In the second part of our series commissioned in conjunction with the Prix Pictet, photographer Rena Effendi explores Istanbul and talks to residents in Covid-19 quarantine
The ability to move audiences beyond cliche is a characteristic shared by photographers shortlisted for the Prix Pictet, which is important as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. The global lockdown has given birth to new cliches: wildlife cautiously exploring unpeopled streets; iconic monuments devoid of tourists, save for the occasional solitary individual escaping their confinement.
This commission asked photographers to move beyond the obvious and present a series of images that respond to the issues confronting us, to begin to plot a route to a new future and to new ways of thinking about the world.
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Faces of Now
June 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of my move to Istanbul. In my hectic global life, I have finally been grounded in my favourite city. The past few months have given me a chance to explore Istanbul more intimately than in all my years of living here. I set out to portray the city in crisis and confinement, but what I found was a diverse social fabric where pockets of hope and human resilience prevail.
As a tribute to the multiple layers of Istanbul’s unique cultural identity, I have collected stories from “non-essential workers”, whose lives have been derailed by the pandemic. As they spoke to me, they related not just their fears, but also their hopes about the future and ways of trying to adapt to a new reality. From street vendors to magicians, barbers to dancers, hammam scrubbers to imams, each expressed dignity in the face of hardship and a unique way of resisting and overcoming their daily stresses. In his memoire Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk wrote: “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.” As I explored the various parts of this vast megalopolis and connected with its inhabitants in their own microcosms, their moods and feelings imprinted on mine. In this process, I began to embrace the city as my own in a way that I haven’t done before.
Özgür Kapmaz, magician
I meet the illusionist on board Le Vapeur Magique, an 1828 steamship, where he performed for tourist parties and corporate dinners before the pandemic. On the lower deck we enter a small theatre with a stage framed by the black velvet curtain. Empty chairs stand in semi-circles, the lights are dim. Özgür, in a magician’s dark brown frock coat with a white frilly collar, shows me his card tricks first. He waves a hand and the top card changes suit. He picks up a small table by the tablecloth and it flies, he pulls out a wallet and sets it on fire.
“My first audience was my family.” Özgür taught himself magic when he was six years old by watching other magicians on TV.
“I am a freelancer. If the phone rings I work, if it does not, I don’t work. I was scared of the pandemic, of the impact.” Since Covid-19 paralysed his professional life, Özgür has shifted focus to broadcasting his magic on YouTube. He spent a few days designing a set for an online performance, uploaded the promo, and two days later received a phone call from a woman who booked him to perform at her son’s birthday party via Zoom. This was Özgür’s first gig in two months of quarantine.
A techno track plays continuously in a cosy ground-floor apartment in Cihangir where two honey-bear cats – Roket and Tatar – saunter, shedding their luxurious fur. On top of a wooden shelf filled with LPs stands a new mixer, which Yunan bought when the Covid-19 crisis led to the cancellation of all her gigs. Yunan recalls her last gig on 14 March . “It was in this tiny cosy restaurant and pre-club space, Markus Tavern. I play long sets there regularly, anything that inspires me. As I walked there, I was questioning everything. Like why am I going to DJ in the middle of the pandemic? Is it going to be my last gig for who knows how long? Everything had started already, the flights were cancelled two to three days later. But still it was a lovely night with beautiful people and great vibes.”
Now in her mid-30s, Yunan is comfortable with solitude. Social distancing has not changed much of her daily routine, but she misses the performance. “Being in a DJ booth for me is like meditation. I don’t think about anything else. Even when I am super nervous or excited, it just goes away. When people don’t dance, it makes me feel like I am stuck in a little can, the shape is cylindrical, so in order to get out, I play the invincible track. A secret weapon that will get the crowd going.” Yunan dismisses the thought of never working as a DJ again. “It’s not possible. Music has always been there and people will need their rituals.”
Nevzat Onmus, antiques collector
“I buy objects because I like them. I enjoy my solitude and I don’t need to fill any void by buying stuff.” Nevzat’s store is layer upon layer of objects he has collected in his last 10 years as an antiques dealer. On most afternoons, Nevzat, a reticent man in his 50s, chain-smokes in an armchair at the back of his store where he is barely visible behind a labyrinth of shelves. A well dressed couple walk inside the store and with a haughty air inquire after a wooden chest. “It’s not for sale,” Nevzat answers cooly. They eye a few other items and leave the store. “If I believe in the customer, I sell them things. I bring down the price or even give it away. I am like a grumpy old bookseller who would only sell to someone worthy of adopting his orphaned books.”
Nevzad buys objects with a mindset of a collector, following a chosen theme of “tradable” ideas. “Objects can tell history. For example, I am now collecting things about the intelligence service and I would like to find a photograph of Mata Hari. I know she stayed in Istanbul at Pera Palace. I would love to get a photo of the world’s greatest spy when she was here.” Nevzad shrugs when I ask him which objects he would collect to tell the story of the current pandemic. “Maybe I will collect masks. But it’s not interesting to me right now, because we are in the middle of it. We are living through it. Maybe in 20 years I will have a better perspective.”
Nevzad takes us around the corner to a spacious three-tier studio warehouse filled with a dizzying amount of objects he has bought in bulk and now rents out as props and set designs for cinema. I feel as though I walked into a parallel universe of Istanbul, each section representing a slice of life gone forever..
Nevzad’s slender frame in the dim light of the studio is dwarfed by the volume of his collection. I can’t help wonder if he feels the ephemeral weight of memories attached to each object. Do they whisper to him, I ask. Nevzad smiles: “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been enjoying the quiet days of the quarantine. I am happy to be away from the people.”
Ceytengri, drag artist
“I prefer to be addressed as ‘they’.” Ceytengri opens the door wearing silver eyeshadow in the shape of dragon wings and glossy black lipstick in bold contour. This elaborate makeup session took them three hours of perfecting. In a living room shrouded in afternoon sun, they are having trouble slipping into a narrow silky Chinoiserie tube dress, which has a stubborn side zipper. The curtains, velvety and heavy like in a theatre, match the dress – burgundy red. The room’s furniture is a brighter tone of crimson red. Ceytengri sits down to touch up the eye lines at a vanity table with scattered makeup. They pull on a tall black boot – “Oh, I really miss wearing heels!” – they say.
Ceytengri lip-synchs to mostly western music, but their performance is often riddled with social commentary. “For me it’s not just going on stage and doing a dance routine. It has to tell a story. For example I wear niqabs a lot during my shows. My grandma used to scare me as a kid not to approach women in niqabs because they will get me under their folds and steal me away. Niqabi women have been oppressed for a long time here in Turkey. But today Islamists are heading the state, so they are celebrated more than ever. So I like poking fun at them. I believe women should be able to wear what they want. Drag is about playing with the boundaries of reality and acknowledging that everyone has a different view of the world around them.
Even before the pandemic, Ceytengri complained about not having enough time on stage “I can’t fathom not being on stage for more than a year, it’s a really depressing thought to me. In puberty I was diagnosed with depression. Ever since I came to Istanbul and found my tribe, I felt at home, I didn’t feel alone. Drag [for me]is being celebrated for all the things I used to be ashamed of in my teen years.” Ceytengri picks up a cigarette, sprinkles the ashes into an ashtray overflowing with stubs. “I try to connect with my audience on social media. Since I am home and alone I can really focus on creating content. I was a social butterfly before the pandemic.”
Hazal, Gullu and Binnaz, informal garbage recyclers
Serkan, a municipal garbage collector apologises for the smell of his uniform when he meets us in Yeni Çamlica, a small Roma community of informal recyclers in the Anatolian suburbs of Istanbul. He jumps off his garbage truck and walks home to put on a change of clothes. As we wait for him to return, a local municipality van pulls over and people in orange uniforms unload metal tiffin containers with hot food ready for distribution. Serkan leads us down the street lined with small homes. He introduces us to a teenage girl, Hazal, her mother, Gullu, and Binnaz, Gullu’s mother-in-law.
Binnaz and Gullu have been collecting garbage for decades, but in the past month of quarantine, the buyers have closed down the shops, so the unsold trash has accumulated. Stacks of cardboard, plastic and paper lay idle on the hood of a weathered green pickup truck parked at the entrance to their home. “This is from the 20 days of trash collection. My husband is dead. My son is in jail for a crime he did not commit. So we do all the work ourselves,” says Binnaz. “Because of the curfew, it’s forbidden for us to collect garbage, but we still did it. We have too many children and grandchildren to feed.” A man approaches the group carrying plastic bags full of groceries: cartons of milk and juice, flour, oil and bread, which he passes to the women. “We survive with these handouts. Municipality helps too.” On a good month before the pandemic, Binnaz would earn about 1,000 Turkish lira (£116) collecting and reselling paper, metal and plastic. “It’s so boring to stay at home. We miss our freedom. We want to work and be out on the streets.”
Özgür Fitir, street vendor
“My family has lived here for more than 40 years,” says Özgür, pointing to a small street with a web of laundry lines connecting buildings, just off the well-known Tarlabaşi boulevard. Tarlabaşi has succumbed to the growing pains of a drawn-out gentrification project. “My ancestors lived here. I was born and grew up here. We are losing something, like a neighbourhood, a family bond, seeing it gone makes me upset.”
For the past two months of the pandemic, Özgür mostly stayed at home. A father of two, he was able to support his family with balloon sales in the past, but as part of government lockdown measures, people under 20, Özgür’s main client base, were ordered to stay indoors. “When I sell my balloons now I ask the customers to disinfect them before they give it to the child. I warn them because the virus is so tiny it can be anywhere.”
Reyhan Tuzduz, Roma dance teacher
Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, Reyhan picks us up from a busy square in Istanbul’s densely populated Gaziosmanpaşa district. Reyhan leads us to a quieter part of the neighbourhood, to her daughter’s home in a cottage where Reyhan moved during the quarantine. A baby sleeps in a crib in the back room, while in the front room the daughter’s framed wedding photograph in a pink puffy dress is the centrepiece on the wall above the couch. Reyhan changes into her traditional Roma skirt and flower bezel, an attire she usually wears while teaching dance. The transformation is striking, not just her body and posture, but her face, too, becomes radiant.
A dance instructor for more than two decades, Reyhan still remembers her first student – Elizabeth, an American oriental dancer who came to Turkey to study Roma dance. “She came to my home everyday. We both cried when she went back to America. But she told all her dancer friends about me. She said she found the most amazing Roma dancer in Turkey. That’s how the word spread. Back then there was no social media. Just from ear to ear.” A vast majority of Reyhan’s students are foreign women who visit Turkey for a few weeks to study dance with her.
She often gives lessons in her own home, but since the pandemic hit, Reyhan could not bear the thought of staying alone and moved in with her daughter’s family. She is sceptical about online classes; she does not own a laptop and the phone screen is too small to demonstrate the dance moves. The pandemic has so far paralysed her professional life. “Social distancing is hard to keep while teaching dance. When I teach, I have to fix their body poses. Sometimes I see she has a problem, can’t do a move, so I hold her hand. She gets my energy and she understands the move. I let her hold my belly to understand how I move it, so she can see the difference. How can I do it through the screen? I can’t put the camera on my belly!”
Behzat Şahin, owner of Cibalikapi meyhane
Behzat comes to his restaurant to check on Cimbiz the cat several times a week. . “We left him in charge here,” jokes Behzat as he surveys the empty room with chairs placed upside down on tables. His traditional Turkish meyhane – Cibalikapi – overlooks the Golden Horn and is known for its diverse menu of mezes. The walls on the top floor are adorned with maps of old Istanbul and whimsical drawings of cats. He launched the original Cibalikapi meyhane in Balat 20 years ago, attributing the choice of location to its historic origins. “In Ottoman and Byzantine eras this was an important cosmopolitan port. Greeks, Armenians, Jews lived here and ran businesses. The meyhane back then were small seaside tavernas serving only wine to passing sailors, a patriarchal space. The role of women was solely to serve and entertain. Since the formation of the Turkish Republic, women began to join men on more equal terms. This was when meyhane started evolving from a bar to an eatery.”
As the coronavirus spread in mid-March, all restaurants were ordered to shut down in Istanbul. Cibalikapi has been operating at 30% capacity delivering mezes from one of its three locations with a hope to open doors back to the public in mid-June. Behzat has already been thinking of how to adapt to the new rules: “As time goes by, eating and drinking at a table, they feel more emotional and get even closer. That’s the beautiful intimate atmosphere of a meyhane.” t
Hülya Aslan, modest fashion consultant/influencer
Hülya Aslan’s tastefully furnished apartment in Bomonti looks over a noisy highway. Hülya enters the living room wearing a pistachio-coloured blazer with rolled-up sleeves over a white T-shirt. Her headscarf is tied around her neck in an elegant vintage style, resembling Audrey Hepburn’s. Hülya’s cousin is in the room with us, observing the shoot. When Hülya sits on the couch to pose, her trouser leg lifts up. “Pull it down, please,” her cousin intervenes, “You don’t want to be lynched again on social media for showing too much ankle.” With more than half a million followers on Instagram, Hülya has been a trendsetter in modest fashion since she first appeared on the pages of Ala, a conservative fashion magazine known in Turkey as the Vogue for the veiled. She later became its editor. “Ten years ago, there were very few fashion choices for them. They would wear short-sleeved shirts over long-sleeved shirts or trousers under skirts and dresses. No fashion labels produced clothes for them. So I thought, wait, we can do something, produce longer blazers, make the pants looser, headscarves should match the outfits, clothes should be made of natural materials with soft textures, because conservative women or veiled women have the right to be comfortable too.”
Covid-19 crisis is a major setback for Hülya’s business, her European exports have dwindled and garments piled in warehouses. She has been trying to boost her online sales, as countrywide they have risen by 40%. In the past two months, Hülya’s social media posts have taken on a more personal tone as she attempts to narrow the bridge between her audience and her influencer status as a fashion icon. She changes into a more casual outfit: a woolly cream blazer with a criss-cross pattern and wide-leg jeans. She ties on a beige Gucci headscarf to match. “Modest fashion has become a global trend, because it’s comfortable. Especially when people come out of this pandemic, they will want to wear linens, blazers, loose shirts. During the quarantine everyone stayed at home and tasted the pleasure of these comforts. They will not be ready to give that up. I don’t think many will want to put on polyesters or fancy dresses any time soon.”
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• Prix Pictet was founded in 2008 by the Geneva-based Pictet Group, with the mandate to use photography to move beyond cliche and deliver powerful messages about sustainability to a global audience. Its goal is to uncover photography of the highest order, applied to the social and environmental challenges we face today.
• Rena Effendi (Turkey) was shortlisted for Prix Pictet ‘Power’ in 2012 and ‘Hope’ in 2019