Uluç Özcü is one of my favorite photographers. A ginger sweet-heart. Passionate as hell about the Gezi, photography and music. He whines so sweetly over what he cares for. Having born on the same land, we speak the same language of frustration, despair, and hope. It heals me to look at his photos and imagine that I am a mere extra or a detail in his photos. I hide in these spaces, unloading my karma there. A peace of mind sneaks in.
Don’t look out for the drunk seagulls dancing in the sky, you wouldn’t find them in his photos. He is not one of those with the exotic eyes capturing the overrated oriental details. Yet, his photos echo the very Istanbul that we breathe. The very Istanbul that we happen to dismiss while trying to make our way through this jungle. That’s one of the reasons why I asked him to give IT an interview.
Who is Uluç Özcü? I am the country with all the climates in the world. I define myself as a very social but at the same time a very antisocial person. Cheerful but at the same time very dark. I am very much like the man on the tread mill; I run like crazy but I always wonder if I ever made any progress. It is all about perfectionism.
Would Uluç take pictures with his eyes when he was a little kid? Yes, when I was a little kid without a camera, I would… only with my eyes. A catchy tune would trigger an image in my mind. Take my breath away is one of those songs that pops into my mind right now. Whenever I listened to it, I would visualize scenes under the fall and winter light. There was this field in Etiler, where we played football. The sun set was lovely. Of course, I couldn’t conjure an image without Istanbul being the setting.
That’s why music and imagery have always gone hand in hand. But, it took a while for me to figure out the connection between the two. When I have become a photographer and a musician, I realized I have somehow been evolved into this. I was meant to become who I am.
After I started taking pictures, I did not need any music to trigger me any more. Whenever I winked, my eyes worked like a shutter. It was a wishful thinking to transfer whatever my eyes captured to my harddisk -my brain- and share it with people.
If one day the camera as we know it becomes obsolete and we could create images with a blink of an eye, then art will cease to exist because the means will no longer be required. But a new form might emerge: something that combines art and life style… something that could convey what one has seen or how one has perceived life.
Do you think how we perceive the urban landscape has changed with the advent of smart phones? What else changes when recording and sharing has become the norm? Photography has become an ordinary act but at the same time it has enabled people to improve their photographic eyes. I don’t think that photography has come to a dead end, it has only shed its skin and changed form. I have another question in mind, which is “How much more images the memory of the world could possibly bear?” It already feels overdose, wouldn’t the universe take it out at one point?
Photography has its share, too, as technology advances. Nothing remains the same, everything else changes as well. Brand new products come out to the market or the concept of design in industry, architecture, or fashion change form and thereby appear new angles, and new designs to photograph. If we are to talk about repetition, people feel compelled to move away from this by training their eyes, which bears a testimony that photography is not dead yet!
We all have in our childhood memories images of the city we grew up in and sounds that accompany to those images. Will you tell us about some of these images you have inherited from your childhood? I am a good archiver in a way. We share our collection of photos within the family. There are many images of Istanbul to recall in those photos. I had no camera when I was a kid. There was no metro, not many bus lines either. Transportation was limited even though we lived in the city center, and you could only move around with your family. That’s why I cannot give you a holistic image of the city, rather shots from Etiler-Levent area for I grew up there. I remember big empty fields.
I, too, remember the smell of mud and grass, and the kites in the field where there is this shopping mall, Akmerkez today. That’s so retro! We do not need to start right from photography, everything was so picturesque-literally!-, that’s how I remember it, anyway. There was this bicycle repair guy; we would take our bikes to this guy. We would rent his tuk tuk.
It is summer time; we are riding our bikes, The sun is about to set, a blaze of crimson washes the sky. There is no building that could block the light of Etiler high school next to Akmerkez. The color on the windows of the school is just like the red reflection on the buildings on Salacak coast at sunset. People are wearing grey, bordeaux, blueish sportswear, probably school uniforms. So retro when I come to think of it right now.
We used to live next to the Bosphorus University stadium. That was an empty football field back then. The sun would set right behind the stadium. And I remember the view of the Bosphorus, and the Kuleli military high school by the water on the Asian side. The sun would rise behind the hills. A blueness would permeate the sky before the sun rise. Another memory was my father’s taking us to the eid (festival) prayer.
Which mosque? Emirgan mosque by the water. We used to wake up at five, and go to the mosque shivering. The melody of the morning call to prayer is different from that of the four other calls. It was so magical when the sun rise combined with the morning call to the prayer. It still gives me goose pimples even when I talk about it now.
There was also an abandoned bus in the middle of this football field. We used to play inside the bus. Can you imagine a bus in the middle of a green field in Istanbul now? Next to it was a bare basketball field. No asphalt, just soil. The basketball hoop was wooden. The dust would blow up whenever we hit the ball on the ground.
I remember the dust, too. But what we have as dust today is not the dust of the soil, rather the dust of the construction going on in the city. Yes, dust of everything but the soil today. In that field, animals were sacrificed during the religious fest. That would annoy us, the boys of the neighborhood. And we had Buck, the dog of the neighborhood. A car knocked down Buck, we buried him there. Polat construction company built a site over his bones. I have all these images piling up in my mind; with the advance of technology, we might make them visible one day.
We could create dreamscapes? That would be awesome!
As a part of festivals or projects, sometimes artists are given the opportunity to play/experiment with landmarks in the city. Some cover things, some turn derelict areas into active ones. As an artist, what would you do if have all the means at hand? I haven’t given a thought about it before, but my starting point would be empty fields in the middle of the cities… making films that immortalize those fields that no longer exist in Istanbul. I could turn it into a video art by embedding music into the background. It just sank to me when you asked: breathing life into bus-field images. I have been obsessed with the disappearance of empty spaces in the city. I could do something with the kids who play football in the street if there are still some out there. I could animate the childhood I experienced here. There aren’t any empty spaces left; everyone feels so suffocated in the city that they are moving out to the suburbs. I wouldn’t want to move to the gated communities in the suburbs if I am to settle down with kids. I would want my children to play in the street. In short, in tribute to my childhood, I would experiment with these ideas. I want to make people witness my childhood.
I would like to talk a bit about your urban abstract photos I am closely following on Instagram (Stereopathetic). I also remember your fashion photo shoots on your web site. I felt as if more recently you have focused more on form and detail chasing urban abstract details. Anything that brought about a change in your style? I do love changing styles, yet I always carry something from my former tendencies over to my new style. At the beginning of June, the Gezi period kicked off. I preferred to not take photos during the events for I wanted to be a witness. Not a witness behind the camera.
Me neither… I just could not stand the idea of something being in between. I just did not want to contribute as a photographer this time. I knew people would capture amazing pictures. I wanted to be a witness with my very eyes. I have no idea how the Gezi park events directed me towards this type of photography but I knew it for sure that it was these events that brought about the change in my style. It could well have channeled me into still life. I don’t get it either.
There are, moreover, too many elements in the composition, which leaves me weary. You capture the street: rows of buildings, so many windows, so many people; exhausting imagery. I sometimes wonder if I could try macro minimal. I know how difficult it could get. And, lastly, my being laid-off as a result of the Gezi park events and the judicial process definitely account for the changes in my style lately.
How come the Gezi park protests resulted in your lay-off? Takvim, a right-wing newspaper, made headlines “Knock-out!” for a woman who lay on the ground in bloodshed, which I would call so inhumane. 15-16 women did a peaceful protest in front of the plaza, where I worked for a magazine. I was smoking outside when they were protesting and one of them turned out to be a friend. We kissed and said hi; that was all. I was dismissed afterwards. I sued them; my case was rejected. I could have so easily won the case, which clearly indicates how oppressive this country is.
An Istanbul moment that you would enjoy watching rather than document? You should not have asked such a question to someone like me. I always want to capture everything. I cannot give you a place but a moment in time: the empty fields of my childhood. I could watch it for hours without touching or documenting it. And of course, the Gezi. I avoided it on purpose. I wanted to watch the Gezi.
Sometimes I go out with a camera in hand and look out for gems as a photographer. Sometimes, when I am wandering in the streets of Istanbul, I remember I am a photographer. Which one is dominant in you? or are they balanced? That’s a good question, indeed! I am well aware of such days. I can so easily turn into a photo monster at any time. When I am out with friends and notice rich forms and if the vibe is good, I could become a monster. If I am out on a professional project, then I like the challenge of not knowing the conditions of the shooting location. I am in love with the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what to expect.
As soon as I enter a place, I could immediately show you the right place to shoot. Here, here and there. The challenge of an unfamiliar place blows my mind. I am in love with that moment. This, of course, applies for editorial, portrait, and documentary shootings. As for fashion or product shootings, you get to be prepared for the light beforehand.
What do you think is the most effective way to making a unique photographic style? Reading is crucial to a photographer’s making his/her own style. You make up the imagery of details, events or people within the pages of a book; a kind of composition practice. Listening to radio plays works in the same way, too. They make you imagine a world as a viewer and a listener. That’s why people usually are not very fond of movies based on books; everyone has already created a world in their imagination.
Which one is dominant in Istanbul, form or color? Istanbul with its hills is a city of forms. The light disappears earlier in some places whereas in some other places, where you have the light till the sunset, you don’t get to see any forms. Each civilization that has run through this city has left their imprint.
Any special building in the city? Yekta Restaurant’s building, which originally belonged to and was designed by the architect Vedat Tek, used to mystify me when I was a kid. I am a 5th grader. The building opposite belongs to an acquaintance. One evening, I am with my family visiting them. I look out of the window and see a chateau out there. What the f**k? Very much like a medieval castle, I am blown away. You see amazing details when you look from above. I saw the building that day for the first time in my life and it will stay with me forever. One of my favorite iconic buildings in Istanbul.
A modern gift to the city? When you say modern, I don’t consider skyscrapers as modern examples of contemporary architecture. I consider the period from 1923 onwards, the year the republic was founded, as the modern period. Florya Atatürk’s summer mansion, and Atatürk Cultural Center in the style of Functionalism are modern gifts to modern Turkey. Also, we see very good examples of such restorations as Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) building Deniz Palace, and the Hat Factory in Sütlüce.
We are drowning in icons in the city but still there are many more underrated icons, don’t you think so? Yes, the most popular example is Camondo stairs. The former Galata Bridge is another one. Mısır Building in Galatasaray is underrated, as well. Arif Pasha building in Elmadağ is a U-shaped building that could well be an icon. Compared with Doğan Building in Galata, it is more grunge in style. Doğan is associated with the Mediterranean, it has its Mediterranean feel whereas Arif Pasha is more aggressive, and cult.
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What are the things that could frustrate or anger a photographer in this city? Physical or social barriers? ‘you cannot get in, you cannot shoot, it is forbidden’ sort of stuff makes me crazy here. Social barriers galore here. They made me crazy lately at the metro, too. I only have a cell phone with me, not even a DSLR camera. Thinking that I am a tourist, a security guy approached saying “no photo”. There was a good reflection, of which I made a mental note to shoot the next time I am there.
Apart from that, it is a fast-paced, dynamic city. You need to be really quick, no time for hesitancy. If you act slowly, the composition is gone in a moment.
The composition is changing constantly, right? People pass by all the time. The city renders beautiful shots but the way to document is quite a challenge. People’s approach to photography could give the photographer a hard time. Their response to your asking for a permission to take their photo drain your energy. They ask where it will appear over and over again. It is just a smart phone, how could it appear somewhere?
As a photographer who has adopted an urban abstract style, what kind of a city would help you make the most of your potential? Istanbul still inspires me; I still love this city. I enjoy experiencing 4 seasons, which we would have in the past here. I do not think I would be able to live in cities where forms are based on gothic or scholastic principles. Their connotations and denotations wear me down.
If it were Istanbul/Turkey, which was the heart of the global film industry, I would be a much happier person. Then, it would be Turkish Hollywood that would dominate the world of imagery, and I would be an internationally acclaimed photographer. So would you. If it were us that exported the world all those imagery, if we lived in the heart of a film industry that delivered their images to the rest of the world, we would have such a confidence. That’s the edge of the USA; millions are behind following them.
That’s one of the things Orhan Pamuk emphasizes in his writings; being in the periphery. If you know deep down that you live in the periphery, then this becomes an exhausting journey. You feel like you are started the race at a disadvantage. You need to shoulder a kind of weariness. I am now a much happier person. The film industry has been changing; the film sector in Turkey is more productive than ever. Computers are at work. They are doing key leap, which they call chromo key. They set a green background. It really started to put me off because it kills the reality.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings etc. are high tech movies, none of which should be looked down on. There is a lot of work but in terms of visuals, they are quite unfortunate productions. This was what made me put a distance between me and HE. This had led me to turn to my realities, my country, my city and its details.
Now you are one of those who contributes to forming this reality as a photographer. I sometimes put people in a dilemma. You wonder if it is Istanbul or New York. I make a picture of a detail at Cities’ shopping mall in Nişantaşı, which you would think it is captured in New York. But actually, it is taken in Istanbul.
If I ask for a photographic route to Istanbul Travelogue followers? Walk from the Seraglio point to Ahırkapı, where Hıdrellez, the spring festival, is held. Then walk inwards from there on. Follow the suburban train lines till you get to Yenikapı. You will find plenty of inspiration there.
What do you think about Istanbul Travelogue? It reflects your perspective on life. It is a strong expression of what you want to do and what you pursue in life. When I look at your blog, I see a strong expression of the self. Arts, history and city are all together but it also made me think you offer alternatives to other views. Every time you do a photo walk, you probably get to discover more details and I am under the impression that you build an impression of Istanbul on juxtaposed contrasts in your blog, which seems to be a good work on your part. When I had a look at the testimonials, I saw Michel Ocelot’s reference. I knew that you would take him around but we never had the time to talk about it. I congratulate you for he is such a distinguished animator.
Thank you! Doing photo walks in a way eases my relationship with this gigantic, ruthless city. It offers me a fresh perspective on the things I have seen hundreds of times. It enables me to put up with its brutality, or dismiss its edgy aspects. And I never deny that it is a love and hate relationship. People look at the Topkapı Palace and feel puzzled by its disorderly layout. I look at it again in the light of their comments, and notice the Ottoman tents, which in a sense connects me to my cultural heritage. Dolmabahçe is a western style modern palace, whereas Topkapı is quite different and interesting. From aerial view, every structure is like a tent; you see reflection of a nomadic way of life there.
So many civilizations that were here once upon a time gave serious importance to city planning. It is hard to say we have no cultural heritage at all, we do have a cultural accumulation. The city had an intact cityscape once upon a time; buildings were built in such a way that they would not block each other’s views. It is almost next to impossible to have a glimpse of such an incessant view. I feel there is a missing link. What do you think is the reason for that? It is all about putting interests ahead of aesthetic principles, the culture of contractor-led designs in construction, and the social corruption of the society. I have heard that an American urban planner was called in. He said we founded the city in the wrong place. It is impossible to see a grid-planned city when you look from the aerial.
The corruption has permeated every aspect of our lives here, right? I am pretty sure my folks have a problem with morality, which in turn affects the urban life here and thus the silhouette of the city. We do not even listen to each other; that is the extent of our intolerance. They call us hospitable, I realize how we have fooled ourselves thinking we are hospitable. We are not to be trusted. What might save us from the current political and economic circumstances is again our precariousness.
It is very ironic that what dragged us into this sticky messy situation is what could save us one day, isn’t it? The cityscape has undergone a massive change even in our life times. A well-planned city renders great images. If it is unplanned and sprawling, then renders industrial but mostly chaotic images. The West has a great urban planning -grid-planning. The second to defense industry in America is the film industry. Because box-office movies are released to the market by America, we are familiar with American imagery. The back streets of New York city, for instance? Brick buildings with high ceilings, steam pouring out of the grates, iron-forged fire stairs, town houses lined up… Then I compare it with my environment, there is no satisfaction in terms of visual aesthetics, and I end up being so unhappy. That’s why we need to embrace the visual reality of the place we live in. Like you said, we have an ever-changing city silhouette.
We were, for instance, familiar with San Francisco hills and streets when we were kids. I remember how the cars would rolling down the hills of SF in the TV series. When I first took up driving, I would start the engine and immediately pushed the gas pedals. My dad said one day, “Let it warm up a bit!” “But, the guys in SF streets jump in a car and drive away immediately, dad” I said. “That happens only in TV series” was his reply. That’s exactly the Hollywood Effect! You go and visit the Pyramids in Egypt, and they are not anything like what we see on the TV. My relation with HE ended when I turned to the imagery of our life and our realities here and embraced it as it is. Every now and then I make pictures with a touch of Hollywood Effects but when I do it, I am actually paying tribute to it. The reason for years of misery I experienced here was being unable to find imagery with Hollywood Effects. Art is one of the most effective ways to make someone miserable.
Coming to terms with such things comes with age and experience, maybe? A couple of years ago, I, too, have come to embrace the realities of our life here as they are. The education we get here is neither Western, nor Eastern. The cultural references you are exposed to are mostly inheritance of other cultures that you do not belong to, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, they leave strong imprints. You look out for them here but cannot find them because they are not here and they will never be here, so you end up being miserable. I made a leap of faith and made a career change. Together with writing this blog, walks help me negotiate with the things that troubles me here. And I feel much more peaceful in mind. When you come to terms with these, you stop resisting, and letting go of things relaxes us and gives us a peace of mind.
I would like to make a reference to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s A Mind at Peace here. Even though it is a modern novel, it tells about a pre-modern way of life here. In eastern cultures, being one with things brings in peace. A fatalist world view in a way. What does modernity bring us? Fragmentation. We look at ourselves from a distance, we are not one with anything. We feel miserable for feeling disconnected. And it takes time to realize this. We need time to realize how pointless it is to resist. Do not cling, let yourself fall! Do not resist, let it go!
One last question before we go: We remember the old Istanbul through the memories, stories and photos of other people who witnessed it. The black-and-white photos of the 60s that Ara Güler and many others have embedded a depiction of a poor and destitute Istanbul. Mostly, men and blue-collar workers are dominant. The sea is patched by the fishing boats. It was only a couple of people who composed these images back then, but today millions of people with their cell phones in their hands are doing exactly the same thing: composing an image of the 21st century Istanbul. If one day, we are to look at the pictures taken today, what kind of an Istanbul picture will appear? What will be mostly associated with the city? It will remembered for shopping malls and high-rises. A cheaper version of Dubai. There is also a more romantic approach to the marketing techniques for Istanbul: Sultanahmet-Hagia Sophia silhouette, the rituals of ferries with simit (Turkish bagel) and tea. They will always be the mainstream but I am afraid of losing the silhouette. We woke up to another country last year in June so I still have hopes for the future.
Will you document this moment in time? Of course, I would.
LINKS AND REFERENCES
Stereopathetic on instagram
His web site ulucozcu.com
For commissions and projects: [email protected]
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Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s A mind at Peace