In May of last year, Istanbul’s Taksim Square became the epicenter of a nationwide demonstration against the Turkish government. What started as a protest to stop the bulldozing of 70-year-old Gezi park—to make way for a new shopping mall—swiftly escalated as police cracked down on demonstrators with tear gas, batons, and water cannons.
After 18 days, eight were left dead and some eight-thousand injured, but civic and religious factions were brought together in an unprecedented display of unity.
Photographer Emine Gozde Sevim was in Istanbul visiting family when protests erupted. Although experienced in bringing her camera to scenes of social unrest and conflict—including Egypt, Afghanistan, and Israel—she wasn’t there to document yet another moment of social upheaval. Still, whether due to experience, a sensitivity to political and social tension, or her own relationship to the community there, she had the sense that something was about to break.
“I was telling all my friends that it’s going to happen,” she says. “I felt the same kind of tension in Egypt for instance, and it felt like, it can’t sustain itself, it’s gotta explode somewhere.”
The images she took, together titled Homeland Delirium, convey the moments of unease, disarray, brutality and humanity that seem to emerge when authorities assert their power. Her photos are also suffused with a painterly aesthetic. One term that she will not ascribe to them, though, is “journalistic.”
“I had to choose between being a photographer and being a citizen — I’m a citizen with a camera — but at the same time I wasn’t doing citizen journalism. I wasn’t trying to let people know that ‘this is happening,’” she says.
“Sometimes you shoot and shoot and shoot, and you think you’re shooting nothing and then you look back at the photographs, and you realize that there was something subconscious happening.”
This is a tricky line for Sevim, but one that is critical to her practice. Her work represents more of an existential study than journalistic documentation. It’s an effort to find her place in a vast, non-linear history as a curious observer, rather than as a witness with authority to any objective vision of what’s happened or what it means.
Her camera is a personal tool with which to try and make sense of the confusing or overwhelming events she’s experiencing. It’s a definitive feature of her work, which presents moments of global importance through the eyes of an individual.
It might be wise on her part to downplay the journalistic value of the images she’s taking — journalists received blowback from the government after covering Occupy Gezi.
The police in the square were certainly not as equivocal as Sevim about their role, even throwing a tear gas grenade at the feet of she and her fellow photographers while they raised their cameras as a sign of surrender.
“I felt violated,” she says. “We went up the hill and we asked them, ‘Why did you just throw teargas to us?’ And they just laughed at us. I mean, this is a joke. I’m trying to reason with someone who is just ready to get you out of there no matter what it takes.”
“I cannot give answers, that’s the thing,” she says. “For me, photography gives this proximity between fiction and non-fiction actually, where people’s psychologies develop, and I think for me this is more interesting than saying, ‘Look, these are the villains, these are the victims, and this is the situation.’”
Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister who presided over last year’s riots and supported the redevelopment of the park, is now the country’s president. Facing a border crisis with ISIS — one that led to an apology to Erdoğan by Vice President Biden — and political and religious upheaval still underway, Sevim plans to visit Turkey again, this time with a more deliberate approach in mind.
The city’s green spaces are still at issue, and the protests seemed to validate the political will of the people. Still, any lasting results have yet to be understood.
“I think what happened is that a group of people who felt like they were the only one, as individuals, found each other. And to know that you’re not as unimportant as you felt in a place, as alienated as you thought, is an empowering feeling. But since then the fact is that things have not changed … when it comes to uniformed people versus not uniformed people, everywhere in the world there is this situation.”
Sevim is traveling to Afghanistan, where her mother’s family is from, again without plans to document any particular event, though she does seem to have a knack for finding her way to where the action is — Occupy Wall Street, the West Bank, Gezi, etc. Even so, whatever she happens to photograph will be a simple reflection of her own perspective and experience there as a concerned global citizen.
“If you do care it can eat you alive I think, and I happen to be in the bunch that cares,” Sevim says, “It’s a way for me to create an understanding for myself of the things I see, because if I had no pictures – maybe it’s a kind of evidence — I would have no proof … since this is happening and the world history doesn’t stop, I’m trying to join that and the camera is my excuse. I don’t know why I would go to these places if I wasn’t making photographs.”