A fortnight after Emine Gozde Sevim arrived in Arizona as a high school scholarship student, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. “It made me realise how powerful an image can be – how pictures can serve as a record,” she says, by phone from her apartment in New York. “If nobody makes a record, we can’t connect to what happened in the same way.”
She took up photography soon afterwards. As a child, Sevim had adored making little films with a video camera but, until 9/11, she’d had no real contact with photography proper, she says. She grew up in Istanbul, “which differs from the rest of Europe – visual culture is not paid much attention”.
Born in Turkey, with Afghan roots on her mother’s side, she felt personally as well as intellectually affected by 9/11. “It felt like a big historical breaking point, that the world was separating into East and West, more distant than they had ever been,” she says. “I was being educated in America, and I come from a pretty liberal family, so I felt like I was in the West but my past was in the East. I became more interested in my background. Photography was a means of recording that and also a way to contribute to the narrative.”
In 2007, she took her grandfather back to Kabul – a city he hadn’t seen since leaving with his wife and young family in 1975. The experience was emotional, to say the least. “I don’t think we saw a single building that wasn’t touched by the war,” she says. “It was a different way for me to engage with my grandfather and to engage with Afghanistan… I knew I was looking at things from a western perspective, and I knew things must be more complicated than that. Most of what we had seen of the country was about death and, to be honest, I was a little exhausted with that. I wanted to see life.”
Her curiosity prompted trips to other parts of the Middle East, including Israel and the West Bank, “because for everybody in Middle East, Palestine is a big, big question”.
“Since 9/11 there’s always something happening in this part of the world,” she says. “It feels as though there is an unfinished history that’s trying to find its course. It’s really detrimental to the people who live there.”
Her series Embed in Egypt, pictured here, first took shape with the Tunisian uprising in December 2010. “I was in New York, watching what was happening, and when it spread to Egypt the following month I became very interested,” she says. “Egypt is the largest Arabic country, with 80 million people. I thought, if something is going to happen here, it’s important because it’s going to have a big influence on the rest of the Arab world.”
Even so, she didn’t go there straight away. “There were so many photojournalists there already and my focus as a photographer is not really about the event itself. I’m looking for something else beneath it,” she explains. What we receive from the news is someone’s perception of the events, so you never really get the full story.”
She arrived in Cairo in November, just before the parliamentary elections. “At that time, I wasn’t thinking I was there to do a photographic project. I didn’t know what next chapter of my life would be,” she says. “I just wanted to go and live that period of history. But I fell in love with the culture, the people, with the pure idea behind what was happening.”
Two or three weeks later, the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes began and Sevim found herself in the heat of a second revolution. “Forty people died in one week, and the state went on with the elections as if nothing had happened. It seemed completely disconnected. That was the moment I realised that there is an internal life to history – the stuff that’s not very newsworthy – as well as an external one. There was this feeling of tension in the air and of historical change slowly walking forward, but real life went on all around us. You’d have millions of people protesting in the square, and then two blocks away people would be just sitting drinking tea.”
Sevim began trying to photograph the disconnect she was feeling. At first, captivated by the almost neon hues of Egypt’s streets, she photographed in colour, but she soon turned to black-and-white to capture her feelings. “I realised that I wasn’t trying to describe the current situation; it was something more nostalgic and emotional, and black-and-white felt more relevant,” she says. “It was also a clarification that these were not news photographs.”
Sevim visited Egypt every two months between December 2011 and August of the following year, and stayed for six months during 2013. She made a group of very close local friends while she was there, whose thoughts and points of view informed her storytelling. “For me, they set the mood,” she says. “When these events start out, young people feel such hope. But then they start losing friends, and have friends go into jail, and even when they want to withdraw from what is happening, they can’t. You realise as an individual how little you are as a citizen, that even a collective movement may take years to come about. This kind of darkness at a young age is what I wanted to portray.”
She also felt the darkness creeping towards her, in particular in the wave of sexual violence that started to overwhelm the city in 2013. “During the anniversary of the revolution there were about 19 rapes – I was there at that time,” she says. “I have a photograph of a man in the street using a gas canister to protect a woman from a mob. I was shooting it from on top of a building and coincidentally this woman came into the building to escape. Then the mob began attacking the building, trying to get in. I hid, because not only was I a woman, but I was a foreigner. I was lucky.”
Even so, she believes the country will recover, and remains passionate about it. “I haven’t been back since last year, but I am in touch with my friends and the mood is still changing,” she says. “But even if things aren’t happening the way we want them to, the idea won’t disappear. It’s like a relationship – the reconciliation is going to take a long time. Sometimes that makes me feel hopeless. Life will always go on, but once you’ve experienced what happened there, it’s impossible not to care about it and be a part of it. It chips away at you.”