Cansu Yıldıran reveals the painful reality behind their latest series

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The Turkish photographer is known for amplifying the voice of the marginalised queer community in their country, but until now has found it difficult to voice that of their own

Today is Friday 12 March. Speaking via video call from Istanbul, Cansu Yıldıran occasionally turns their head and whispers to a person off-screen. Later I discover that this elusive figure is Yıldız – the two only met the Monday before, when the photographer attended a march linked to International Women’s Day at a large public square in the centre of the major Turkish city. Yıldıran barely knows Yıldız, yet here they are opening their home and welcoming the stranger in.

Yıldız was one of five trans women there that day who were hoping to speak at the gathering. Rukan, Hejar, Havin, Güneş and Yıldız are all Kurdish and known LGBTQI+ activists. But as they arrived they were immediately barred from entering the square by the police, already present and waiting. With the protesters’ help, the activists managed to enter the crowd. Despite their efforts, as soon as Yıldız began to make her address, the police made their move.

Eşref'in Çocuğu from the series Fathom, 2020 © Cansu Yildiran.

Modern-day Turkey is an aggressively heteronormative society, run by a deeply patriarchal and authoritarian government. To be Turkish and openly be anything but straight is to risk one’s liberty and freedom.

“We realised the police were about to arrest them, so we decided to try and get them out,” Yıldıran says. At Yıldıran’s urgings, a taxi driver relented and allowed the group of activists to get in. Though they were close, they were unable to get away. The five trans activists were dragged from the car, cuffed and arrested, along with four of their defenders.

At the time of writing, all the detained are yet to appear before a judge. They are all banned from leaving the country, and two of them, including Yıldız, are under house arrest. “Yıldız is in a really difficult situation,” Yıldıran says. “She is homeless and has been kicked out by her family. She’s a sex worker and doesn’t have any safety within the country. So she is staying with me and will remain here for as long as she’s under house arrest.” For Yıldıran, the trans community is family. 

Tersine Baron from the series Fathom, 2020 © Cansu Yildiran.

Yıldıran was born in Istanbul but moved to the mountainous region of north-east Turkey at the age of one. Their mother was from Trabzon, and was the first dentist that the town had ever had. The family visited the village of Çaykara in the Kusmer Highlands each summer. Yıldıran speaks of a deeply conservative, almost tribal upbringing: “Each family has its own valley where they feed their animals. And with the valleys come rules,” they say. 

From their first photographs taken as a teenager, to the images created in the week of our interview – Yıldıran has spent the days photographing Yıldız and her experience – a common thread connects their work. It is a universal enquiry exploring what a home is, and what a home means. Their ongoing series The Dispossessed, for example, is an expressive documentary of Çaykara’s ostracised women – “The women who don’t have a home,” Yıldıran says. “Women are not able to own their homes. It’s part of an old tradition of keeping foreigners and strangers out.” Ownership is forbidden, even when the property is inherited..

Yıldıran’s second series, Shelter, emerged from the experience of leaving the town in their teens, to return to Istanbul. It captures their immersion in the city’s marginalised queer community – a disparate subculture of “outsiders who find shelter in each other,” they say.

The development of Shelter coincided with Yıldıran’s involvement in Istanbul’s documentary scene and world of reportage. They covered charged protests that rocked Turkish society over the last decade: the workers’ protests after the Soma coal-mine disaster; the uprising in Istanbul’s Gezi Square; the rise of virulent extremist sects; a civil war with Kurdistan; a great influx of refugees from Syria; the rising up of a generation of freedom-loving young Turks determined to resist President Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism – to name just a few..

Mala Noche from the series Fathom, 2020 © Cansu Yildiran.

“I would give myself to photography. Photography reminds me of who I am; my own perspective, my own viewpoint. This is how I survive.”

The photographer’s engagement with this turbulent chapter of modern Istanbul brought them a significant audience, connections with established image-makers, such as Cemil Batur Gökçeer and Serra Akcan, and the embrace of the established international photography industry. At the age of 24, today Yıldıran is widely celebrated as an artist and reporter. They have recently gained representation with The Empire Project gallery in Istanbul, and signed a freelance contract with The New York Times to cover protests and civil uprising in Turkey. 

On the surface, Yıldıran lives the life of a wildly talented artist at one with their work and driven by ardent political convictions. They use photography as their weapon. It is how they ensure that they are seen. “The light is my scream,” they say. 

Privately, however, Yıldıran was experiencing a more painful reality. Their personal life felt toxic, leaving them feeling trapped and alone. “I realised it was easy to go outside and scream about what was happening to women in my country,” they say. “But when it came to my own experience, I couldn’t find the ways to express it.” It was photography that filled the gap. “I would give myself to photography,” Yıldıran says. “Photography reminds me of who I am; my own perspective, my own viewpoint. This is how I survive.”

Bir Başkaİklim from the series Fathom, 2020 © Cansu Yildiran.

At the end of 2019, Yıldıran secured a position on a residency for a Turkish initiative titled TAPA – the Transformative Art Project for Activists – designed for artists interested in using their work to affect change. The residency was in a ‘common settlement’ on the outskirts of a village in Turkey’s forested Marmara region. Yıldıran would walk from the settlement into the hills, lurking under dense canopies, caves and waterfalls, thickets and glades. “I didn’t know what I was doing in nature, but I knew that I had to run away from the straitjacket of Istanbul,” Yıldıran says. “So I let what I heard guide me.”

Yıldıran’s latest series is titled Fathom and was created in the forests of Marmara during the residency. It explores, “another kind of disconnection, of not being able to have a home in society,” they explain.“’Queer’ has been photographed thousands of times in Turkey, but only its outer surface. Yet this is not our only reality. So I ran to the deep.”

Fathom was created intuitively. It recalls fairy tales and folklore from Yıldıran’s childhood, and melds the photographer’s dreams with those of fellow activist-artists. The artists recalled their earliest memories, the dawning realisation they weren’t straight, the fear and anxiety that pursued them privately before they found the bravery to come out. 

Lilith'in Bakışı from the series Fathom, 2020 © Cansu Yildiran.

With these discussions fresh, Yıldıran led the subjects into the woods at night to capture them against the darkness. The images were shot on film, and not developed until their return to Istanbul. They did not know what they were shooting in the forests. But as they pressed the shutter, Yıldıran thought of the many queer people, like Yıldız, and those who have disappeared or who have succumbed to taking their own life. They wondered whether there could be a connection between the living and dead, and if Fathom might act as a memorial to all the queer people who have offered each other shelter.

Fathom is an exploration of what it means to be queer for Yıldıran. Deep within, an attempt to visualise the fabric of who they are. It’s the work of someone pushing through a forest at night, unafraid to push further – even when it might be easier to turn back. For, hidden within, lies some place they might call home.