Turkey in Focus: Four photographers shaping the contemporary scene

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

Selected by Merve Arkunlar, editor of 212 Magazine, we profile the work of Ekin Özbiçer, Ci Demi, Oğulcan Arslan and Kıvılcım S Güngörün

Introduction by Merve Arkunlar

Turkish director and photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s depictions of my homeland are a masterclass in local, visual storytelling. His auteur films and the panoramic photographs collected in his book Turkey Cinemascope (2015) capture the authentic delicacy of his narrative. Ceylan’s words also resonate. During his acceptance speech for the Best Director award for Three Monkeys at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, he described Turkey as “my lonely and beautiful country”. 

Although 15 years have passed, Ceylan’s words remain poignant. In the last two decades, Turkey has experienced many political and social hardships. The country’s beauty is still present, but not as it used to be, with many precious facets such as our heritage, individuality and diversity being misunderstood and often neglected. Nevertheless the Turkish photography scene is thriving. I believe that we are living in the most proactive era of local photographic history. The cities are brimming with eager, emerging photographers. I am constantly discovering and meeting new image-makers pursuing personal stories while still connecting their practice to their home. 

Here, we highlight four photographers who are contributing to the contemporary, sociocultural scene – first published in a special feature in the Tradition & Identity issue of British Journal of Photography

Ci Demi

Words by Diane Smyth

In a video game called GeoGuessr, players are pitched into a random place located via Google Maps and have to work out where they are. The best clues often lie in the street signs, but when Ci Demi started working on his Istanbul-based series Şehir Fikri (Notion of a City) he decided to take them out. Then, he went further and removed the people and animals. “I tend to photograph these quiet moments so at first you’re not sure what’s going on, then you look closer and realise something weird is taking place,” he says. “It’s unclear whether you’re in Istanbul or Turkey or wherever. I love creating that tension.” 

It is an intriguing approach from an image-maker who has devoted himself to Istanbul, his hometown. Demi is a committed street photographer, but his images are not about Istanbul as such. Instead they are a portrait of how the city makes him feel, a personal psychogeography. “Documenting Istanbul is a secondary function of my photographs,” he says. “For most of my stories I want to set a certain emotion. It’s not really a comfortable life here, or at least that’s how it feels to me. It’s crowded, it’s loud, and it’s ever-expanding.” 

cidemi.com

Oğulcan Arslan

Words by Diane Smyth

Oğulcan Arslan was born in İzmir in 1992, to a family originally from Macedonia. His predominantly immigrant neighbourhood was a ghetto, he says, riven by drink and drugs. But his family was radical and he was brought up “a dissident individual”, determined to fight for more. In 2013, he took a frontline role at the political protests in Gezi Park. Arslan has taken a similar approach to his artistic career, pursuing it against the odds. After a knock back from the first university he applied to – which did not understand his images – he moved to Istanbul and worked in a bar while studying for entrance exams to enrol at Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts. He was accepted and graduated first in his year; he’s now finishing his master’s. 

Arslan’s photography constantly moves forward too. His early series Blindness (2015–16) was shot at night in stark black-and-white, while Unsafe (2014–17) is a straighter colour documentary project following Afghan refugees in Istanbul. All The Rivers Flow in the Nuthouse (2018–19) was taken after his friend was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The series has a striking sense of colour, especially red, which his friend often chose to wear. Arslan’s newest series, Put on my Geneva Armour (2017–22), pursues this interest in colour through multiple shades of blue. The images were shot over five years, when his girlfriend was studying in Geneva. He was struck by how safe and strong he felt there, as if wearing protective armour. “Lake Geneva itself guided my choice of colour,” says Arslan. “I’ve photographed it maybe a thousand times, and one day, I realised how much I had absorbed its hue. I looked at the photos I had taken one after the other, and they all stretched towards green between shades of turquoise. Then I asked myself why not try to see everything in these shades, and in that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

ogulcanarslan.com

Ekin Özbiçer

Words by Merve Arkunlar

Born in Istanbul in 1984, Ekin Özbiçer started her creative career as a ceramicist. However, she soon realised that the quiet life was not for her, and wanted to pursue something “less peaceful”. She moved to Prague, where she began to take photographs for the first time. Falling in love with the practice, she studied a one-year course in photography at FAMU. 

After returning to Turkey in 2012, the following year Özbiçer started the series The Blue Flag, taken on summer nights in İzmir, documenting the nightlife of the seaside destinations that run along a single highway on the Aegean coastline. Another series, Replica, depicts a mass-scale simulation experience with the hotel resorts in Antalya. “I believe that misunderstandings have a long history in my homeland,” she says. “Turkey is a confusing and complex country. Everyone has their own [version of] Istanbul, for instance, they look [at it] from their perspective. Everyone acts politically for their own sake but doesn’t have the required political approach in a solution-oriented manner for the future. Are we on the West of the East, or the East of the West? I’m still trying to understand where we stand. Where do we belong?” 

Özbiçer says that it is not always easy to take photos on the streets. “I learned that I have to be a ghost,” she explains. “If I feel that I can’t remove myself from the scene then I won’t take the picture.” Alongside street photography, Özbiçer has made a successful career in fashion photography. She also creates collages with found images online, capturing other aspects of local realities. 

 ekinozbicer.com

Kıvılcım S Güngörün.

Words by Diane Smyth

“When I was little, my sister and I had so many collections – autographs, rubbers, napkins, rubber balls – and even now I like collecting. I have collections of spoons, screws, garbage! But my biggest collection is photography. I really like collecting moments.”  Born in 1992, Kıvılcım S Güngörün has already made thousands of images, grouped in expansive, wide-ranging series. She captures everyday life in Istanbul (Imstantobul), her friends (Kportyu town), her travels around Europe (4 blue old), and herself – specifically her hands holding and stroking (Eldy sir). The images shown below are from I lab yu, a series of collages inspired by her love of collecting. 

“Mainly, it’s about questions,” she explains of the series. “While I was shooting I was collecting questions, things I was asking myself or that I saw on the street. Then I decided to write them down, so that people could find their own answers.” A writer as well as a photographer, Güngörün shares some of these questions on her website and they are by turns funny and thought-provoking. “Does time travel start with a telescope?” reads one, alongside others: “Could a sentence be the draft of reality?”, “Why did I not think before I shoot?”. 

A few months ago, the photographer published a book about Istanbul in the Onagöre publishing house’s ongoing series on the city, and she says there’s plenty going on in the region, in photography and in culture more generally. But, she adds, it helps if you are proactive, with a DIY attitude, and persevere to make things happen. “The Turkish currency is really down right now so it’s difficult to travel,” she says. “But maybe that’s not so important. Maybe it’s nice to have your own scene. We are here, and we are making things, and maybe in five years things will change.” 

kivilcimgungorun.onfotomat.com

212 Photography Istanbul takes place from 06 – 17 October 2022.