Give me shelter

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Identity politics looms large for many young Turkish photographers. Not least Cansu Yıldıran, whose work explores her roots in the Kusmer highlands, and her adopted community in Istanbul

Cansu Yıldıran smiles at me nervously. We’re on video link, and she is in the kitchen of her home in Istanbul. On her left is her friend Eren, the designated translator for the interview, and on her right is another photographer, Çağdaş Erdoğan, a vocal supporter of her work. Squashed between the two of them, Yıldıran is noticeably younger than both, and about half as tall. Her head is shaved at the back and sides, and a mass of curls mesh on top of her head. While answering my questions in a low, hushed monotone, Yıldıran hugs her elbows and stares intently at the table in front of her. She speaks while making the minimum of eye contact, before jumping in as Eren translates, keen to add to and revise her response.

Erdoğan and Yıldıran, I notice, are both wearing the same nail varnish. Erdoğan was the person who introduced me to Yıldıran’s work, in an email detailing how he was “in love” with the quality of her photography. It’s clear the two are close. Indeed, Erdoğan appears in Yıldıran’s major photography series, titled Shelter. He’s lying on the floor, seemingly asleep, naked, his dreadlocks, beard and chest hair dark and chaotic against the gleaming squares of the white tiles [page 70, top]. To add intimacy to the picture, Yıldıran’s bare feet are visible in the shot as she leans over him with her camera.

They met, they tell me, as photographers of the anti-government protests that took place throughout 2016 in Gazi, an impoverished suburb of north-western Istanbul known for its population of Turks of Kurdish heritage. Pictures of the protests are interweaved throughout Control, Erdoğan’s series published as a book by Akina and selected for our Ones To Watch issue in 2017. And they were later used against him when he fell foul of the government, accused of “insulting the Turkish flag and the office of President Erdoğan”, and of being a supporter of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Initially imprisoned for six months, he faces a maximum sentence of 22 years when his case comes to trial this year.

From the series Shelter © Cansu Yıldıran
From the series Shelter © CansuYıldıran

A mere glance at the photographs suggests the Gazi riots were a tinderbox of tension and latent violence. It’s difficult to imagine the girl before me roving amidst the weapon-wielding protesters, or caught up among the armoured riot police. Yet covering protest has been a key aspect of her early experience as a photographer, she tells me. Indeed, the first image visible on her website is of a violent protest surrounding the closure of the Cerattepe gold mine in Artvin [page 70, below], in north-eastern Turkey. It’s a haunting image – a sea of heads moving in one motion, the exposure of Yıldıran’s camera mapping their movement in tendrils of light, abstracting each person’s facial expression. “I wanted to witness something that will without doubt leave a trace in history,” she says. “I wanted to witness the history around me. I made the choice to witness it, not be sat in a classroom.”

Around the same time as the protests rocked Istanbul, Yıldıran dropped out of her course at Marmara University’s photography department. She sensed bigger things were going on around her, and she was scared at the prospect of not capturing them. “I am more erudite with a camera. I was sacrificing too much time in academia. I didn’t want to miss the momentum.” It would be a mistake to confuse Yıldıran’s retiring body language with a lack of determination. She talks about her work lucidly, with humour and brevity, honesty and compassion. Fusing intimate portraits with candid personal reportage, landscape, nature, still life and performative works, she exhibits in her photography a blend of the confessional, relational introspectiveness you might find in Nan Goldin’s early work, or the spontaneity and anarchist sense of transgression of Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust.

Shelter is comprised primarily of portraits of Yıldıran’s social group in Istanbul. She met some of these compatriots at Marmara University, and the work is, in some ways, exactly what you might expect from a group of youthful art students – expressive men and women caught in dramatic moments of private release and liberation.

From the series Shelter © CansuYıldıran

“I was a child when I realised that I did not have an identity. I was trying to push against an identity within which I was imprisoned. This search of mine, in time, turned into an escape”

From the series Shelter © CansuYıldıran
From the series The Dispossessed © CansuYıldıran

What separates Yıldıran is her range and her style – her ability to fuse seemingly disparate images into a cogent, atmospheric whole; to capture the ephemeral and, through judicious sequencing, give them a weight and significance that might evade the image in isolation. Here, then, is a photographer capable of capturing life’s more intense, and more confusing, moments of intimacy. But – more than that – here’s an aesthete also eerily adept at using contrast, focus, saturation and exposure to impact on the shape and texture of those intimate moments. Some images are pin-point sharp, others have actively used an elongated shutter speed on a moving subject, resulting in a blurred, frenzied ghost of a portrait.

This understanding of storytelling through form as well as content might be traced back to another mentor, Kürşat Bayhan (also a Ones To Watch, in 2015). Yıldıran describes Bayhan, with whom she is currently collaborating on an unseen series, as “both a brother and a master”, and he has been instrumental in organising and supporting a community of young photographers in Istanbul, helping to set up a loose association of artists who call themselves the SO Collective. Bayhan is also an avowed student of the Provoke movement, named after the underground Japanese photography magazine that expressed an avidly anti-authoritarian and avant-garde sentiment in the reformation of the country after the Second World War.

Seen today, it’s easy to conceive why photographers caught in a comparably authoritarian climate would view it as such an inspiration. To me, the work of another leading figure in postwar Japanese photography, Masahisa Fukase (and particularly The Solitude of Ravens), is also evident in Yıldıran’s work. Although Fukase oversaw the book’s publication in 1986, and was working in the lineage of the Provoke movement, his use of flocks of birds, photographed in grainy monochrome, as a way to express his grief following a divorce, is mirrored in another work by Yıldıran, titled The Dispossessed.

From Mülksüzler and Woman Paper Visa © Cansu Yıldıran

The series explores her experience of her ancestral home in Trabzon, where her mother grew up, and the town of Çaykara and the surrounding Kusmer highlands, where Yıldıran spent the summers as a child. Returning there as an adult she realised, “this is where I wanted to throw down my roots”, she writes in a text that accompanies the work. “I would later learn that there was a reason we did not have a home here – the reason that we went as guests every summer since I was a child was that while men could own property in this highland village, women did not have this right. Ever since I learned about this, I realised that what I was running away from was a point of belonging and not belonging, a light, a ‘thing’. My story started from this point… I was looking for my own identity in the time and space that I owned in the city. Or I was trying to escape within the identity I was imprisoned in. The walls, the noise of the street, the laughter, the pace and everything else belonging to city life were like the lyrics to a song written about my losing my identity. The light was my scream.” Using birds and cattle as a motif against more classical documentary portraits and studies of the town’s natural climes, Yıldıran finds a visual way to communicate this burning injustice.

British photographer George Georgiou, who used to live in Turkey, and returns frequently, met Yıldıran at a portfolio review at BursaPhotoFest in 2016. “Most of what I saw was amateurish, but she stood out,” he says. “She couldn’t speak English, and she was very shy, but we managed to get a couple of people to translate.” Yıldıran showed Georgiou an early edit of The Dispossessed. “Her approach and her story were still a little confused at that point,” he says. “She had to direct herself more, but I could see she was trying to tell a personal story that encompassed her regional identity, female identity, her sexual orientation and her family identity.”

Georgiou encouraged her to invest time in the photography community of Istanbul. A year later, he met her again by chance at a photobook workshop in the city. “I could see that she’d connected with people, and I could tell that she’d come on leaps and bounds,” he says. “It’s a grave situation in Turkey – but she’s part of a generation of young artists who are starting to find ways to challenge the government through photography. But you have to find subtle ways to do it, and the best way to do that is to turn inwards and explore identity politics.”

Yıldıran isn’t the first Turkish photographer to explore Istanbul’s LGBT community. “But she’s not an outsider looking in,” Georgiou says. Yıldıran defines herself as a “queer artist”. There’s a specificity to the term that relates to her generation – a generation that, in general, does not give heed to the binary notions of femininity or masculinity, or the old heterosexual expectations of how one should express one’s gender or sexuality. But it also relates to the context in which she strives to exist. Yıldıran, to be blunt, is not merely trying to tell us she’s into girls. She’s making a broader point about the need to wrest control of one’s identity by not being forced to define it. Her photography, she says, is based in “an exploration, a looking, for a sense of belonging”. She’s making a claim about the right to be free to choose who she is in a society that aggressively expects its citizens to conform, with potentially dire consequences for those who might be tempted to resist.

From the series The Dispossessed © CansuYıldıran

“I was a child when I realised that I did not have an identity,” she writes in the text for The Dispossessed. “I was trying to push against an identity within which I was imprisoned. This search of mine, in time, turned into an escape.” Yıldıran points out that she is not the only person to seek such an escape. Many Turks from across the country’s diverse ethnic cultures and backgrounds migrate to the same districts of Istanbul to seek a new life. “They carry their own backgrounds and culture with them,” she says. “They were marginalised because of their lifestyles. But they form a new life with the people they feel relevant to in terms of their own mindset, culture and identity.” But, she’s keen to point out, “The most basic concern of these groups is to exist.”

And that’s the nub. Yıldıran’s work will not, one imagines, be entirely pleasing for Turkey’s new legion of censors. The authoritarianism that has gripped Turkey over the last decade is of a rigidly masculine bent. They do not welcome any sort of expressionism that does not fit within their worldview. The country has recently locked up more journalists and artists than the single party behemoth of China. Yıldıran only has to look to her mentors – Erdoğan is facing charges of apparent terrorist involvement, while other photographers in the community have lost their jobs without warning.

Yet one gets the impression she will not be easily cowed – just ask her mother. Yıldıran was, by her own admission, hard work to raise. “When I was seven or eight, I would grab things,” she says. “My mother was prudent enough to hide the camera from me. But I managed to find it and took it to school.” She was photographing her school mates playing football when the ball flew towards her and smashed the camera. “My mother talked about it for years,” she says. By the time she was 13, she had just started the first grade of high school in Bartın, a city close to the Black Sea. One day, her mother searched high and low for her credit card. Yıldıran had stolen it, made her way into the city centre and procured her first camera. But there was, she says, a lineage to her behaviour. In the mid 1960s, Yıldıran’s maternal grandfather, a man called Mehmet Ali Durgun, left his village to travel alone to Germany. He remained there as a so-called ‘gastarbeiter’ for 18 years before returning to Turkey in 1984. He passed away at the age of 83. Yıldıran is just about old enough to remember him. When he was an immigrant in Germany, Mehmut would take photographs. “The camera became a friend for him,” she says. “I think, if he met Cartier- Bresson, he would have been a Magnum photographer.”

From Mülksüzler and Woman Paper Visa © Cansu Yıldıran

She speaks of a photograph her grandfather took at the Eiffel Tower, which she found many years later, in the detritus of the family home. In the foreground of the picture a couple kiss passionately. But look carefully and another figure is visible – a leering character, “leaning in and looking like a stalker,” she says. The stalker’s presence offsets the tone of the image, creating dimensions and perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. “I use him as inspiration,” Yıldıran says. “When I reflect on the memory of my grandfather – his intuitive manner of capturing great aesthetic standards without any formal education – I know I can achieve the same.”

Yıldıran’s chosen profession and lifestyle has caused her family some stress. “They were reluctant to look at my work, and insisted I find another profession,” she says. But there are signs she will be in photography for some time. When her work was exhibited in Istanbul last year, her family tentatively turned up. What was their reaction to her photographs? “They were in tears,” she says. “They have made their peace.”

This article was originally published in issue #7883 of British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.