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Vulnerability, gravitas in quarantine docs

‘A very vulnerable situation’

Earn the trust of a stranger over the course of five weeks, and work with them to document the essence of a day in their life.

That was the directive for students producing their final project in David Turnley’s winter 2020 documentary photography class at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and the Residential College.

But the parameters of the project quickly changed in March when U-M announced plans to move classes online and encouraged students to return home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Course correction

Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and documentarian, realized the coronavirus pandemic created an opportunity to mentor young photographers through an unprecedented global event. For the past 40 years, he has covered most of the world’s major uprisings, wars, and unrest — including the Gulf War, 9/11, and the struggle to end apartheid, among others.

Abiding by quarantine and social distancing recommendations, he directed his students to turn their cameras inward — to document themselves and those closest to them during this historic moment.

“I wanted them to think of this as a personal diary they will have for the rest of their lives,” Turnley says. “It was a privilege to get to have this uniquely intimate view of the day-to-day lives of 26 diverse families who are living in quarantine across America. It was very moving.”

Act naturally

There are photographs of tearful goodbyes as U-M seniors realized their time in Ann Arbor had come to an abrupt end. Photographs of boxes being packed and unpacked as several moved back home. Of family meals. Relatives peering through panes of glass. Moments of boredom, anxiety, and worry.

“I’m proud of them because I believe that they understood that there was a real gravitas to what they’re doing,” Turnley says. “More than any students I’ve had before, they’re getting a chance as documentary photographers to understand, in some real sense, what it’s like to be in a war zone. It is a very different kind of war zone, but we’re all in it right now, and you can see that reflected in the photos that they’re making.”

Turnley, who also has been documenting his own family during the pandemic, said that the students’ assignment mirrors his experiences as a photojournalist covering wars or conflicts in other countries, where he would work with an offsite photo editor. Over the course of their final five-week-long project, students would send him a selection of images each week, and he would offer critiques and encouragement.

Getting personal

Couple prays together

Photo by Destini Riley (Angier, NC).

Destini Riley, a rising senior majoring in art and design, started chronicling her life in Ann Arbor before moving back in with her parents in Angier, N.C., in late March. During the week that followed, she ended up documenting the devastation of a tornado that tore through Estill, S.C. She made the four-hour trip with her family to help her aunt, uncle, and cousins, who were all injured and whose home was completely destroyed.

“It was a surreal experience, and I feel closer to people I’ve known for years because I was paying more attention to them in a very vulnerable situation,” she says. “As the weeks went by after moving home, I think that what transformed my project was that I was able to connect with another generation of my family on a deeper level.”

A story of resiliency

Photographs submitted by Konrad Tenwolde, who lives in Ferndale, Mich., tell a story of resiliency. He and his wife, a nurse on the front lines in one of America’s COVID-19 hotspots, also are raising their young daughter.

“There’s an element of stress in our lives because she spends half of her time at the hospital, but we have a toddler right now who doesn’t understand what is happening, so you see a lot of normalcy in my photos,” says Tenwolde, also an art and design senior.

Girl brushes hair

Photo by Natalie Guisinger (Troy, MI).

When Natalie Guisinger left Ann Arbor a few days after returning from spring break in California, she found herself where a lot of college students do when they return home — her childhood bedroom.

“It’s been very nostalgic,” says Guisinger, an art and design junior who has been quarantined with her father in Troy, Mich. “I’ve had to push myself more because it has been so quiet with just the two of us, but it has been a great opportunity to learn from someone like [Turnley]. He teaches the technical side of photography, like framing and lighting, but he has also taught me about the humanness of it, about gaining trust from the people on the other side of the lens.”

One of the main tenets that Turnley teaches his students is vulnerability, especially in a world where social media depicts people at their Instagrammed best.

“You tell great stories and make great photos when you can get people to stop performing,” he says. “And that’s why working on this project with my students who have been so dedicated and committed during this historic and incredible time has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had as an educator and mentor.”

(This story is reprinted courtesy of The top image of the young woman in an empty room is by Morgan Hale.)


  1. Joseph Appelt - 1965, 1971

    The uniform quality of these portfolios is a testament to an educational and meaningful experience. Congratulations and thanks for the emotional connection.


  2. William Colón - 1996, 2002

    Absolutely beautiful work! Thank you for sharing your lives and vulnerability. It’s comforting to see that life goes on in beautiful and touching ways, even in the shadows of a pandemic.


  3. Marc Warner - 1977

    Wow! Extremely moving and emotional visual portrayal of the highs and lows we are all going thru. They show the power of photos. The students should be very proud, well done!!


  4. Nancy Rauhauser - 1973

    So powerful. I cried watching the photos roll by. Thank you for sharing your work.


  5. lynn Swanson - '76

    I became unexpectedly choked up and deeply connected to the photos and photographers. Wonderful work. Good experience.


    • Deborah Holdship

      Lynn: I actually burst into tears watching the video when the photo of that young woman alone in the room appeared on screen, which is why I chose it for the lead. I cry every time I watch the video. So powerful. It is so rare that you absolutely can relate to what the people in the piece are experiencing — in that moment. Art.


  6. lori Jackson - 1981

    Amazing photos! I definitely welled up for all of the seniors who didn’t get to experience graduation also tears for the brave medical staff on the front line! Great work photographers! Go Blue!!


  7. Jeffrey Klink - 1972

    A picture indeed can be worth a thousand words. Beautifully done. Only bone to pick is that the montage flew by too quickly. Like trying to see the Louvre in an hour.


  8. Michael Hertz - 1967, 2010

    These are absolutely outstanding. The depth of feeling in all
    of them is staggeringly beautiful.


  9. Bevely Merian - 1981

    Thank you for sharing your world with us ..Photography is an ability to capture the situation and feelings and thoughts and memories in a “snap” AND you have done it BEAUTIFULLY. Again thank you for sharing your story with us.. never stop taking pictures and always share them with those who do not capture life’s story in a photo.


  10. Deborah Arnoldy - 2005

    Thank you for this art installment. It means everything to me to see the impact of Covid19 and its effect on humanity as a whole. The interpretations of each person’s journalism reflects dependency on family, friends, and mostly the Self. The thermometer with an elevated temperature captured the effect of the virus and the actual fear we faced. I was personally affected for about 6 weeks so this project feels very personal. The entire project is fantastically relevant and did a great job capturing the reality we have lived through as a society. Now it’s time to come out the other side – STRONGER.


  11. Susan Preuss

    Moving! The human struggle is felt! There is beauty in the family love, strength and hope we feel while viewing the photos.❤️ I only wish I had more time to look deeper into each shot. Thank you for sharing!


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