April 21, 2014

Author Interview with Lorena Turner

Hi Lorena, first of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Lorena Turner. I am a photographer first, and a writer second. Though I started writing before working as a photographer. I’m also a photojournalism professor at a university in Southern California. 

Why did you start writing?
I started writing first (twenty five years or so ago) as a way of recording and analyzing my own experiences. My writing was, at first, very personal, kind of diaristic, maybe even inspired by the type of chronicling that Anais Nin did with her journals and storytelling. Over time, the way I approached writing changed. As I entered my 30s, it became less important for me to try to understand and contexualize my relationships and impetus for my creative work, and I wasn’t really sure who my audience was for that kind writing anyway. 

Around that time, my work as a photographer and photojournalist took off, I was also writing grants for non-profit arts organizations in New York City. Both of these outlets heightened my love and interest in non-fiction storytelling. As a photojournalist written storytelling is somewhat limited - mainly captions and introductions to photo essays. This evolved into creating documentary photography projects that have a strong written component. In 2006, I had a series of exhibitions based on a group of photos taken by a community of Afro Colombian people living on the Pacific coast of Colombia. I wrote the accompanying essay with an anthropology professor from the UK. It was thrilling to know an audience would read my words. I carried that feeling to other, similar, projects I developed. 

In time, it has become clear that the type of documentary photography projects I am interested in creating and completing are these kinds of hybrid writing experiences - they are academic, non-fiction storytelling that incorporate personal experience. That is how I would describe the written portion of my new book, “The Michael Jacksons”. 

What do you think makes your genre special?
“The Michael Jacksons” is representative of the type of work I’ve done in the last few years, and intend to in the next few, as well. It’s not so much that the book is a genre based book, but it encompasses to areas of study - the written ethnography and documentary photography. There is a kind of emerging field in these areas, Visual Sociology, in fact the first visual sociology text book was just published last year, in 2013. I like to think of “The Michael Jacksons” as a book that draws from both areas, and exists in both worlds simultaneously. It included over 35 portraits of Michael Jackson performers who live and work in the US, and text that both describes and analyzes their work, as well describes what the experiences of the Michael Jackson memorials in both New York City and Los Angeles in the summer of 2009. 

What do you think makes a great story?
Gosh, this is really in the quality of the language used to tell the story. The writing itself must be clear and without extraneous adornment. I’m a big non-fiction reader, of late, essays have been my thing. My husband suggested I read an essay by Christopher Hitchins that blew me away. Though I don’t always agree with what he says, the way he goes about expressing his ideas is engaging and seductive. 

What is your latest book called and could you explain to us in 20 words what it is about?
“The Michael Jacksons” is part written ethnography and photo monograph about professional Michael Jackson representers who live and work in the United States. 

Which kind of reader do you think will enjoy your book?
I am certain that someone who enjoys looking at popular culture through an analytical lens will love this book, as will anyone who appreciates photography’s ability to compare and contrast. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t understand that about how photography functions!

Is it a Standalone, or part of the series? If it's the latter, how long do you think will it go on?
“The Michael Jacksons” is, itself, a Standalone, but is part of a larger body of work, my photographic work, that explores human social representation and presentation. 

What influenced or inspired you to write it?
I started this book first as a photography project. I took portraits of Michael Jackson impersonators (the representers) for about two years before I started doing the research for the written ethnography. However, I always knew that in this project, the images themselves only told a part of the story. Usually I find a fellow academic to do the writing part, but I didn’t really think that I could find someone who understood, with the nuance that I had, about the performance aspect of what the representers do when they are in the studio with me. Understanding that, allowed me to find the proper channels to get the writing done. 

I took a year off from teaching and went to New York City to attend the sociology program at the New School for Social Research. There I took a class in ethnographic writing, I used this project for the course work. The writing was very much influenced by that experience and seeing that ethnographies were a perfect blend of storytelling, analysis and personal experience. 

Why did you choose especially this title? Was it your first choice?
“The Michael Jacksons” expresses exactly who the people are who are described in the book - they see themselves as Michael Jackson, also since there are multiple interpretations of who Michael Jackson is/was, then it made sense to pluralize that title to represent this!

What was the most difficult part for you working on your book?
The most difficult part of the book has not been the production of it or the content, but in its marketing. This is new to me, and is proving to be a challenge to get the word out about the book. 

Do you already know what to do next?
I have a few ideas floating around - I live in Los Angeles and New York City, both cities which are epicenters of visual communication. I’d love to do a similar ethnographic study on the paparazzi and paparazzi culture. I’ve also been researching addresses of where photographers from the canon of photo history lived in New York City, once “The Michael Jacksons” is published, I’d like to photograph the interiors of these buildings/apartments as a way of talking about the role of the artist within the culture of New York City. For those of us who are creative people and live in New York City, it has become a place that is increasingly out of reach. Meaning it’s very difficult to make a living in one’s creative field. Sure, many people do it, but many people, like me, have to find work elsewhere while having the social and cultural life of the city existing in the corners and shadows of our lives. It’s an unfortunate trajectory, unfortunate fall out of the last twenty years of politics and economics in New York. 

Where can we find more about you and your books?
You can read about the project on its website - www.themichaeljacksons.com. There are also numerous online articles that have been posted, which a reader can access through the PRESS page on that website. 

Any last words?
Thank you for this opportunity to share this project and book with your readers. We’d really hope people find this project interesting and will pre-order the book from the website.


Michael Jackson died in Los Angeles on June 25, 2009. Since then his popularity as a figure of representation has soared and a kind of sub-culture has emerged that both celebrates and builds upon his artistic accomplishments. Michael Jackson representers (tribute artists, impersonators and look-alikes) are both male and female, and come from multiple age groups, races and socio-economic backgrounds. They hail from large cities, suburban sprawl and small rural settings. To them, Michael Jackson is a lifestyle and a place to focus both their personal and professional aspirations.

The Michael Jacksons is both a monograph, featuring over 35 MJ representers who live and work around the US, and an ethnography that seeks to deconstruct and understand the motivations of these fascinating people.

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