In late March and early April of 2020, New York City was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in America. Photojournalist Peter Turnley traveled the city to photograph its inhabitants caught in an unparalleled moment in time, when one of the most densely-populated communities in the world began social distancing, businesses were closed or were severely tested, and services were stretched to the limits.
A self-portrait by photojournalist Peter Turnley, on the train from Queens heading to Manhattan.
An award-winning photojournalist who worked as an assistant to the French photographer Robert Doisneau in the early 1980s, Turnley has photographed wars and conflicts; documented the plight of refugees and the aftermath of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina; and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa. His work has appeared in such publications as Newsweek, Harper's, LIFE, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Stern, Paris Match, Geo, The London Sunday Times, Le Figaro, and Le Monde.
Turnley offered his images of New York City in the throes of a pandemic to "CBS Sunday Morning"; his comments, posted on Instagram, recount his journey in a city both familiar and, in this moment, strangely foreign.
A subway conductor.
March 24: "I came across Clifford Jordan standing at a bus stop hoping to receive some money to help him eat at this time."
According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, bus ridership has been down 80%; subway ridership is down 90%, prompting steep service cuts.
[As of April 6, 33 MTA employees had died from coronavirus.]
March 26: "On a day when the United States, and in particular New York, now have the most confirmed cases of coronavirus, it was a gloriously beautiful early spring day. Weather and light bring back memories. I will always remember that Sept. 11 was one of the most beautiful Indian summer days I had ever seen, on that tragic day that also changed our world.
"I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, and at one point, got down low to photograph an approaching person wearing a mask jogging alone on the bridge. Just as the person arrived in front of me, she jumped in the air. I called out and asked her name and where she was from. She replied that her name was Yanan and I asked where she was from and she told me Wuhan, China."
March 26: "On Wall Street, I met an investment banker, Arthur, who told me he had grown up for a period homeless, and so he is optimistic that things will get better, that this is temporary."
March 29: "Today I went to the very heart of the storm of this crisis: Elmhurst Hospital, in Queens, which is possibly the most intense war zone in the United States at this moment. ...
"There are so many heroes in the midst of this moment that affects the entire world, and most of them will go forever unnoticed. I wake up each day and go out, and I always keep at least 6 feet from all people, and wear a mask and gloves, and when I am finished I return home, where I stay alone. I am extremely careful with social distancing, but I think it is essential that at this moment in our collective life, that the stories of so many heroes, of all dimensions, be documented with photojournalism, helping to bring us together now, and for memory, forever."
"At the back of the hospital where dozens of ambulances were lined up, I spoke to an ambulance medic, Mike Galloway. He works with an ambulance unit attached to Jamaica Hospital, but now [is] attached to the New York Fire Department.
"He told me, 'With 9/11, once it happened, you could see it coming. This is an invisible enemy. We don't see what is coming. I could be sitting next to my partner and he could have it and we don't know it. We don't have enough protective gear and I'm not the only one that feels that way.'"
March 29: "Behind the hospital, several ambulances pulled up with their sirens on, and ambulances workers would jump out and take off stretchers loaded with urgent care patients. It was not always clear which patients were suffering from coronavirus, or other ailments, but there was no doubt that coronavirus was overtaking this moment."
March 31: "Yesterday, I walked to the Post Office, and before walking in, a man exited the Post Office wearing a mask that exuded the look of a bank robber. I told him that and he laughed, and we began to talk. Eric, 64, was an orphan originally from Detroit. He told me he had been a fashion model and had traveled the world and had made a good living, 'but I was born in the gutter.' …
"He has worked out daily his whole life, and has always asked himself, 'Am I ready to save my own life?' He explained with his frequent world travels for work, 'I am used to self-isolating, and since I was an orphan, I have learned to appreciate gratitude for all.'"
April 1: "As I sat on my steps of the building where I stay on the Upper West Side, Gabriel, 22, a delivery person for Federal Express, walked by. He stopped to speak to me and I asked him how he was making out. He told me he wasn't scared, but that his neighborhood in the Bronx is known to be possibly the place with the most coronavirus cases in New York State. I asked him how he felt about his job and he said to me, 'I love my job, and I simply wish that I could move to live in this neighborhood one day.'"
April 1: "Today, as I walked up the street in the neighborhood where I stay, a voice called out, 'Peter!' I turned to see a postal worker with a mask on and she said, 'Peter, it's Carline. I used to deliver your mail.' I couldn't believe she could remember my name because it has been awhile, but then as we spoke I discovered that her good memory is only one of her many qualities – courage, decency, and kindness are clearly high on the list of this hero's incredible list of attributes. I asked Carline if she was scared, and she replied, 'I take it one day at a time. We had two of our postal workers who have passed already.' I asked her if she had children and she told me she has a boy and a girl, and also lives with her mother who is in her eighties. Carline, drives every day four hours to and from the Poconos and is now working 10-12 hour shifts of delivering the mail. I asked her why she does this and she replied, 'Because I feel so much love for my customers, and a sense of duty, and I need the money.' …
"There are so many people that make our world go around, every day, that work hard, often for fairly low pay, that truly are essential to our lives. I truly hope that when this is all over, and it will be over, that as a society, and a country, that we don't simply pay thanks to these heroes in a sort of bourgeois way, as happens so often – like thinking that thanking the troops for service is a form of patriotism though so many people would never allow their own children to go and fight. I hope that we will review on so many levels our sense of priority as a society and make sure that every one has access to healthcare as a right and all children have access to good public education."
April 1: "When we ride the train of life, and we feel alone, we must remember, we are one! We are all in this together. Now, and when this is over – 'over' being a qualified word, as things may well never be the same – we must remember the heroes of this moment. My God, what heroes – the hospital workers, postal workers, delivery men and women, police, grocery store clerks, and on and on. What a spectacle of amazing humanity. Never before have we seen so clearly who are the heroes. May we readjust our ideals, and values, and stand up and shout and applaud the beauty of the human soul, which is among us in the daily life of people that will never be recognized for their heroism, but go about their lives showing us how to live ours. What beauty, what humanity. God bless."
A New York City cabbie.
7 p.m. Applause
April 1: "Tonight I went out for groceries and as I walked down my street on the Upper West Side, I saw a beautiful young family sitting in their windowsill. I stopped and introduced myself and told them I was their neighbor and asked if I could make a photograph. They asked me what I was doing and I told them I was making a photo documentation of New York, for myself. It has been so nice to not come on strong saying to people I work for some prominent publication, but to tell the truth I am making photographs for myself, and for the world, of this moment that affects us all. I asked them how they were doing. Maria, the mother told me, 'Some days are hard and some not as much.' I asked how the children were doing: Isabel, 3, and Milo, 2 months. They told me they have learned a lot about germs, and I replied that I couldn't imagine what that would feel like as a concern when you are three years old. They mentioned that Milo, 2 months, could tell that they were home much more often, and he sleeps less.
"As we spoke, suddenly, on the strike of 7 p.m., the whole street erupted in applause, and shouting of thanks to all of the healthcare workers and essential workers. This has happened now, every night for the past five nights. I know that this is happening all over New York, Italy, France, and likely all over the country. After making a few frames, I put down my camera and began to applaud and shout with all of my might as well. As Chris, the father, said to me afterwards, 'This is very cathartic.'
"When the applause died down, Maria asked me how I was doing. Just the question meant a lot to me, from a person I had just met. This is a different story than any I have ever covered. I, too, am in the middle of this one. And I have a strong need, as I live alone at this time to be with others and the world. We are all in this together."
April 8: "Avisia, 38, originally from Guyana, is a nanny for a Manhattan family. She lives with the family, so she doesn't have to travel back and forth between her home and theirs. She has 6 of her own children and she told me that because she needs the money from her work for her family's economic survival, she has sent them back to Guyana to be with relatives. During this crisis, she looks after the children of another family, a continent away from her own children, so they can survive. I asked her why she chose to be so far from her own children and she replied, 'I have to work. I have to support them.' Her husband is still in New York, and he works as a hospital worker and she showed me a photograph of him in his protective gear at the hospital, and she is able to see him only briefly every two weeks during this time.
"This story made me think more strongly than ever, at a time when the leadership of the country and their followers are so fearful of immigration, what debt as a nation we all owe immigrants like Avisia for their selfless courage and grace? And to what extent a nation built upon immigration should be so grateful for what millions of immigrants do each day, to enable this nation and society to survive and be as humanly beautiful as it can be?"
The Sturgeon King
A view through the window of the Barney Greengrass delicatessen, which has been operating at its location on Amsterdam Avenue since 1929.
A view of the entrance of the Sagamore, a luxury apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue.
The checkout at Zabar's Cafe.
April 10: "As I exited Zabar's yesterday afternoon, the store that has essentially kept me alive with food these past three weeks, I saw this gentleman standing in line waiting to enter the store. I had my camera on my shoulder as I always do, and upon seeing this man – me wearing a mask – I shouted, 'You are so handsome, do you mind if I make a photograph of you?' Without speaking, he nodded his head in approbation and I made this photograph. …
"It is true he is not wearing a mask… But maybe he was doing something, many things, more than that in this case. This man, who clearly has lived a few years of this past century and certainly has seen a lot in his own life – with his choice of clothes, his hat, his gloves, his posture, his cane, his way of being – maybe he has chosen on this Passover and Easter weekend to stand up, and with the elegance and grace which is clearly part of who he is—he has chosen to make a defiant statement at this moment and say clearly and loudly, 'F.... You' to coronavirus. 'You can try, but you will not take away my dignity, my pride, my courage, my hope, and my life. So just go away, and don't even try to F with me.' And maybe that was his way of saying this for all of us.
"There are some things one will never be able to purchase on the shelf of a store – pride, dignity, courage, hope, determination, resilience, humility, decency, and love. And, like so many moments in my life when I have encountered people that have taught me lessons of life I couldn't have learned in any other way than from observing them, I thank this man for standing up for all of us. God bless him, and God bless us all."
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Edited by CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan