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Covering Gezi: Reflecting on Photographing Daily Life during Extraordinary Events

Covering Gezi: Reflecting on Photographing Daily Life during Extraordinary Events

[28 May 2013. Police use tear gas to disperse a group who are standing guard in Istanbul's Gezi Park in an attempt to prevent the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality from demolishing the last remaining green public space in the center of the city. Photo by Tolga Sezgin/Nar Photos.] [28 May 2013. Police use tear gas to disperse a group who are standing guard in Istanbul's Gezi Park in an attempt to prevent the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality from demolishing the last remaining green public space in the center of the city. Photo by Tolga Sezgin/Nar Photos.]

[Text by Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, photos courtesy of Nar Photos.]

After a few days, we asked one of our friends to go buy us some gas masks. He called and said there had been a run on them, and prices were up to 350–400 Turkish liras each (approximately $160–$220). We opted for some cheaper construction masks, and made do. But we had to learn how to cover such an event. We are not war photographers.

Later in the evening, another member of the Nar Photos Collective chuckled:

During one of the major stand-offs, we positioned ourselves at the very front of the protestors—a mere ten meters from the police. Not ten minutes in, we both got shot with rubber bullets and immediately had to seek cover and come back to the office! Knocked out in less than ten minutes!

The Nar Photos Collective is an independent photography agency in Istanbul, with some members based out of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. Established ten years ago, they specialize in social documentary photography. Most of their stories feature narratives about changing landscapes (both social and physical)—projects developed over long periods of time and often shared with relevant non-profit groups. They do very little coverage of spot news. Even the spot news section of their website is full of stories about demonstrations and activism. Their office, a small very modest two-room apartment made up of a few desks and furniture outgrown by friends, is just down the street from Taksim Square—a transportation hub and a public space with a long history of protests and demonstrations as well as large gatherings and celebrations.

On Tuesday 18 June 2013, seven members of the Nar Photos Collective and I sat in their office, about a kilometer from Gezi Park. Upstairs, we could hear the sounds of workers producing counterfeit luxury handbags; the building—like so many others in this rapidly gentrifying area—is a haphazard mix of unofficial small manufacturers, residents, and offices. During the protests the Nar Photos office had served as a refuge. Someone had been at the office round the clock and they had let their friends, and whomever else needed it, use it as a safe haven. As one of them put it:

I came back from covering the protests one day and found ten people here. My eyes were burning so for a while I just assumed they were other photographers or acquaintances. Then I realized not only did I not know them, but none of them knew each other either! A man who had just gone grocery shopping, a member of one of the political groups in the park, a few random youngsters, a hapless couple huddled in the corner…

It was a hot night, and the first real night the group had not been actively covering the 2013 protests since 28 May 2013. The sense of relief that they had all managed to escape without major injury was palpable. One member had been hit in the foot by a tear gas canister after it was aimed directly at protestors from only four meters away. His heel is broken and will be in a cast for four months. Two members had been shot with rubber bullets. Another had spent the night in the hospital after a tear gas canister hit his head. Fortunately, the second time this happened both members avoided being critically injured by the canisters’ bouncing off hard hats—hard hats they had not owned during the first few days of the protests. Other journalist friends had not been so fortunate.

I first met several of the members of the collective at the same photography workshop that brought many of them together. However, I am not a photographer, but rather a visual anthropologist. At the time, I was researching international networks associated with photojournalism. I witnessed the establishment of the Nar Photos Collective and its various evolutions over the past decade. Today, Nar Photos has sixteen photographers. Indeed, none of them has ever been to a war zone. First of May demonstrations had been the closest they had gotten to the extremely difficult working conditions of late. They rolled the first of the night’s many cigarettes and began narrating how they had collectively covered the protests in Istanbul. Below are excerpts from the conversation that lasted past midnight. (I have reproduced their narrative collectively, but of course it bears remembering that this was an interview with seven individuals present. When it was important that a member spoke as an individual, I have represented it as such by leaving it in the first person.) 

***

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel (ZDG) : How did you first hear of the events in the park?

Nar Photos Collective (NPC): Actually my mother called. She was up very early and heard that there were protestors trying to keep trees from being uprooted in Gezi Park on a morning news show. So she called me assuming I was already at the park. Then I called a few of the others and we headed over. Initially it was not the police who were being violent, but rather the sub-contractor’s workers hired by the municipality to remove the trees who began harassing the protestors.

Honestly I did not think anything would come of it at all. They seemed to me like a bunch of inexperienced protestors fretting about what they ought to do. I kept telling the others we were wasting our time. I was wrong that nothing would come of the initial protestors.

They stood their ground and later that day a Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) parliamentarian arrived with many others who heard about the activists’ efforts to save the park. The police used force in an attempt to disperse those gathered in the park. That is when the famous photo of the woman in a red dress being targeted with tear gas was taken. After we saw the way in which the police intervened, we decided we had to keep documenting what was happening. Or rather, it was not an official decision but we could not go home because we worried something else would happen, and we wanted to document it. And indeed, the next morning the police went into the park with tear gas and burned the protestors’ tents. After that we just could not go home.

ZDG: So you were there from the beginning?

NPC: Yes, and in many ways we had been seeing an increase in police violence lately. Not just at the most recent 1 May celebrations, but even before that. There was increasing tension with police. When people gathered to protest the destruction of the historic Emek Movie Theater before it was demolished in late May, the police were very intimidating even though most of the demonstrators were elites, artists, and intellectuals. [This was the case] even [with] the small demonstration when trucks showed up to demolish Inci [a historical patisserie demolished as part of the same urban transformation project that led to Emek’s demolition] before official orders had been received by the patisserie itself.

That was in December 2012, and so I think we have been observing the slow increase both of demonstrators contesting various urban renewal projects (in which they feel the inhabitants of the city have not been consulted), and an increasingly harsh police response to these demonstrations.

ZDG: So, all of these significant events have been happening right here in your neighborhood.

NPC: Yes. For example, we collectively covered the last day of Inci almost accidentally. Each of us took photos throughout the day as we passed by it on our way to the office or going somewhere else. In the end, when we put all our photographs together, we realized we had documented the entire day. We were simply documenting our changing neighborhood.

[Over the years several of the members have had periods of disillusionment with photography and contemplated giving it up all together. One member had recently left Istanbul with the hopes of a new life farming, determined to stay away this time and heard the briefest mention of the initial protests in the park on a radio program.]

I had a new routine. I would listen to the radio while making my breakfast before going out to the fields, and that is what I was doing that day. I went out and worked all day, and only when I got home that evening did I get reception on my cell phone. People were calling telling me about the events. So I decided to come back to Istanbul. But I arrived in a city that looked perfectly normal. I dropped off my bags at home and got the newspapers. There were no headlines about masses gathering in Taksim and violent clashes with the police. I began to think someone was playing a prank on me: nothing on television; nothing in the newspapers. I got to Beşiktaş, and went in to a pharmacy to get some Talcid [an over the counter medicine for indigestion in liquid form that when mixed with equal parts milk is said to be one of the best antidotes to tear gas.] The man ahead of me at the pharmacy also bought Talcid. As I was leaving, I heard the person behind me ask for Talcid. I began to think there might be some reality to what I had heard. And then I made my way up to Taksim and saw it for myself.

ZDG: It must have been very surreal to have no media corroborating reports of such significant events.

NPC: There has been a lot of backlash against the media in all of this. Last night, when we were working in Taksim Square, people would say, “If you are not going to publish it do not take it [photos, video].” Another man shouted, “Anyone here from NTV? Get out!” [NTV television channel was completely silent about the events for days]

More people had heard of Nar Photos and that made working easier. Even telling people we were not shooting for a Turkish mainstream media [outlet] calmed people down. Of course, everyone was furious that the mainstream media could be so silent. Sometimes, I said we were sending our photos abroad.

ZDG: Are people not skeptical about the foreign press?

NPC: They are, but I think it was a real shock for people to see their own media completely silent. I think people have a little more faith that the foreign press cannot tell such bold-faced lies.

ZDG: How did you distribute your photographs?

NPC: We always put our photographs up on our Facebook page, and so we continued doing that. We have agreements with several foreign agencies that occasionally sell our images to clients, but we were not on any assignment to cover the protests here in Istanbul. As soon as we began posting daily photographic summaries of the protests via Facebook, there was an explosion in visitor numbers.

[One member of the collective could not come to the office that first day.] When I called in I was told to help by approving friends on Facebook. Do not laugh! Prior to the Gezi protests, we used to get fifty to one hundred visitors a day, and we did not even know about the five thousand friend limit nor that there was a difference between a Facebook profile and a page. One other member logged on to our Facebook page, and both of us spent the next two hours literally just hitting the return button over and over again, accepting new friends who wanted to be able to see our photographs.

Then Amnesty International asked us for our photographs. So did a few environmental organizations as well as academics. We also let people use the images for their personal blogs.

ZDG: Were there other photographers covering the events?

NPC: Yes, there were lots of Turkish and foreign photographers covering the events.

ZDG: How could you tell they were foreign photographers?

NPC: Well, we had never seen them before at other events. And they were very well equipped. Of course, they cover conflict all the time. We are only now slowly getting a chance to see the work they produced, but some of it is excellent. At the same time, there is a difference. We are personally implicated. We are not just witnesses here, as citizens we are ourselves victims of this state violence. Of course, several foreign journalists were also injured. However, there are differences in our coverage. We are very careful not to take photographs of conflict in which you can see an individual’s face. As a group we check each other’s images before we post them.

I for one know that I self-censor. There are times when I see an extremely striking frame, but refrain from even taking it because a person’s face is completely exposed. Why do I not take the photo? Because if I have it, I may be tempted to use it. But it might incriminate that person. So it is best not to have it at all.

As a group, we feel we have a responsibility not to incriminate people. We also make an effort to pay attention to people’s sensitivity to being photographed. In the park there were times when people did not want to be photographed. Some of the youth told us their parents did not know they were there. For others who might have government jobs, being photographed working in the volunteer kitchen of the park could cost them their jobs. So we tried to be sensitive to people who did not want to be photographed.

ZDG: So how did you work as a group?

NPC: It was really terrifying to work knowing you might face police brutality. I remember walking down Istiklal Street the day of the first big protests, and my heart was pounding [because] I was so scared. When the first clashes began, I was completely paralyzed [such that I] could not even work for about ten minutes. I remember seeing some wire agency photographers later that day, and overhearing them saying—as if with a tinge of disappointment—“Hmm do you think it is over? It is over, nothing more?” Of course, I understand: their job is to cover the conflict or the events. Some of them are combat photographers. Meanwhile, I was praying: “Please let it be over! Please let it be over!” So we tried not to work alone, but to go out in groups of two or three.

We would give the best mask to the person working up front, and the others would hang back and work in the crowd. We began to see that the story is not all on the front lines. You really begin to see things further back in the crowd. After a few hours of inhaling tear gas, it is hard to work so we would come back here and recover. Going out a second time was very difficult. You would be completely worn out by the gas and the water, but we would encourage each other and go back out. Those looking at our images and leaving us supportive comments also motivated us. One person wrote that he’d figured out that we tended to post the days images in the wee hours of the morning and said he looked forward to the Nar Photo hour as if our daily slideshow were his nightly news.

Maybe its part of being traumatized, but after days of police violence it was hard for me to work in the park itself. I had a hard time taking photographs. Maybe we were all using it as a place to rest and let our guard down. I liked being there, but looking back I did not really do a good job of capturing the park.

[One photographer had decided not to expose herself to the violence, so she went out only when the others told her it was calm. Otherwise she took on the role of the editor at the office responsible for downloading all images from cards to the computer. In the end, having a person who was not constantly at risk and could focus on editing and posting images helped the group systematically produce daily coverage and her contribution was essential. Moreover the photographs she took when she was in the park were the ones the group felt captured the daily life of the protestors in the park best, as if having spent time on the frontlines of clashes with the police the others had a harder time focusing on what to photograph in the absence of an “event.”]

Internally, we have all kinds of differences of opinion and yet in this case because everyone pursued what they found interesting we collectively achieved a type of representation that a single photographer just would not have been capable of doing. Our body of work on Occupy Gezi is very much a collective effort.

ZDG: What kinds of factors influenced your editorial decisions?

NPC: We tried to capture a larger sense of the events. After a few days of violent images, we made sure to also feature images of the peaceful life in the park among the protestors and visitors. Our “likes” went way up when we did that. And peaceful solidarity really was the essence of the events, even though the clashes got more coverage.

We tried to avoid becoming accomplices to the government’s dramaturgy. This was most apparent the day the police—who had been very competent and efficient users of water cannons just days before—somehow took a long time to target the handful of people in Taksim throwing Molotov cocktails at them. The events were staged. And then they let a water cannon vehicle burn. All those vehicles have the capacity to self-extinguish, and yet that one was left to burn for a long time. All the Turkish media who had failed to cover the protests initially were there this time, and we did not want our cameras to become coopted by the government who wants the events to be portrayed as a battle.

Once back in the office, we would discuss what to photograph and how. Many of us were disturbed by the ultra-nationalist discourse of some demonstrators and the ubiquity of Turkish flags–even the police draped Atatürk Cultural Center in flags and a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as soon as they regained control of Taksim Square. So we tried to avoid the sea of flags in our photographs, but that proved nearly impossible.

ZDG: Apart from the police violence, what sorts of visual challenges did you face in covering these protests?

NPC: We made an effort to capture the peacefulness of the park, the presence of many very diverse people in the same park: there were ultra-nationalist groups and groups that had a poster of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan next to one another; groups that would normally immediately clash. Each side kept their members in check. What was amazing was the multiplicity of the people in the park.

There was tremendous unity. Some of the most amazing moments were when large masses of people managed to stay calm together. That first day of big protests when people kept marching forward without being cowed back by tear gas and water cannons was impressive. Throughout the protests the sheer number of people was frightening, there could easily have been a stampede. People linked arms and chanted “calm, calm, calm,” and people managed to calm each other down. There were people going around with spray bottles of solution to spray on anyone who had been gassed. “Eyes or mouth?” they would ask. When the police started changing the makeup of whatever they were spraying on people, you would immediately receive updates on what the best antidote solution was. By the second week, people were incredibly organized. There was so much tear-gassing on Istiklal. I saw one protestor picked up by others, and he told them “Take me to the first left” and sure enough when they took the first left turn they could, there was a tiny makeshift infirmary with someone dispensing solution and providing first aid. Every “first left” on Istiklal had been turned into a tiny little infirmary. So people relied on one another. Of course, we often found it impossible to shoot when struggling just to see or breathe properly.

There are also moments we missed of course. We missed people crossing the bridge across the Bosphorus. We could have had more photos of the hijacked bulldozer that was used to chase a water-cannon vehicle.

I was in the area and might have gotten that shot but there was so much police presence at that moment and tear gas that people were scurrying under half closed shutters of stores and then as soon as several people escaped into the store, the shop owner would close them. I waited somewhere like that for two hours because I just did not want to risk getting arrested or tear-gassed if I went up one more street.

By then we were exhausted and perhaps overly fearful so we missed the piano being brought to the square but we did get the concert on the second night. There were also visuals that clearly were planned to only be visible from above. Messages that could be read only once seen from a camera above in a helicopter.

ZDG: What about visually capturing humor? Humor was a very important part of these events.

NPC: That is hard to visually do in this case. Of course, we took photographs of the very creative graffiti on the walls but that is not about finding a way to capture the wit in a visually humorous way. You are merely documenting funny texts.

Or maybe it has to do with our age too. (Nar Collective members are between the ages of twenty-six and forty). If we were younger, the same age as the majority of the protestors, and we understood their sense of humor better, maybe we could have found a way to better capture the wit of these protests in our images. Some of the people who produced videos in the park seem to have been more successful at capturing the humor in a visual medium.

ZDG: What now? Will this change what you cover as an agency?

NPC: For one thing, we simply do not have the infrastructure. We see the photographers working for wire agencies when we are out there working. They shoot and hand their memory card to an editor who then instantly uploads their images online and they are put into worldwide circulation. We cannot compete with those agencies with a single computer for the entire agency. No news publication wants coverage of an event at nine o’clock in the morning  delivered at four o’clock in the afternoon..

But more importantly, it is not what we do best. We are really about daily life. So now that it looks like things are calming down, we have a chance to go back to how we normally work. We will keep following changes as they are happening in quieter ways.

In many ways this struggle was an urban struggle: it was about the city itself. Istanbul is a city undergoing tremendous transformation, and a while ago we decided that though our office is here in Beyoğlu we were not documenting our own neighborhood at all. We were all down in Eminönü, trying to take the photographs of women wearing chadors that fit the way Turkey was being represented in the Western press. But then we decided to turn our attention to our own neighborhood and get to know our city. We want to keep documenting urban change and hopefully how people will try to have a bigger voice in how this city is transformed.

***

As the night wore on, the members of the collective were following tweets about small neighborhood forums, forming all over Istanbul. Groups of people were meeting in local parks and taking turns getting up to speak about the future they envisioned. Beaten down by the violence after protestors were forcibly removed from the park, the group was visibly regaining its spirit by hearing that encouraging events were continuing elsewhere. The youngest member of the group who had covered the protests volunteered:

You know there is a moment which I will never forget. Early on I was sitting at the computer, editing my images and loading them into the archive. Other people’s images were also up on the screen, and looking at them out of the corner of my eye I found myself wondering where in the world these images of protest were from. I simply could not imagine that images of such protesting masses were from my country. I would not have thought it possible just a few days ago.

ZDG: Is it the violence that surprised you?

NPC: No, it was how many people came together to take a stand.

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