Students zoom in on Turkey’s disenfranchised youth

Young Photographers Awards 2013

By Victoria Khroundina | November 18, 2013

The Young Turkish Photographers Awards exhibition opened at the Elipsis Gallery on November 12. The works of 18 participants are displayed this year, with the winner and both runners-up focusing on signifiers of urban change in Turkey – an issue close to the hearts of many after Gezi and the plethora of urban transformation projects cropping up all over the country. This was also a subject tackled, often passionately, at the 13th Istanbul Biennial, and it’s nice to see a thread emerging among today’s young artists.

The awards work like this: photography students from the country’s universities are nominated by their faculties and the winners selected by the curators of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Anne Havinga and Karen Haas. A number of this year’s submissions examine the photographer’s connection to a particular place, whether an entire region, a neighbourhood or a street. Several artists, including the three prizewinners, document the lives of children. The jurors were surprised by the substantial number of black-and-white photographs, which is noteworthy in that their American counterparts prefer to work in colour. Commenting on this year’s submissions overall, the jurors said: ‘Although the work is as thematically wide-ranging as ever, one of the threads that runs through a lot of the work is an underlying feeling of melancholy and loss in the face of the rapid modernisation and change taking place in Turkey today.’

The winner is Osman Demir, from Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University, and his series documenting the Roma community (both images above) is certainly affective. Demir photographed the gypsy population of Cephanelik Mevkii in Kocaeli (a province not far from Istanbul) over a two-month period from February to April 2012. He wanted to represent this community as heroes in a society that consistently subjects them to gentrification policies while providing insufficient access to education and other support. The jurors were particularly impressed with his use of natural light to ‘illuminate his subjects’ bright clothing, and their open and intelligent expressions, leaving the viewer with a feeling of hope that there lies a better future ahead for these young people’. Talking a bit about his process, Demir admits that when he commenced the project he did not know how he was going to go about it, or even how he was going to break through to the community members. He started by taking photographs of the children and slowly the relationships between himself and the adult members strengthened. By the end Demir was permitted to photograph the entire 70-person community.

Runner-up Çağın Coşkunırmak of Akdeniz University in Antalya focused on children living in the low-income neighbourhood of Balbey, Antalya. His aim was to ‘raise public awareness of the problems faced by the children in this neighbourhood, and to document this historic and decaying area’. Photographing children was a strategic decision. ‘Little shoulders take on a great weight of responsibility. Growing up amidst these troubles affects them. You can observe these effects by looking at the games they play, their conversations with each other and their behaviour,’ says Coşkunırmak. His dramatic black-and-white photographs (one of which can be seen above) resonated with the jurors. Depicting them ‘playing together in rubble-filled streets, smoking cigarettes or as shadowy figures silhouetted against the crumbling Ottoman architecture’ drives home the severity of their situation and the ways in which it is affecting them.  

The second runner-up, Melih Cevdet Teksen of Kocaeli University, addressed the impact of urban migration on rural societies by photographing village schools in the district of Kastamonu on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. ‘With the increase of the migration to cities from the villages, rural schools are forced to close. Due to the mobile education system, the schools without any students are like bittersweet monuments,’ says Teksen. One such school is the Kastamonu Azdavay Primary School (above). Teksen’s starkly beautiful images of desolate interiors, say the jurors, ‘are vivid reminders of these once-thriving spaces and the children who filled them.’ 

Some participants presented more tongue-in-cheek works, such as Emin Yüksel’s ‘Blank Portrait’ (above).

I also like Ezgi Toral Tutsaklık’s work (above) taken from her Captivity exhibition, which she presented at Yeditepe University, where she is a student. The exhibition focuses on the psychological effects on students of preparing for their university entrance exam.

Other entrants focused on Turkish traditions, for example Okan Ulusoy’s ‘Wrestle’ (above top) which shows oil wrestling from a new perspective – the close-up of the two wrestlers’ embrace is rather moving. Meanwhile, Ertaç Er’s humorous take on a wedding photograph ‘Postponed Wedding’ (above bottom) calls to mind the sort of shotgun marriage one would not expect to see in Turkey. 

The exhibition runs until November 30.

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