When I first learnt of the riots that have swept across Turkey, my reaction was one of surprise – not at the discontent that exists towards Prime Minister Erdogan and his current government, but at the sheer scale and speed at which the crowds have poured out to express their anger. What began as an objection to the demolition of Gezi Park, a small green space in Istanbul, quickly turned into a symbol of something much bigger – Turkey’s people versus a force they believe is trying to strip them of their democratic rights and deep-rooted cultural habits.
The government’s reaction to the initial objections about the park seemed to justify and support the very reasons for people objecting in the first place – the police force seems to have been authoritarian, aggressive and disrespectful. As a result, the deep brewing frustration quickly surfaced and has multiplied across major cities into a huge statement from Turkish society against unfair rule. Most recently, the non-violent, peaceful protestors in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have been confronted again with physical force in the form of water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray in order to make them disperse.
As a Londoner, I’ve observed the reaction from people in my home city echoing and supporting the wave of opposition in Turkey against a government that is not working for its people. Londoners with an interest seem to be doing their bit through whichever channels they see fit – Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (to name a few) have been bubbling with posts of protest. When I walk through Dalston or Stoke Newington in East London, I see pictures of Kemal Ataturk proudly hung on the walls of barber shops and cafes alike. The same is true in every major city in Turkey; support for Ataturk’s ideas and values is unquestionable among vast numbers of the nation’s people. When Turkey’s Republic was formed in 1923, Ataturk crafted a state founded on progressive values of education, cultural modernisation and the liberty of people – regardless of gender. While his vision was for a predominantly secular state, he respected religion but felt that it should not interfere with government affairs.
Today, Kemal Ataturk’s legacy exists in much more than the name of an airport or a stadium – it’s in people’s hearts, minds and values. My view is that, despite his passing away almost seventy-five years ago, there’s no single figure more influential or more revered in Turkey today. Indeed, so many of the short video clips online show demonstrators on the streets declaring themselves as ‘Kemalists’. It’s the clearest and most concise shorthand explanation they can provide for why they oppose current rule. But there are also tens of thousands protesting who do not give themselves this label; they too simply want to live with dignity in a healthy democratic environment where their rights and views are respected.
Looking at the current situation through this social-historical lens seems to bring into much sharper focus the reasons why Erdogan’s conservative AK Party have been met with fierce opposition and have lost the trust of the people. The bulldozing of the hundred-year-old trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park became a metaphor for the bulldozing of almost a hundred years of democratic values, culture and national identity. It also happened to be in a city that is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan, creative and cultural in the world.
The state response to the riots with pepper spray, tear gas, water cannons, batons, internet cut-off, tight media control, injuries and even deaths has not stopped people. On the contrary, it seems to have shone a brighter light on the government’s oppressive decision-making concerning such practices as abortion and the use of alcohol – decisions entangled with a strong religious influence. Many people are also angered by the recent mass privatisation where state-owned assets are being sold to big corporations. The heavy-handedness of the state seems to have made protestors more determined to stand strong, with people finding ways of using social media and alerting news agencies of the events unfolding. With Turkey’s military sector and now the trade unions also strongly backing the people, the Prime Minister’s domineering approach seems to have actually brought together the rest of Turkey. A friend of mine currently staying in Istanbul has told me that the solidarity he has seen among different groups (young and old, secular and religious) has given him strong hope for what may come. For what, surely now, has to come.
On Friday 22nd February, the BBC ran a piece about my long-term project and photo-film documentary, Heartland.
It was on BBC Online’s national homepage for a day and is now in the ‘News’ section of the site.
The piece includes a shortened edit of the film, along with a link to the full 10-minute version (which is at the bottom of the webpage).
Here’s the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-21521158
My full 10-minute edit can also be found here: http://vimeo.com/34388416
A couple of weeks ago, I was really pleased to hear that my short documentary film Heartland will be screening at this year’s London Turkish Film Festival. It’s being shown twice in early December, both times at the Apollo Cinema in Piccadilly before a full-length feature film called Shadows and Faces by a film-maker called Dervis Zaim. My film, Heartland, is a study of Turkish Cypriot identity in Britain and the factors important to the experience of Turkish Cypriot migration to the UK and the British-born generations that have followed. I started the project as part of my MA in order to create a body of documentary photographs that would contribute to a stronger social and cultural understanding of ‘Turkish Cypriotness’ in its British context. As it developed, I decided to turn the project into a photo-film to enable the use of sound and narration in combination with my pictures. With the intention of binding the piece together and giving it a human voice, I’ve focused the film’s narrative on the personal story of my mother, which has been placed within the framework of the wider community.
I finished shooting the project in the summer of 2011 and my final edit of the film is 10 minutes and 30 seconds in length. Details of the film’s screenings at the festival can be found on the promotional e-flyer below.
Separate to the film festival but from the same project, I also have a selection of documentary photographs currently being exhibited at Mekan Café and Restaurant in Catford, south-east London. This wall display will be up until January 2012. Again, details can be found on the e-flyer below.
Continuing on from my last post, I finished my Easter project (at least in a current form which I want to develop further) and resolved it as a printed booklet. My intention was to document seven people through whom a narrative would begin to evolve; I approached nine individuals and, after lots of planning and chasing (some of which fell through and some of which didn’t come to fruition the way I wanted), I ended with six which felt like a good number. Looking at the project now, I’d perhaps make a couple of alterations – while I think the written text for each person is really important and works in conjunction with the pictures, if I were to revise the project I’d maybe cut this down slightly. I’d also quote more – from my written notes I tried to be as accurate as possible in paraphrasing people’s interviews but I think word-for-word quotes could have acted as a more direct voice for each person. Reflections to take forward…
Clicking the link below (and then clicking it again on the page you land on) will open the booklet in PDF form – thoughts and comments are welcome.
For over a year now, I’ve been interested in doing a long-term portrait-based project on the Turkish Cypriot community in London (my ethnic background). Now that I’ve made a start, the initial idea has evolved into a slightly different format but one which I really like and believe is well-suited to the actual ‘story’ (or stories) I’m exploring. With my deadline just over two weeks away, I’m treating this as a really good opportunity to make a mini version of a project I plan to expand, and realise more fully, at a later date. It’s a project that for me is both personal and interesting, that involves the kind of portraiture I enjoy as well as elements of the type of photo story work which I also really like shooting.
The most challenging (and in some ways frustrating) element is the current time restriction I have. As I write this blog, I feel like I should be making phone-calls, writing e-mails and chasing my next subject. Finding the people to take part and allow me access to their lives – sometimes for two hours, sometimes for a day, sometimes for two days – has been difficult. The generational or age-based narrative also means that these people must fall into particular age brackets, which makes the job of finding people even more specific. The aim for this initial version of the project is to work through six or seven people from different generations or of different age groups, starting with a first generation migrant (most of the movement from Cyprus to Western Europe took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s) and spanning through to a child under 5. For each person, I’ve decided to use a short paragraph of writing and three images. The pictures fall under the following: first, a portrait (usually eyes to camera), preferably in an environment that helps to convey some information about them; second, a picture of them either ‘doing’ / involved in some kind of work or interacting with other people; third, a detail shot which says something about them, but where they aren’t in frame. One idea (that I’m not sure about at the moment) is to use myself as one of the subjects. If I were to do this, it’d be the interaction/doing shot that I’d have to think about somehow resolving (as it’d be difficult to shoot this myself).
To give an idea of what I’m aiming for with each person, below are the images I’ve chosen for a 17 year old boy named Ahmed who I met and spent the day with on Friday. He was relaxed, open and really enjoyable to work with. After reviewing what I had shot, I felt certain about which portrait and detail pictures to use, but am not sure about which interaction/at work image I prefer (which is why I’ve included three). Thoughts are welcome…
Portrait (eyes to camera) at the train station he uses:
Detail from his bedroom wall:
At work/interaction shots (from which I’ll choose one) of his weekend job at his dad’s fish and chips restaurant:
Up to this point, the attention from week to week has been on the deconstruction of the photo story, whereby we’ve considered different visual elements independently. For this focus, we began to put into practice the combination of these elements and look at how they work together in a short story of 3-5 images. The task also included a written introduction and a caption for each picture. The relationship between text and image is an area that has always interested me; context, tone and the way in which text can influence the interpretation of pictures all come into play.
In my research and preparation for short story ideas, I had a Plan A and a Plan B. As it turned out, I ended up having to make and shoot a Plan C. Particularly when working with a quick turnaround time, it pays to have substitute options as the likelihood of things not going to plan can often be quite high. For the previous focus, I shot some portraits of a mixed martial arts fighter and I wanted to develop this set of pictures further as he had a professional fight at a venue in London Bridge. After organising a press pass and making the necessary arrangements, this option fell through. Deciding that my Plan B didn’t have enough visual and narrative potential, I then moved to a third idea – shooting the mixed martial arts fighter at one of his training sessions. At first, I considered trying to work in a very ordered way, thinking separately about the different photo story elements that we’ve looked at (people at work, human interaction, portraiture and so on). This felt somewhat mechanical, though – these elements have very blurry boundaries and always merge, so it’s difficult to categorise them that way (especially when shooting). Instead, I found it much more productive to shoot in a homogenous way where I was conscious of them all as I worked (but not too conscious), and where I didn’t necessarily set out to capture them each separately. My short picture story is below…..
Last week, Polly Braden, an alumni of our MA programme, spoke to us about her work. One of her comments was that she enjoys shooting with restriction – this is something which, in the last few weeks, I’ve also felt to some degree. At the moment, I have an affinity for fixed focal length prime lenses and the thought processes that they force me to go through when shooting, partly because they require me to physically move around more (as opposed to adjusting a zoom). That’s not to say, though, that a zoom lens can’t be used at fixed focal lengths if you’re disciplined and choose to work this way. I also attended a talk by a film-maker / photographer called Sasha Damjanovski, which I found really valuable. He spoke at length about his experiences as a working professional and gave his own really engaging, useful and down-to-earth perspective on some of the realities of the arts and journalism. Lastly, I went along to the Irving Penn exhibition mentioned in my previous blog. Most of the portraits on show were shot in studio environments and, I think, use light beautifully – sometimes in understated ways and sometimes more dramatically. There’s a stillness and subtlety in his pictures which I find really engaging, made stronger by good printing.
I think it can be difficult, and perhaps not very useful, to define what constitutes a portrait. One thing that emerged from our discussion on portraiture was the control element – the photographer (or person making the picture, whatever the medium) directing what the subject does. In this sense, shooting portraits for this week felt like the antithesis of the work we’ve been doing so far, which has involved shooting with nothing posed or staged. That said, a picture made without any posing or staging can still function very strongly as a portrait.
Because I’ve done a fair amount of portraiture over the last couple of years, both with available light and with flashlight, I went into the shooting for this focus feeling fairly comfortable. My inclination at the moment is to shoot portraits with eyes to camera and with the subject in a setting that gives information about them and conveys a sense of their personality. Arnold Newman’s environmental portraits are a good example of this. This week I also started looking at the portrait work of Irving Penn (being exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment), many of which are studio-based. His use of lighting is really creative and, I think, lends itself really well to black and white pictures with the chiaroscuro transition between dark and light tones.
Our shooting for this focus had no technical parameters, but – contrary to what I would’ve thought – I found myself wanting to shoot with the restrictions that we’ve been sticking to over the last few weeks. Perhaps part of this was because my 50mm prime lens is faster and sharper than my zoom lens, but I do think that getting used to a particular technical set-up can lodge itself into your way of working and – to an extent – have an influence on the overall look of your pictures. I actually found myself, on a few occasions, changing back over to my 50mm lens, even though the more conventional focal lengths for standard portrait work (on a 35mm frame) are usually higher. It’s interesting that people have a natural tendency – a reflex, perhaps – to smile for portrait pictures, and that this can be looked upon as making a portrait less journalistically or artistically credible. I’m not sure if I agree with this notion, especially if a smile is an honest sign of the subject’s personality or mood, or of how they feel about the information about them that’s present in the picture. This is different, I think, to a smile that exists just because a picture is being made and for no other reason.
My first portrait idea was to photograph an elderly lady who works as a chemist not far from where I live. She has a look, I’ve always thought, of worldly wisdom, knowledge and trustworthiness, and I thought that going to her place of work could make an interesting environmental portrait. When I approached her and explained what I wanted to do, these qualities seemed to get replaced with uncertainty, inquisition and doubt! This was the first in a sequence of similar responses from many of the other people I’d thought of. Again, this highlights the importance in documentary photography of access and permission, and of having a toolbox of approaches that can be applied to different situations. In the end, my favourite portrait from this week was of a man who I approached completely unplanned in a marketplace. Below are a couple of my pictures…..
I also read two theory essays this week, one by Roland Barthes and the other by Walter Benjamin. While the language and style of expression in these texts seem more complex than the actual meaning and ideas that are put across, I found some of the material useful. Barthes’s discussion of how the context in which an image appears can change the way it is understood was interesting and, I think, very applicable on a practical level to the everyday usage of pictures.
For this focus, we considered the importance of human relationships and the interaction between people as a key feature of reportage photography. Looking specifically at this element in the work of some of the documentary photographers whose work I really like (I spent some time this week looking at some of the less publicised work of people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Trevor and so on) shows their concern with this area. That said, other photographers whose work I really like – Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for example – don’t use human ‘exchanges’ in an obvious way. Ceylan’s a good example, I think, of someone who has a stillness in his images (not just his photographs but also his cinema) which doesn’t necessarily make his work particularly well-suited to moments of drama, action or animation.
If I look for the human interaction element in my own pictures, it’s a feature that I think has increased in the last year or so (but this hasn’t necessarily been a conscious thing). It’s something I’m keen to explore to a greater degree, so I tried to challenge myself with the shooting for this assignment. Being able to capture moments of interaction felt much more straightforward with subject matter that I had organised (a planned day at a traditional pie and mash shop, for example) than it did working in a more spontaneous way out and about on street locations. Our technical parameters remained the same as for the previous practical assignments, apart from being able to increase our ISO speed to a maximum of 1600 if needed. Just as well, actually – one of the scenarios I photographed was a group in a dimly lit pub where I had to combine high ISO speeds with f-stops as low as 1.4. Ordinarily I’d shoot with bounced flashlight for this type of location but I was forced to work differently and – although it gave a really shallow depth of field to this set of pictures – it made me think in a different visual way. Fewer tools at your disposal, I think, can sometimes lead to more creative decisions; this is definitely something I’ve also found with the cinematography I’ve done on short films and documentaries. It’s the same principle, I guess, as the argument that shooting on film – where your frames are much more limited and costly than when working digitally – can make you think more carefully about each composition, each exposure and each click.
We also had a (packed) session on exploring and using the web as a tool for connecting, networking, publicising and so on. I can certainly see how powerful the potential of the web can be for journalistic and artistic practice (online blogs like this being just one example), though I do think it’s easy to get bogged down with so much online activity that it begins to overtake the more fundamental aspects of your work in terms of the time, effort and constant monitoring involved. It was an informative session but I think everyone in the group felt overwhelmed with the flood of web-based suggestions; choosing how much of this you get involved with is, I guess, about how beneficial these online tools will be for you and how much of it you can realistically maintain.
In the tutorial where we viewed and discussed our pictures, we spoke about how important our body language and reactions to the people around us can be when we’re photographing. On reportage assignments where the intention is to make pictures without your subjects showing awareness that they’re being observed, one of the difficulties as a photographer can be your awareness of yourself. Talking about this with our course leader was useful. Below are some of my pictures…
Our second practical brief was to photograph three different street scenarios. The technical parameters were the same as for our last assignment – a fixed 35mm or 50mm focal length, all settings to be manually controlled (including focus), an ISO no higher than 400 and only use of available light. Again, images would be viewed in black and white.
This felt more open and more challenging than the previous assignment. Before going out to shoot, we spoke about legislation on shooting in public places, the likelihood of confrontation and different ways of dealing with being challenged. My three self-assigned themes were ‘Faces in Marketplaces’ (shot mainly in Petticoat Lane Market), ‘People on Stairs’ and ‘Walls with People’, although the third grew into something much more open. Particularly for my first theme, I did a lot of ‘shooting from the hip’ and after a while I found a quick rhythm with this technique. As much as I love shooting on a 50mm prime lens, I found that a slightly wider lens (like a 35mm) would’ve had some advantages when using this technique. Going home on one of my shooting days, I came across a major road accident and, with my gear on my back, photographed this too.
In our group presentation session, we spoke about dominant faces in our pictures and the Barthes idea of a ‘punctum’ – a detail that encourages some sort of emotional response. We also spoke, perhaps obviously, about how so much in photography is subjective. By the end of this tutorial, I think we all felt a bit ‘over-saturated’ with pictures, so I may do a tighter edit on the upcoming weekly assignments. This week I also read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing which discusses the way social and cultural factors are so strongly bound up with how images are made, processed and received. Here are some of my pictures from this week…
The brief here was to photograph a person ‘doing what they do’. There were a number of technical parameters – a fixed 35mm or 50mm focal length, all settings to be manually controlled (including focus), an ISO no higher than 400 and only use of available light. We would then present a selection of images in black and white.
I photographed a butcher and his workmates on a busy Saturday afternoon. In our group presentation session, the feedback from Homer Sykes and from each other was useful – we discussed composition, context, being aware of the visual information in frame, background, keeping shapes simple, and so on. Here are a few of my pictures…