One of the major appeals of Istanbul is that there are always art exhibitions and cultural events right at your fingertips. Yet FotoIstanbul, Istanbul’s only comprehensive photography festival, has really taken this to a new meaning, at least for me. Organised by the Beşiktaş Belediyesi, this festival is staged at various venues in Beşiktaş and Ortaköy, one of which happens to be just down the street from my apartment.
Seeing the Orphanage in Ortaköy, a familiar sight on my walk home, from a new and different perspective proved to be transformative – it was no longer an empty, decrepit building, but rather a home and shelter for the lives of so many. Similarly, the site of a collapsed building close to the Beşiktaş ferry terminal was cleared of rubble and opened to the public as an open-air exhibition space. Taking a page out of the Biennial’s playbook, the organisers of this year’s FotoIstanbul have redefined and repurposed space. The resulting fracture between expectation and reality gives the viewer a chance to consider the works on display – in this case, photographs of others’ lives – when their defenses are down.
The repurposed Orphanage in Ortaköy
A festival, though, is more than its exhibition space. What makes FotoIstanbul so compelling are the impressive photographers (and there are many) on display. I was particularly thrilled by the exhibition’s focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. While photographs of this area of the world often contain Orientalist undertones (or, in some cases, are overtly so), the projects included in FotoIstanbul generally don’t essentialise or exoticise, and in many cases the photographers themselves hail from the region. As a whole, the festival felt like an honest attempt to show the lives of others.
In her project ‘1915’, the Armenian-American photographer Diana Markosian tells the stories of three survivors of the First World War, all over the age of 100 and living in Armenia. She travelled to Turkey to retrace their steps, bring back a piece of their memory and fulfil a wish for each one. The large-scale colour photographs of these three facing mementos from their past in Turkey are poignant without being exaggerated.
Tanya Habjouqa documents the more ludicrous aspects of everyday life that have come out of the 47-year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Focusing on what may be considered the most mundane moments, Habjouqa demonstrates how Palestinians don’t allow their sorrow over the conflict to define their existence. After soaking in her images, it will come as no surprise that she won the World Press Award in 2014 for this series.
Two of Stanley Greene’s photographs on display at the Orphanage
The accomplished photojournalist Stanley Greene takes us to the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh in his project ‘Chalk Lines’, which is a direct reference to the outlines made around dead bodies during a crime scene. Greene, who describes himself as ‘not of the digital school’, aims to share the untold stories, especially after the big story has died down. His black and white photographs show life in the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a region in Azerbaijan populated primarily by ethnic Armenians, during and after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory, which ran from 1988 to 1994.
One of Esa Ylijaasko’s photographs on display at the Orphanage
In his project ‘A Paradise Full of Song’, the Finnish photograph Esa Ylijaasko documents the Syrian Kurdish refugee community who settled into ruined houses in the district around Süleymaniye Mosque. The black and white photographs show lives that have stagnated, and the photographs' imperfections, which suggest that Ylijaasko shot on film, add a grittiness that is both literal and figurative.
One of Lela Ahmadzai’s photographs of the singer Pary Kholamy
Perhaps the most engrossing series in this festival is ‘Undaunted: Four Women in Kabul – Their Struggles and Dreams’, a long-term project by the multimedia journalist Lela Ahmadzai. Housed in shipping containers near the Beşiktaş ferry terminal, this series documents the lives of four women in Kabul: Shinkai Karokhail is a member of parliament, Reza Guel operates her own bakery, Saba Sahar works as a police officer and producer of detective films and Pary Kholamy is a singer. The photographs of each woman are displayed with their own descriptions of their lives in Kabul, which together create a detailed narrative of their triumphs and trials.
While these were the highlights for me, almost all of the photographers I saw captured the lives of others from a unique perspective. There truly is something for everyone (really, I promise). You can find the festival at the historic Orphanage in Ortaköy, the Beşiktaş pier, Serencebey on Barbaros Boulevard and the Köyiçi Eagle in Beşiktaş. One of the joys of this particular festival is that it is public art at its finest – you can easily pop into most venues while going about your daily life.
‘The Lives of Others’ has been extended to Sunday, November 15. Visit the festival’s website for more detailed information.