On The Road:
Images of Turkey from the Nar Photos Archive*
For Turkish version, please click here
This interiew was made for the exhibition which took place at İstanbul Modern between 28 May - 09 November 2014
In what kind of atmosphere did Nar Photos emerge? What necessitated it?
The necessity emerged from a perspective which gave shape to photography in Turkey after the coup of 1980, while touching upon the social sphere with the political wind of the 1970s; a perspective which was based more on aesthetics and a sort of visual “ode” than content and function. In Turkey, photography as a practice was shaped by photographic societies; it was through the standards they set and the knowledge they provided that all photographers came into their own. With the impact of communications networks, which developed toward the 2000s, began a period in which we became more integrated with the world. What brought us together were the activities of the Photography Foundation established during those years, our prior experiences, plus the workshops we did with children following the Marmara Earthquake in 1999. One of the most important activities the Photography Foundation carried out after it was established was the joint workshop it held with World Press Photo, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of photography. This workshop opened up the minds of a young generation of photographers in Turkey in a magnificent way. Actually, it was thanks to this workshop that we started to learn documentary photography and photojournalism, already practiced around the world since the 30s and 40s; we learned about writing captions, about the relationship between photograph and text, planning a photographic story from the initial idea to the editing stage, and archiving methods. And it was, again, thanks to this workshop that the strange myths in our minds were turned upside down. For example, one of the myths about photography in Turkey was that “a good image needs no text.” Whereas, if you are dealing with documentary and press photography, the relationship between image and text is an indispensable one. At that time, everyone was in search of something. Just as we were thinking “we do not embrace this form and language of photography which is imposed on us; but what path do we take? What model do we pursue?”, the workshop, in a way, showed us that path. Besides this, another problem we were faced with as young photographers in Turkey was that there was no organized structure or collective in this field. We thought of Magnum and a few similar agencies as being rather magical, yet, even though we were not sure where to begin, what to do and how to do it, at least we were sure about what we would not do. In the end, there were 6 or 7 of us who decided to come together and form an association so that we could use the language of documentary photography and interviews to tell about our environment and do this within a certain discipline. Though we do attach importance to photography as an end in itself , there were other issues that were just as important for us, such as how we would use the photographs and what all these works would say politically.
How do you distinguish your work from documentary photography, which has a particular language and style, established since the 1960s?
The fundamental difference between the dynamics that shaped Nar Photos and what it refused was that we believed that someone who is only interested in photography does not understand anything about life and no activity is really meaningful by itself. If we are to speak in terms of the practice of photography in Turkey, what usually gave shape to photography at that time was something that was, again, intrinsic to photography (for example, the fact that the aesthetics or form of a single frame was the ultimate goal); most of the works produced were done in the logic of “odes". Whereas for us, content was more crucial and we aimed to produce more forward-looking, factual works. We believed that what we did was closer to the field of communications than aesthetics. We know that each photograph we take is a visual interpretation of a specific subject and that it is produced through a certain political prism. To us, this means choosing a specific subject, looking in a specific direction. There is actually a very political answer to the question of why we choose one subject and not the other. For example, when we were selecting photos for the exhibition On the Road, rather than asking “what is happening in Turkey?” we preferred to ask ourselves the questions “What was it that we saw? What was of value and importance to us? What were the events and facts that had an impact on Turkey’s social and political life?” First of all, we are not people who are interested in photography per se. Rather than photography’s mechanical, aesthetic, or formal aspects, we are interested in its function, in the fact that it is a tool. The second and more important part is the question of what our photographs will change in both our and other’s lives. Our premise is that every photograph is taken for other people. When you show someone a picture, you want to effect a change in that person. We know we can’t change the world through photography, but we do question whether we could, at least, create some shift in opinions, make up for missing information, and whether we could make ourselves, and also the viewers, take a more critical look at the subjects we deal with, a look that is more concerned with the world; and a more critical look at ourselves as well. What was missing in the previous generation was that everyone did this job with a certain sense of completeness and placed awkward titles in front of their names. Whereas what determines us is not our rank but our relationship with life and people. This actually has more to do with the way we relate to life than with photography itself.
Besides the subjects you treat of individually, you also collectively publish feature stories and videos. How do you manage to establish the balance between individuality and collectivity at Nar Photos?
Everyone has their own agenda, but sometimes, like in Merhabarev and Million Dollar View (Milyonluk Manzara), we also have projects which we plan on carrying out together. Our collective work manifests itself both in spot-news photographs and in more long-term documentary stories. When you follow a an event with a social impact there will be more than one photographer at the scene. Standing in different spots and photographers with differing viewpoints is to our advantage. For photography is a highly personal adventure. When you’re on the street it’s just you and what you have before you; but once the job is over, in the final stage, everyone has a say and it becomes the product of a collective act in which we express our opinions, discuss, and convince one another. In long-term, slow-paced projects too, like Merhabarev and Million Dollar View, it is a collaborative process that takes place, both idea-wise and action-wise; from developing the idea and deciding on how the shooting will be carried out to selecting the photos and preparing them for publication as a book or for an exhibition.
While you were an agency working mainly on feature stories, your news photographs also earned much acclaim. What steered you toward this field?
The distinctions between news photography and documentary photography are not ones that prevent the two from intermingling. On the other hand, though the two lines of work we pursue use different means and methods, they actually point to the same thing. If the street is the space of events, documentary photography is the space of facts. For example, the reason we were all outside taking photos during the Gezi resistance was because the streets were calling us, with all that was happening at that moment. But all of the events pointed to a body of facts; facts such as urban transformation, how much of a say we have over the city, our relationship with those in power, and the growing authoritarianism. Again, the fact that Million Dollar View and the Gezi Resistance happened one after the other is an example of how it is both events and facts that make us all converge in one place. Considering that more than half of us are photographers who live in Istanbul, we were ashamed of not having produced photographs providing significant data about this city since the agency was founded. After having collectively settled on the method, we produced Million Dollar View, a year-long project attempting to reveal what is happening on Istanbul’s periphery, partly exploring the urban transformation process and partly showing the consequences of the forced change to which the city has been subjected for the past ten years. Just as we were preparing to open an exhibition of these works, the Gezi events broke out and we had to postpone the show. Actually, Gezi, in other words what happened on the streets, was the very phenomenon of change forced on the city, which we had been exploring, as reflected on the street in its most crystallized form. In these terms, even though the technique, method, and photographic language of these two projects are different, actually, in terms of Nar Photos’ agenda, they represent the same thing and look at the same place.
What does Nar Photos aim to show? How do you choose your subjects and according to what criteria? Do you have specific principles or guidelines?
Taking photographs in the street and then evaluating and filtering them out are two separate stages. If photography is a form of representation, we see ourselves as being obligated to capture and select the “right” parts of any fact or event. If you present a highly exceptional scene that happens just once at a particular moment as if it were the photograph of an event, you will convey the information that the entire process happened in that way. It’s not much different from extracting a single word from a long sentence and presenting it as if it were a main idea. Therefore, one thing to which we attach as much importance as the shooting process is how to select the photographs and what long sentence they will form once they are put together. On the other hand, there are two tendencies when it comes to selecting a subject and working on it: Though it is not openly admitted, there is always a hidden list in the photography scene which changes from one era to the other. The mainstream is interested in the sensational aspects of these kinds of dramatic subjects, and drama always sells. Actually, the lists of the social sciences and of photography are approximately the same. For example, if sociologists are dealing with gender so are photographers. Genders is a very important and painful issue, but, let’s face it, it is also a trend for social scientists and photographers alike. Either you can truly attach importance to the subject and work to divulge the background of the issue and present a novel and critical view, or you can do this by using the most exceptional examples, going after what is striking, and exposing it. Nar Photos is not after what is speculative; trends do not always determine us as we are interested in what is really happening and we try to filter these out. We don’t believe that everything can be photographed. We don’t think that the world is an area that is arranged for photographers to take pictures of and for social scientists to study it.
You mostly focus on topics in Turkey which remain invisible, unspoken, in the shadows. Does Nar Photos have a political stance? Does this affect impartiality; is impartiality a must?
We must accept that impartiality is a big myth of mainstream journalism. If you are giving voice to a topic and transmitting a reality from one place to another, the least you should do is make a choice of words. A very simple example: “The invasion of Iraq” and “war in Iraq.” On the surface, they both express approximately the same thing, but, in terms of the words chosen, they lead us in quite different directions. Thus, as a natural consequence of life, impartiality is impossible and it isn’t something we defend anyway. Everyone should do what they do as a party and should also show it. To look as if you’re impartial and advance a proposition while claiming that you stand in the middle is, first of all, a great immorality. But we can think of objectivity in other terms; showing reality without distorting it while respecting the truth will not harm your impartiality and will, furthermore, increase your credibility. In the photos we take, we avoid being sexist, discriminatory, or exhibitionist. We try not to humiliate and put anyone in a difficult position, and we try to be respectful to all subjects included in our photographs. This is not just an attitude toward photography, but toward life as well. Thus, Nar Photos attempts to do this job in its most subjective form while trying not to distort the reality it looks at; in short, without lying. Actually, what we’re trying to do is to show what side we’re on, but on condition of not lying.
It must be difficult to be independent and stay that way, especially in the media industry. Have you had any experiences in this area and how do you manage?
One of the reasons we are able to be independent and stay that way is that we have no money. We don’t mean “we wish we had money” when we say that. No doubt it doesn’t mean that we’re happy not to have money either. But any relationship established through money and finance takes you to a certain point and bonds you to that point. In a sense it’s a “use-use” relationship. Though this does complicate our lives, it also facilitates our perspective. The “sponsors” – by the way, we love saying that! – of our exhibition Million Dollar View were around 50 of our friends who volunteered to support the show. “Solidarity” and “Sponsorship” involve highly different relationships and engagements.
What’s your dream for Nar Photos in the future?
We don’t really have a dream or a goal we wish to attain. We’re on a long road and we always try to work a day at a time. What we do may not be of any value today, but we do realize that we have to accumulate, to be aware of the times, and to look at those times not from today’s perspective but by projecting them forward and looking at them from that point; and we can feel that we are gradually gaining this ability. We believe that all that we go through during this process will acquire a different significance in the future and will serve as real data for the next generation and the one after that. And because we believe we do it without lies or hypocrisy, our minds are truly at ease.