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U-M photography students document their lives in quarantine

By Sydney Hawkins

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.
ANN ARBOR—Earn the trust of a stranger, and work with them to document the essence of a day in their life over the course of five weeks.  That was the directive for students producing their final project in David Turnley’s winter 2020 documentary photography class at the University of Michigan 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. 


Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and documentarian, realized the coronavirus pandemic created an opportunity to mentor young photographers through an unprecedented time in human history. For the past 40 years, he has covered most of the world’s major events, uprisings and wars—including the Gulf War, 9/11 and the struggle to end apartheid, to name a few. 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 said. “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.”


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," he said. "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.


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, North Carolina, in late March. During the week that followed, she ended up documenting the devastation of a tornado that tore through Estill, South Carolina. 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. 

Photo by Destini Riley (Angier, NC).

"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 said. "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." Photographs submitted by Konrad Tenwolde, who lives in Ferndale, Michigan, 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," said Tenwolde, also an art and design senior.

Photo by Konrad Tenwolde (Ferndale, 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," said Guisinger, an art and design junior who has been quarantined with her father in Troy, Michigan. "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 David. 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."

Photo by Natalie Guisinger (Troy, MI).

One of the main tenets that Turnley teaches his students is vulnerability, especially in a world where social media depicts people at their best. "You tell great stories and make great photos when you can get people to stop performing," he said. "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."  

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