On Location: Five photographic highlights of Istanbul

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From the series Slow Sleep © Bartu Kaan.

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

Istanbul-based editor Merve Arkunlar picks out some of the city’s best spaces to enjoy photography

I have lived in the Kadıköy neighbourhood of Istanbul for 30 years; it is a beautiful, mesmerising city. It is also a place of constant change and where the duality of the East and West maintains its tension. I started to make a visual diary of the city in 2007. By collecting postcards, photobooks and encyclopaedias, I realised that I was living in a city of treasures. 

Shortly after graduating I worked at a private museum, where capturing images of the city was a large part of my job. It was a great experience but, in some ways, disappointing to witness how little progress was being made to expand the art world. There seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm for building new opportunities with the art and culture scene heavily reliant on private sector donations and support. Government funding is allocated only for ‘a certain type of culture’, pertaining to traditional forms of thought and production. In 2010, Istanbul was voted European Capital of Culture and hosted several multidisciplinary events and international collaborations. Cultural life was vivid, packed with new gallery openings and initiatives – a melting pot of diverse structures and artistic hubs.

The city’s multicultural heritage and diverse demographic remain strong. However, urban gentrification threatens Istanbul’s traditions, culture and local life. In the last 20 years, a number of remarkable places from my visual diary have vanished or lost their connection with culture and arts. Some artists have moved away, but many have kept the faith, contributing to a photography scene that is more productive than ever.

Today, there are many promising independent photographic spaces, focused on developing photography, publishing, documentation and print. Here, we round up five of the city’s best spaces for photography. 

Onagöre

Meşrutiyet, Tuğrul Sk

Onagöre is a design and research studio, focusing primarily on urban history and photography. Founded by artist, editor and curator Ali Taptık, the studio creates databases of visual archives, conducts research on the local area, and designs exhibitions within it. Since 2020, “due to [having more time] as a result of the pandemic isolation,” says Taptık, the studio has been championing its photobook publishing arm. “We aim to develop a sustainable and consistent publishing practice,” he continues. “Since the first day we dreamed of the project, our desires and the values – to be as local, transparent and inclusionary as we can – have not changed and have moulded our publishing practice. We will keep building it as a company run by artists.” Recently, Onagöre hosted a pop-up shop at Postane, a historical building formerly known as the British Post Office of Galata (the original name of the Karaköy neighbourhood), which has been renovated into a co-working space for artists and activists.

FiLBooks

Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa, Ali Paşa Değirmeni Sk.

Founded by photographer and visual storyteller Cemre Yeşil Gönenli in 2015, FiLBooks is a hub of activity where you can sip a freshly brewed coffee while flicking through a range of photobooks. Started as a bookshop and cafe in the hip district of Karaköy, it has evolved to include a small publishing house, organising workshops, book launches and artist talks. Its digital platform, FiLBooks Online, also offers online mentorship programmes on photographic and artistic output with the likes of Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, Stuart Smith of Gost Books, Gary McLeod and Ana Casas Broda among the many industry professionals offering advice and knowledge.

212 Photography Istanbul

06–16 October, various locations

212 Photography Istanbul is Turkey’s annual international photography festival, launched in 2018 as an extension of Istanbul’s biannual culture and arts magazine, 212. Celebrating its fifth edition, the festival, which this year takes place from 06 to 16 October, offers an opportunity to foster interdisciplinary dialogue through the shared language of photography. The 11-day event is directed by Banu Tunçağ and brings together some 500 artists to showcase work at 15 locations across the city. These include historical and cultural centres, galleries and outdoor venues on both the Asian and European sides of the city. This year, the Beşiktaş Square will host a pop-up exhibition titled SK8, reflecting on the city’s growing skateboarding trend as a form of self-expression for local youth. Other highlights include Our Dearest Friends, Animals, on show at the Akaretler Sıraevleri, which considers the natural world and the wonders of animal and human coexistence, bringing together animal portraiture from Walter Chandoha, Martin Parr, Hellen van Meene, Tim Flach, William Wegman, and more. Elsewhere, a programme of talks, workshops, music and dance performances, film screenings and, for the first time, food-tasting events alongside shows of food photography, will run throughout the event.

Border_less ArtBook Days

Rasimpaşa Mh, Yurttaş Sk

Seeking to bring together image and text from artists worldwide, Border_less is a dynamic online space. Founded by Huo Rf and Melek Gençer, it publishes creative, personal and abstract pieces, as well as critical conversations ruminating on the art industry. The multilingual platform also hosts a yearly bookfair called ArtBook Days. The event, which next takes place in May 2023, has become a popular meeting place for the city’s independent publishers, art professionals, art book-makers, curators, editors, artists, and other creatives. Border_less also hosts an annual open call for artists seeking to publish their first book. Last year’s book fund was awarded to Işıl Eğrikavuk for her artistic/academic project From A Political Protest to an Art Exhibition: Building Interconnectedness Through Dialogue-Based Art.

Versus Art Project

Kuloğlu, Hanif Han, Dernek Sk 

Versus Art Project is one of the most prominent Turkish galleries in contemporary, lens-based art. Co-founded in 2015 by the Ünsal siblings, Leyla and Mert, the space is located in Taksim, the busy historical centre of Istanbul. The gallery prides itself on supporting emerging and more established Turkish artists, many of whom originate from, and are still based in, the city. Larissa Araz, Ege Kanar, Metehan Özcan, Selim Süme, Yusuf Murat Şen and Serkan Taycan are all part of the portfolio.