Recently, however, Turnley has found himself in what might seem like truly foreign territory—advertising. In 2007, he turned his camera to commercial photography for the first time working with 180 Amsterdam, shooting 36 athletes for the print/poster component of the latest "Impossible is Nothing" campaign for adidas, which sought to uncover the more emotional side of sports stars like David Beckham, Gilbert Arenas and Jonah Lomu.
Turnley has made the leap to commercials as well, having recently signed to Furlined. No stranger to film, he previously shot the lush documentary, La Tropical, about the intersecting lives of working class Cubans at an open air Havana dance club, and the Emmy-nominated documentary The Dalai Lama: At Home in Exile. Earlier this year, Turnley made his commercials debut, directing the "Look Me In The Eyes" spot for Nike/Brand Jordan, out of Wieden + Kennedy, N.Y., which aimed to capture the greatness of Michael Jordan in the eyes of people all over the world.
"The spot hinged so much on drawing real emotions from real people and so we needed a director who was going to be able to connect with performers and non-performers alike," explains W+K copywriter Scott Hayes. "We also needed someone who could make people feel not just comfortable—but powerful—in front of a camera. It was imperative that we get a director who could establish trust and connection immediately, someone who could take them to a very personal, very raw place."
"The humanity of our subjects was what the spot's message hinged on," adds W+K art director Bekah Sirine. "When we looked at David's work and we looked at the concept of 'eyes,' it was clear to us that he was the only person who could direct this spot."
Indeed, Turnley's years of connecting emotionally with his subjects served him well on the shoot. In order to capture the right look from one of the spot's talents, a young man named Omar, Turnley says he asked him to reflect on what it was like to be a Palestinian living in Detroit, home to one of the largest and most diverse Arab American communities in the States. Omar became emotional and turned away, only to face the camera again with a depth and intensity in his brown eyes that hadn't been there before. "In effect, I've always been marketing humanity," Turnley says. "This transition is a very natural one for me."
Turnley's point of view could perhaps be traced to his childhood. He was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the late fifties and sixties, his sensibilities informed by John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During high school, he says he keenly felt the social divide between his white, suburban peers and their fellow football team members, who were black and bused in from the inner city.
So he and his twin brother Peter then spent a year and half photographing one street of a very poor inner city neighborhood. Their efforts became a collection of photographs McClellan Street, which brought the brothers to the attention of photo agency Magnum. Eventually, Turnley began working for the Detroit Free Press and went on to photograph what he describes as "the McClellan streets all over the world."
Turnley's images and films are marked by a sense of immediacy and rich, often jarring emotional depth. And whether he's shooting celebrities or everyday people, he always seeks to show his subjects in a sympathetic light. On adidas, for example, he says he was intent on not shooting "just another endorsement gig" and pushed to create what felt "really, extremely authentic." In order to open up the athletes, he presented his subjects a portfolio of his work, showing them his own motivations and inspirations. It turns out that in the brief period Turnley shot a few dozen frames of David Beckham, he impressed the athlete so much that Beckham, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, invited Turnley along to document his tour of child support programs in Sierra Leone last January.
Back from the mission, Turnley is preparing to release his next book Mandela: Struggle and Triumph, in which he recounts in pictures and words the South African leader and his country's anti-apartheid struggles. He's also looking forward to his next commercial endeavor. "I think we are really trying to be at the cutting edge of how to be as versatile as possible in this very rapidly changing world of art and commerce and storytelling," he says. "It's really an exciting time for me."