An Interview With Lorena Turner

Abstract: This interview is part of our ongoing coverage of unique and dynamic authors who  have written compelling monographs about Michael Jackson. In it, Lorena Turner, author of The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph, discusses her process and her research on impersonation and ethnography.


Turner, Lorena. “An Interview with Lorena Turner.” Interview, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 2, no. 4 (2016). Published electronically 21/06/16.

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An Interview with Author, Lorena Turner by The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies

1. In just a single sentence, what does Michael Jackson mean to you?
Michael Jackson is, to me, an enigma.

2. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a researcher? Your background?
I was trained as a photographer, I have an MFA in fine art photography, but since I received my degree I have evolved into using photography as a research tool. I now develop social science research projects with a heavy visual component. In addition to this book I have written on Michael Jackson interpreters, I have completed a project on post-conflict identity in Rwanda, and have a longitudinal study with an Afro-Colombian community living outside of Cartagena examining the impact of Colombia’s neo-liberal policies there.

I am also a lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in the Communication Department. There I teach a range of visual communication classes – from the black and white darkroom to Photoshop and InDesign to photojournalism. My students are budding journalists, anthropologist and art students.

3. When you started writing The Michael Jacksons did you have any misgivings about the process?
I did not have any misgivings about embarking on this project and book. From the moment I conceived of the project I had a feeling that there was a lot to learn about the people who passionately give themselves over to this ghost, this abstraction that has become Michael Jackson. I knew from the start of the process of developing the project that performers would want to talk about their work, and, with just one or two exceptions, this proved to be true.

4. If you had the chance to meet and talk to Michael Jackson what three questions would you ask him?
My questions to him would center on themes:

  • How did the experience of growing up in an African American culture context impact the way you developed your performing persona?
  • Is there an aspect of your performance that you think the people who impersonate and pay tribute to you should emphasize more?
  • How do you see race? Do you see people as existing in racial-cultural frameworks? Or is there another way you’d describe this?

5. How and why did you decide to become an academic?
When I was in college first taking photography classes, I fell in love with the way that we were asked to talk about our work in critiques. I also loved learning about how my teachers were able to build their lives and make their work (and photography) a central and essential part of it. That was a completely new idea to me since I grew up around people who worked in the 9-5 corporate world. I had a natural talent for photography, and knew that I could say new things about what an image could be and could do, and was excited by the potential of building my life in a way where I could concentrate on that. Being an academic seemed like that best avenue to do that. Teaching at a university allows me to support myself while taking chances to build projects that can speak to both an academic and non-academic audiences.

6. What do you think the legacy of Michael Jackson’s art is?
I am always surprised when I see reference to Michael Jackson in the popular culture – at the Grammy Awards in 2016, for example Miguel sang “She’s Out of My Life”, seven years after his death. It’s almost like he’s become a neutral safe space in which people can draw from and express our collective cultural history. This new version of him is embraced by both African American and white audiences and performers. The controversy that his image and persona inspired towards the end of his life has evaporated and it seems that now there is a perspective that his music and videos can serve to unite us.


7. Who are your biggest artistic, literary and musical inspirations?
Would it be too clichéd to say that as person who communicates primarily in visual images that my biggest inspiration is the work of other photographers? I guess it wouldn’t be unexpected. Even though my work and ideas are very different from the people who inspire me in this area, I always find myself returning to their work to remind myself of what photography can be – Eugene Richards, Robert Frank, Zoe Strauss, and Taryn Simon. I am completely captivated by people who can enter into a situation and make images that force viewers to look at those experiences in a unique way. To use a camera to describe relationships by just pushing a button at a certain moment is, to me, something that is awe-inspiring.

I also find a lot of inspiration in the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, and many many street artists. All of them have a voice inside of them that allows them to create a controlled form of chaos.

8. To you, what is the relationship between music and academia?
My favorite academic writing about music is writing that analyzes the impact of popular music on an individual’s identity or politics or understanding of himself or herself.

9. Are you planning to write further on Michael Jackson and his impersonators, or are there other artists/writers you have your eye on for future publications?
For the time being I am finished focusing on Michael Jackson representers (who are impersonators and tribute artists), but who knows? As time passes and people’s understanding of his work and contribution to American popular culture evolves, his significance may change and maybe then it would make sense to take another look!

At the moment I am not looking at other musical artists to do this type of ethnographic project on. I have been looking, but I just don’t see anyone who has captured people’s imaginations in the way that Michael Jackson has.

10. What advice do you have for those wishing to study Michael Jackson’s influence from a cultural perspective, like you did?
The best advice I can give for someone embarking on a similar project is to collect as many different view points as possible and stay away from forming an opinion about who you think Michael Jackson was.

In the US, at least amongst a lot of people in my field with whom I shared my work and project, people have a strong opinion on Michael Jackson that generally tends towards the negative. This means that, contrary to what I said in the answer about his legacy, people see him as a flawed person who isn’t worthy of the adulation and analysis that a project such as “The Michael Jacksons” allowed. I found this unfortunate because it didn’t allow for those people to see the great beauty of the representers. In other words, those people had an opinion that disallowed for them to learn.

(c) Lorena Turner(c) Lorena Turner

11. Your book was mentioned in the New York Times’ Books of the Times section in 2014, how did you feel about that?
It was such an honor to have a review of “The Michael Jacksons” written ArtsBeat writer Jon Carmanica in the New York Times in October of 2014. It was a thrilling moment for me and it went a long way to validate the project itself. Excuse the Michael Jackson pun there, at this point in my life it just can’t be helped.

12. Do you think there is a place for Michael Jackson in schools and universities, and if yes, what do you think that place is?
Absolutely. As I see it, Michael Jackson transcended all of the classic signifiers of race and gender. We live in a moment right now where the way that he moved through the world – not being bound by definitions of race and gender – is the lens through which we are directed to understand others and ourselves. That he was one of the first high profile people, if not THE first, to do this and to open our thinking about what a male should be, and what an African American person could do is important to address.

He was also one of the first artists to diversify his financial holdings so that he didn’t have to solely rely upon album sales, concerts and appearances for an income. And he did these things without reporting to us – his audience – in real time what he was doing and why. In my mind his work as a musician and performer was secondary to these other things, but he wouldn’t have been in a position to make us see them without his work.

13. What are your feelings about the attempt to appropriate Jackson into academic circles now?
When I was writing the book in 2011-2012, I was very aware of the who was doing what in the academic sphere in the study of Michael Jackson, but I’m afraid that I am not so up on it now. It is exciting to know that so many people (your journal included) are looking at Michael Jackson in a critical manner, not just for his entertainment value. I hope that this continues.

Thank-you, Lorena for taking the time to talk to us.

Lorena Turner holds an MFA in Fine Art Photography, and now develops social science research projects with a heavy visual component. She is the author of ‘The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph‘, and has also completed a project on post-conflict identity in Rwanda, and a longitudinal study with an Afro-Colombian community living outside of Cartagena examining the impact of Colombia’s neo-liberal policies there. She is a lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Find out more about Lorena here

Our academic review of The Michael Jacksons: An Ethnographic Monograph can be found here.

Check out more of our wonderful academic interviews and content here.

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