically filled with people, visually interesting and a hotbed of interaction.
Each morning, Peter went through our selects as a group, screening them on a large monitor at the back of the room. He critiqued our work one at a time, starting with a quick run-through of the images we submitted. Next, he went through the photos he selected as the best, then those he didn’t, and why.
Providing valuable critique when looking through 30 images from 10 different people is nearly impossible to do. It’s too many photos, in my opinion. It forces the instructor to move quickly and provide little detail. In every other workshop I’ve taken, the most we were asked to submit was five and hence received much deeper analysis and suggestions.
His most frequent remarks were about framing and whether or not he felt a connection to the image, which is important, but if you can’t articulate why the response is amorphous. He spent maybe 30 seconds to two minutes per photo.
From the framing perspective, he nixed photos in which feet, heads, limbs, or objects on the edges of the frame were cut off in a way he felt didn’t work. He talked a lot about backing up a step to let the frame “breath.”
On the flip side, he removed photos with compositions too far from the subject to inspire an emotional reaction from the viewer. “I would have stepped in more,” he’d say. “Maybe cranked (moved) right and really got in there.” A photo that found a balance between framing and connection (or at least came close) was added to his selects.
During our critiques, Peter was happy to answer all of our questions, but overall he progressed at a rapid pace, stopping now and then to relate relevant examples or stories from his career.
At the end of the week, we met late in the afternoon on Friday for a special celebration. Peter served wine as we watched a slide show he put together with his selection of each photographer’s 15 best images.
Peter gave us enormous latitude regarding what, where, and how we photographed New York, with two exceptions. He wanted us to commit to a color or black and white and a single focal length. I went with black and white the best focal length for street photography for me was my Canon 35mm f1.4.)
The reason: he wanted our final presentations to have visual consistency.
“Imagine if you were a writer and wrote one sentence in one style and the next in another, you’d lose the reader,” he said. “There’s no coherence, no flow. It’s the same thing with photography. If you’re using a zoom lens and changing the focal length all the time, you’re changing the perspective of your visual language.”
He explained that using one focal length would also challenge us to think more about our framing and compositions. “When you reduce your options, you see better. When you have less choice, you work with what you’ve got.” (I wholeheartedly agree).
He wanted us to use our bodies to move in and around our subjects and not rely on the convenience of a zoom. The limitation would help us understand where our bodies needed to be about our subjects to make the image we wanted.
Behave confidently and take control
Walking up to a stranger to ask for a photo can be frightening. Peter’s advice was to behave confidently and take control of the moment. If you act as if everything is fine, a person usually responds in kind. If you act timid or as if you’re not sure what you’re doing is right, it only makes sense that someone would be wary. “Why would someone trust you if you act as if you’re doing something wrong?”
While I don’t have a lot of issues approaching strangers when I travel, I do get intimidated in New York. I took his advice and vowed not to let my fears distract me or talk me out of asking for a photo. I approached people confidently (whether I felt it or not), and it worked. The more I did it, the easier it became.
Share your photos with your subjects
Peter is very generous with his photos and always offers to send a copy to the people he photographs. He keeps a stack of business cards in his pocket, and he hands them out liberally, asking people to email him if they want their pictures.
In the past, I’ve never sent photos unless I was asked, and now I regret it. Using his example as a guide, I began to offer people their images, and I found it instantly brought down any walls they might have had because we both benefited. It made photographing them infinitely easier and enjoyable and led to some great conversations. Seventy-five percent of the people I shot emailed me within a couple of hours.
I’m going to print a nice-looking cheap card with my name and email address on it to use just for street photography.
If someone says no, try to change their mind
This question is not unique to this workshop, but it became a subject of contention in one of our morning meetings. What do you do if you ask a person if you can make a photo and they say no? Do you still take it? I’ve always been of the mind that you do not.
Peter, who admits he rarely takes no for an answer, said he tries to change their mind. He tells them why he’s interested and is strong in his conviction that it’s a good idea and it typically works. Conversely, he also said that people on public streets really don’t have a right to say no, and you should do whatever you think is right. Make the shot if you want it.
As a conflict photographer, I get how Peter would have this opinion. As a journalist, sometimes taking an unwanted photo is necessary to bring an important story to the world. Though it makes no sense, really, I have more wiggle room in my ethics for a journalist making a shot on behalf of exposing the truth.
I do not agree it’s right when the reality is that you simply want a picture. My rights as a photographer do not override those of another human being just because I want something. It’s not as if people can avoid going out in public.
That said, after our discussion, I decided that next time someone said no, I would try to change their mind. I told a woman I thought she was beautiful (which was the truth), and she immediately said, “Ok.” I told a couple I thought they looked adorable (another truth), and they let me make the above. Lesson learned. But If they continue to say no, I drop it.
(What are your thoughts on the subject? Please let me know in the comments below.)
During the workshop, I shot 3-5 hours a day. I won’t pretend I loved everything I did, I didn’t. But as the days passed, I felt more in sync with my camera. Since I’m not independently wealthy, I can’t dedicate 35+ hours a week to photography and still pay my bills, but I can put a higher priority on making images.
Consider a single focal length
I won’t belabor this point since I discussed it above, but it was an important takeaway from the experience.
Find a project
A really great narrative takes time. That’s true whether it’s in writing or on a wall. I’ve listened to many photographers speak about how they loved creating their personal projects and how they were a catalyst for growth. For some, a project even led to professional opportunities. Peter encouraged us to find something we could sink our teeth into and develop over time. “Do something that’s close to home and makes you happy, you’re more likely to finish it.”
Finding a project of my own is on my list of to-dos.
Highlights of the week
At the end of the week, Peter invited New York Times photographer Todd Heisler to our morning get-together. He shared his award-winning photography, including images he made in 2006 for a special feature called Final Salute. The story focused on U.S. Marines killed in Iraq and the impact on their families when they were returned home. Both beautiful and heart-wrenching, the photos earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Another highlight, though it had little to do with photography, was on the second night of the workshop, Peter hosted a dinner at El Paso, a delicious Mexican restaurant in East Harlem. A huge fan of Mexican cuisine, I was in heaven. I highly recommend it.
Final thoughts — Would I Recommend this Peter Turnley Workshop?
I loved looking at his photos and hearing his story, but I could have gotten that in a 2-hour presentation for a lot less money. Peter’s critiques were rushed and superficial. I didn’t garner a lot from his commentary, unfortunately.
Where I found the workshop helpful was in its consistency. It required me to shoot for hours each day, and I’m inherently competitive so the morning critiques were a big motivator for me to do well. But neither of those elements has to do with the instructor.
I would have loved at least one private review of my images with Peter. An opportunity to ask more thoughtful questions about my work, my abilities, and the next steps. I had one-on-one meetings during a Santa Fe workshop, and I wrongly assumed it was the norm. In the future, I’ll ask upfront.
During the week, I spoke to most of the people in my group, and across the board, they were disappointed. I also spoke to a couple of my friends who took his Paris Street Photography class, and they echoed my sentiments.
I still love his soulful images, but not everyone is cut out to lead a workshop, and that’s ok.
If you enjoyed this article, please share!
71 thoughts on “Review: Peter Turnley’s Street Photography Workshop ”
Susan, Thanks for sharing your insight on Peter Turnley’s workshop as I am strongly considering attending one. I just now came upon your article and it really struck a chord. I Photograph mainly in NYC when time permits but like you I’m now experiencing a blank when I go into the city. Your very excellent article and overall portfolio that I’ve seen has resonated with me. I’m looking forward to diving into The Insatiable Traveler and viewing more of your images. I must have stumbled onto your site for a reason as I’m feeling a glimmer of inspiration. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and insight!
Hi Phil – Thank you so much for your very kind words. I couldn’t ask for a bigger compliment. Welcome to the blog and I hope you come back.
Have a great day!
Your photos are truly inspiring. I haven’t taken many black and white before, but now I’m inspired. I’ve always been more of a landscape photographer, but I’m starting to branch out with people and portraits. This article makes me want to do more street photography for sure. Keep up the great work! And I look forward to seeing more from you!
I’m so happy you liked the post and inspired by it. Thank you for letting me know.
Really enjoyed your take on the workshop, and I think your images are spectacular! Beautiful subjects and b/w tones that are rich and crisp. You got me connected to your subjects for sure. I took one of Peters Cuba workshops and find your analysis spot on. The one thing I was doing that bugged him was not looking through my viewfinder but rather my LED screen. He catch me regularly and call me out! But gosh, yes, how much I learned about street work was amazing, especially how to be comfortable approaching people.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I was thinking about his Cuba trips and wondering if they were worth it. How did you feel at the end?
Hi Susan, great photos, really brings one close to the people shown 🙂
I am kind of a newcomer to photography (except from some courses in school…). Your photos and shared experiences from the workshop are such an inspiration! I am thinking about doing some workshops now, and I am especially interested in black-and-white photography, it’s so expressive! Your photos even encouraged me!
Thank you a lot!
I’m very happy you liked the article. I truly feel workshops can be of immense value. And I agree about black and white, it can really make an image. 🙂
Thank you for sharing your wise words and beautiful photographs! The ones I love best are the ones expressing joy and simple humanity, for example the couples, and the three ladies leaning on that fence on a beach, the one old guy kissing the other, the couple throwing their baby in the air. The photo with the small child with sunglasses on, I don’t like so much, sorry. I don’t know, ‘too easy’ or something. The other photos show the bond between you as the photographer and them as the subject much more. I like it when that ‘connection’ is visible in a photograph.
Good point about trying to change people’s minds after they say no. I have tried a few times but it can end up feeling awkward if they keep saying no. As for one focal length, I have done a few holidays with a Samsung phone or iPhone only, sometimes it’s nice to challenge yourself by using limiting equipment. But I have to admit I love the 20x zoom on my compact camera… I’ve grown a bit tired of SLR photography myself.
Hi Cecilia –
Welcome to the blog and thank you for your very thoughtful commentary. No worries about the baby image that wasn’t your cup of tea. Totally get it. That’s the beauty of this art, people react very differently to images and it’s always interesting to see who gravitates to what. What compact camera are you using?
I now use a Panasonic Lumix DMC, I believe the American name is Zs20. It’s a slightly older model with 20x zoom, Leica lense. I like the sharpness and colors, only in low light conditions it doesn’t perform so well. And my model has no wifi yet. Examples here… http://www.pbase.com/cile/colombia > the point your workshop teacher made about one focal length shows in my ‘mess’ of different types of photos and focal points. It is not one series at all. Anyway, nice memories for me to have. 🙂
I love the Lumix’s. I had one when I first started getting into photography a few years ago. Quality camera.
Peter’s point about one focal length is a good one but most significant if someone is looking to put together a series for some kind of presentation. Mixing it up, I think, can be just as valuable depending on what you’re shooting and the mood you’re trying to convey. 🙂
Amazing pictures, really beautiful and human! I’ve been considering enrolling in a photography workshop again for a while. Your experience makes it even more tempting. I like the fact that you had time alone : the first workshop I took didn’t provide that opportunity but for a few minutes at a time. It’s what has kept me away from this experience since then : I enjoy photography as a solitary activity. I don’t think the shots resonate the same way for you if you can’t dive in your thoughts for a while why walking and shooting.
Your pictures also make me want to experiment with black and white again : it gives them a sense of timelessness. I wonder what they would have been like in colours though. The effet would definitely have been different.
I’m really glad you enjoyed the post.
Every workshop is different depending on the lead photographee. It’s why I recommend speaking to them ahead of time to get a sense of the flow. It can make or break the experience.
I really enjoyed the black and white. I hadn’t done it for a while and the workshop re-inspired me.
Hi Susan! My blog has been out of action for a while but now I’m back! Just checking in with all my fave photographers around the world and I totally appreciate this article. I recently went on a street photography workshop too (and blogged about it) as I’m still trying to get over my anxieties of photographing people amoung many other things. I found your article to be truly inspiring and very helpful. I’ve always admired your work. It’s great to be back again and looking forward to following your journey. Best, Sóla x
So nice to hear from you. I wondered what happened to you. What workshop did you take? So glad you found my post helpful. I really try to make them so. 🙂
Hey Susan! Not sure if you’ve heard of them but I joined one of those ‘meet up’ groups a couple years ago – one of them being photography group. There was a street photography workshop that was held in Central London with the group (Trafalgar Square – an awesome place to people watch). Got some really good tips and tricks to help me along the way. So I’m looking forward to seeing where it all takes me. The reason why I was MIA was because I became pregnant last year and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this year. Feels good to be back though 😀xx
Congratulations!!! How wonderful. I bet you have a lot of pictures of your little darling. 😉 The workshop sounds great. Love Trafalgar Square. Perfect street photography location. So glad to hear from you and I look forward to chatting in future. 🙂
Very interesting article! About asking before shooting: don’t you feel that people change their attitude if you ask? Have you asked everyone in the photos above? Your photos seems very natural, we don’t have the feeling that people knew that you were going to shoot! I live in Tokyo and if a ask, people say no first… And if they say yes, they strike a pose. So, I decided not to ask but I don’t feel confortable about that…
Hi Marcela – Yes, I asked everyone in the photos except for the people in the doorway, the one where everyone is in silhouette, and the photo with the fireman. In the first and last circumstances, I was walking by and saw the scene out of the corner of my eye and just took the shot before the moment was over. Those two pics were the only ones I took. For the boardwalk by the river I stood there photographing as people walked by. It was clear to anyone walking on the path what I was doing. Those that didn’t care walked in front, anyone who didn’t walked behind me. The two gentlemen on the park bench knew I was there. For all of the other photos, I saw people that looked interesting and ended up spending time them. In answer to your second question: for a short period of time they do pose. I either wait them out or say, go about what you’re doing. It doesn’t always work, they may be too self conscious. It depends on the person and the situation.
It’s a good way to think and it shows respect to people. Your photos are beautiful and show great stories, so, it’s a good way to go I guess. Well, I’ll try…
Thank you very much for your kind words about my photos. I really appreciate it.
Re: your photos–It doesn’t come easy so don’t be hard on yourself. Baby steps. Try to photograph one or two people this weekend and let me know how it goes. 😁
SUSAN, I’m so happy you took the workshop, I remember when you were thinking about it and wrote me. I have to say, to me, this is the best work I have ever seen from you (well those Africa photos are good too), I love your black and white! I’d love to hear more one day, I’ve had friends take the NYC workshop and love it. I finally figured out a project. Not THE one but something I’m happy with. xx
Thanks so much Nancy. Was your workshop in Cuba a lot different? Glad to hear you’ve found your project. Very exciting!!
Hi Susan, some of your moments made me giggle because he coached us the same way. I think of Peter so often. So much stuck in my head. I haven’t done the NYC workshop, so I can’t compare the two. I did attend the critique session in NYC last year (a friend was a participant). Sounds like you got a lot out of it, wonderful.
Ah… Was just wondering what I wrote and the Cuba workshop were similar.
Great article with some very useful tips and your shots are just fantastic, you chose right going for the black&white, somehow with these shots it’s so much more powerful! Good luck on your future projects!
Thank you! I agree, I like the black and white as well. Something about street photography that just feels better in black and white.
I enjoyed reading your piece. I think the biggest challenge for me is to come up with a “project”. My attention span is too short and I go from one thing (or one trip) to the next. I would have loved to read about your experience with Tim Allen as I am heading to Mongolia for his workshop this week. If there is anything you can share, let me know.
Hi there- I have a few articles on the site that speak to the trip. Tim is not unlike Peter except with a real edge to his personality. He will get you great access and Mongolia is extraordinary. Ask what you need during the process. He’s better responding than proactive. I thought it was a great experience… But nothing is perfect. Have a fabulous time and let me know how it went when you get back. Also, it can really chilly there so make sure you have layers.
Re: project: I hear you… I’m struggling to figure out what will interest me enough to dedicate a lot of time to. 😁
Thanks for your insights. I will give you feedback when I get back . Good luck with finding THE project!
That would be great. Have a fabulous time. Mongolia is amazing.
I tweeted this, great shots and some great insights. Its not about photography, its life too.
So true, Barbara! Thank you for taking the time to read and share this piece. I’m so appreciative. 😁
Really interesting article!
I’m so glad you think so. Thank you!
What a fun experience and I love doing black and white – it really is a wonderful way to present something completely different and I just did a post recently in black and white so this is appropriate. Your images turned out well and yes it really does pay off to talk to your subject, get them comfortable and not take any rejection – I loved your way to infusing flattery and humore to get this done – kudos to you for getting these beautiful images.
These are some of your best work. Stand with Mongolia and some of my other favorites (you know what they are). You really made the most of so little guidance.
You’re the best my dear. xoxxo
Just honest (and jealous). I’ve been at this a long time and you have some mad skills! xo
Thank you for some wonderful suggestions. I would like to apply some of your ideas to the desolate west of this country.
I’m very happy you found the piece helpful!. Thank you for letting me know.
Susan, the photos you shared in this post are simply incredible, so soulful! Thank you for sharing your knowledge from your workshop :).
Thank you very much for saying so. I really appreciate it. Glad you found the info helpful. Do you like to photograph?
I love photography :)! I am a beginner and I am enjoying my learning journey. My favourite things to photograph are landscapes. I would like to do some more street photography and even portraits in the future but I need to work on my confidence a little bit (asking strangers for a photo terrifies me). Maybe one day my street photos will be half as good as yours ;), fingers crossed haha. I look forward to your next post! 🙂
I’m glad you’re enjoying the journey. That’s the most important, right? Take baby steps. I know talking to strangers can be frightening but I’ve had fifty times more positive experiences than negative. Thank you for your kind words and I’m so happy to have you visit the blog. 😊
I think your photos turned out great! I also like your stance on what happens if people say no. “I do not agree it’s right when the reality is that you simply want a picture. My rights as a photographer do not override those of another human being just because I want something.” – that seems very ethical to me, because while I do like taking pictures myself, I personally do not want people to take a picture of me.
Here in Germany, the law says that unless you photograph a scene at an event, market, place with lots of people in the picture etc, you have to get an individual’s approval beforehand and can not simply take their picture.
The crux of the matter is that no one seems to care about people taking pictures with their mobile phones, but as soon as they see a “proper” camera they become wary.
A photographer at a photo workshop said that sometimes it’s worth to him to illegally take a picture of a person and then go up to them after the fact, show them the picture and ask if they are OK with it. if they say no, though, you have to delete it.
Thank you Kiki! I find that so interesting that Germany actually has a law about this. I wonder what was the genesis of this? Was it perhaps for celebrities and nagging paparazzi?
Actually, celebrity pics are allowed, both for the “common people” and the paparazzi. I believe it’s the privacy of the (non-famous) individual the law wanted to protect.
Love the Times Square pix. Interesting question of what to do if folks say no. In the case of news, I say take it. 100%. For a hobbiest or commercial photographer, not so much. It’s absolutely legal, but impolite, and given how much of our privacy we relinquish daily in NYC, I say no.
Thanks a million, Sharon.
Yeah… the question is a hard one. I can say that I would want to punch anyone that kept taking a pic of me when I said no. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I hope you return to the blog. 🙂
I participated in Peter’s NYC workshop 2 years ago. You show some pretty nice work. Should be proud. I predominantly shoot in b&w and your images really click with me. Thanks.
Hi Alan -Thanks for commenting. From what I wrote, was your workshop similar? Curious to know if it changed over the last 2 years? How was it for you? And thank you about the photos. Very kind. 🙂
He does workshops with Maine Media as well. One of these days I’d like to take one of his destination sessions.
What incredible photos! You have such a talent!!!
I love these photos. That baby being thrown in the air is just precious and I am so happy to think that the parents have that shot.
I am usually pretty bold, but when it comes to taking photos, I become shy. I don’t have a fancy camera, for one, and I fear it doesn’t look serious. I can’t see well, so I tend to take a million shots in hopes of getting a couple in focus (apparent only when I pull them up on my big desktop). So I try to just be anonymous. You are inspiring me to just ask. Your shots look so unposed (my other fear of asking is that people will pose).
I was very much the same way about walking up to people about photos, I think mainly because in my mind I don’t want anyone to do that to me! LOL.. I hate having my picture taken. And it’s hard not to rush it. You really have to talk to yourself in the moment. That’s what I did during the workshop. I would feel myself wanting to cut the moment short and then just told myself to keep going. Also, when I started engaging in conversation, it was easier because I felt less like a nuisance. I would try asking and see how it goes. Just don’t let your inner voice talk you out of it. Peter would say, if you let yourself get out of it, it will be harder the next time. Also, I don’t like when they pose either so you just have to wait them out a bit. It’s hard to maintain a pose, so realistically, they’ll fall out of it pretty quick.
Lovely photos. They really project emotions
Thank you, I appreciate you taking a look!
Susan: Loved your critique of this class..Very honest and helpful, as I too am looking for a mentor to get me out of a rut and into a growth spurt.
Hi jill- I’m really happy you found it helpful. I think workshops are great for getting the creative juices flowing..now just need to enhance that with someone I can count on.. 🙂
Holy shit, Susan. You absolutely killed this. I want to be like you when I grow up.
Tom! You are the best. It was fun and hard and my insecurities raged on this one so I appreciate the nod. Thank you so much. Have you done any workshops? Can’t remember if we discussed. xoxoxo
I am not a photographer, but I enjoy looking at your work and reading your blog. This article was interesting and I think you got some great shots (in my amateur opinion). They each tell part of a story. Loved the black and white.
I appreciate all opinions and thanks a million. I’m so glad you found the article interesting especially since you’re not a photographer.
I dig the black and white too! 😉
I love the black and white photos…I wonder why I don’t take more…
You know I was thinking the same exact thing. When I’m traveling, I often feel that a destination has to be in color because I’m trying to give people and idea of what it’s really like. However, when I shoot in NYC, the urban context feels better in black and white. And I feel a lot of the extraneous, colorful nonsense that’s in the city is removed which I like. Times Square, for example.
Wow… Amaze arts photograp
Thank you… I think. 😉