I first met Timurtaş at his exhibition in Photosynthesis (Sofia, Bulgaria). At a meeting-conversation with him in the accompanying program next to this exhibition, he said: “And if you come to Istanbul, call me.” And before we left with part of the club for Istanbul, I thought: “Why don’t we call him?”. So… He found time to meet us, showed us secret corners around Istanbul, told us stories, introduced us to his friends and spent a whole day with us. It was a pleasure to watch him photograph and how he communicates with the subjects of his photographs, how he works.
Please introduce yourself with a couple of words
I was born and brought up in Istanbul, becoming involved in photography in the 1980’s. I organized and attended many photographic events with exhibitions both at home, in Turkey, and abroad,I made documentary films on socially relevant issues. I am currently holding photographic workshops, curating exhibitions, and working on new photographic projects.
What is “timeless” for you?
Just as important works of art that were performed in a period do not get old and are appreciated in many different periods, it has remained an independent beauty in Istanbul for centuries. That’s why I wanted to compliment my city by naming my book “Istanbul Timeless”. At the same time, the concept of time is a little different for a city traveler like me. The experiences and moments that trigger me on the streets of Istanbul determine my emotional (subjective) time. In this case, we can say that the art of photography is a timeless pursuit for me.
Tell us an interesting story from your wanderings around Istanbul
THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR
During the days of Gezi Park protests between 2013-2014 I have been documenting the riots in Taksim and İstiklal Street. One of those days I was in Nevizade Street where all the bars are located. Suddenly a few protesters started to run into the street with the police behind them. When police fired the pepper gas, all around us turned to white. I had a gas mask but there was no air to breathe because the street was very narrow and there was no wind.
I was impossible to see what’s around. I found a door groping in the mist and I got in. Took my mask off coughing with tears in my eyes. Inside, there were customers who were affected by the tear gas as me. Suddenly my favorite Tom Waits’ song “Innocent When You Dream” started to play. I smiled and looked at the DJ’s booth. My good friend İlke was standing there.
During the 90s and 2000s, a friend of mine named Erdinç was running a dance bar in Beyoğlu (Taksim) called “Baraka” where I was a regular. İlke was the DJ and some nights he let me play as a veteran DJ from the 70s and 80s. One of my favorite musicians was Tom Waits. Also, “Innocent When You Dream”, played in the last scene of the movie “Smoke”, was one of his songs that affected me deeply.
İlke used to work in some other bars besides Baraka Bar. Coincidentally, I stepped in to the place where he worked that night and when he saw me coming, he played that song for me.
Maybe that was the only thing that would make me smile in that chaotic situation
That made me think: That’s what friends are for.
If you could have a superpower, what would you choose? How would you use it?
All the people over the world already have super powers and they do not know how to use it in a good way or they are not allowed. I believe my super power is to observe and criticize.
What makes you different from others?
I am an ordinary person and I have nothing that differs me from the other people. As a photographer I can say that I have different approach to my subjects. I am not a hunter on the streets. I just like to meet people and listen to their stories. For me the most important thing is to go to those places and live those moments. Shooting comes next.
Why do you photograph? What does photography give you? And what does it take from you?
When I was a kid, we used to rent 8 mm movies and watch silent movie classics like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies with my family. Since my parents were art lovers, I had the chance to reach many novels and poetry books in our house and listening good music at a young age. My father wrote poetry and played the guitar. My interest in photography started when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie “Blow Up” at the age of 13. My relationship with photography started seriously in the eighties with experimental studies. Later, when I went out on the street and started meeting people, I discovered that I could tell their stories in a humanist way with photographs and at the same time could express myself.
Photography opened up a great horizon in front of me and gave opportunity to learn about life and reality.
What is a good photograph?
Good photographic fact varies from person to person. Of course a photograph needs a good composition, exposure, focus, light, and timing but I prioritize the story. I try to witness the period I am in with a humanist eye, and to blend and present the emotions of the people I focus on with my own. Apart from looking at life with an aesthetic eye, I also attach importance to adding social commentary. I believe that stories taken from the daily lives of ordinary people and emphasizing the realities of life are permanent.
If you compare Istanbul now and before, which do you like more? Why?
It is the city that has been most affected and suffered by the political instability of the country. It is the city where I was born and grew up. Istanbul is also a city of poets and writers.
I am not a person who experiences nostalgia and constantly says that it used to be like this, but as a result of bad policies, most of the texture of the city has changed in a negative way in recent years. Unfortunately, instead of urbanization and structuring in which human life is taken into account, a structuring approach based on the interests of individuals and groups has unfortunately prevailed. At this rate, there will be no empty spaces such as parks and gardens. The city, which has been plundered since the day I was born, has been exaggeratedly sacrificed for the sake of profit recent years.
I think the most beautiful thing that has survived to this day is the existence of tolerance and Istanbul’s status as a world-envied city against all the odds. It experiences all kinds of cruelty, but this city does not lose anything from its beauty and spirit. Children still play on the street in some neighborhoods. There are still a few residents or shopkeepers to chat with. Despite all the negativities, people like us will continue to love today’s Istanbul as much as before.
Recommend us a book or movie
I can recommend a lot but these two choices can be interesting.
Book: Mood Indigo – Boris Vian
Movie: Chunking Express – Kar-Wai Wong
Are you happy?
I can’t say that I am a happy man and I do not search for happiness. In my opinion, if someone feels happy all the time, there should be something going wrong. Unhappiness is the main reality in this world. Sometimes I can feel peaceful and forget about chaos. Those are my happy moments and I like to share those with others.
Who is the photographer you admire most? Why? Which is your favorite picture from his/her portfolio and why?
There are many photographers I admire today but when I was young French Photographer Robert Doisneau’s photos gave me big inspiration. His humanist and poetic way of telling stories from the streets impressed me a lot. “Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville” was the first Doisneau photo that I saw. It is still number one.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t let the system enslave you, so you can find your own way in life.“
It was my father’s advice. He vas a real visionary man.
Ask yourself a question and answer it.
Can you tell us about your books and documentary films?
I have seven published books till now. Since 2018 I started a series of five B&W books about Istanbul. Each consists of 120 photos.
Istanbul Against All Odds, 2018, Istanbul A City of Strange and Curious Moments, 2021, Istanbul Timeless, 2022 are the first three books.
My previous books
Historical Peninsula/Reflections, 2010
Istanbul Blues, 2009
Turkish Photographers Library No: 30, 2006
Nights on Beyoglu, 2005
My documentary films
Street Children 2007, What’s going on in Tarlabaşı 2008, Hayali Tacettin Diker 2009 (The Master of Karagöz Shadow Theatre), Kramp (About famous Turkish rock group “Kramp”), Historical Peninsula/Reflections 2010, Remembering Gezi 2014 were screened and awarded in several festivals.
More about Timurtaş can be found here:
Facebook: Timurtaş Onan
Author: Villy Goutova