The Turkish government’s purge of its educated and creative citizens is no longer news, but last week, a few days before the opening of the 2017 Istanbul Biennial, the purge claimed a victim whose work cannot be ignored. Çağdaş Erdoğan was taken into custody, allegedly for photographing the Turkish National Intelligence Agency building. Even though there is no law that forbids such photography, he was kept in detention for 12 days, while a legal case was built to accuse him of membership in and facilitation of a terrorist organization.
On September 13, he was officially arrested and transferred to a prison where he now waits for his trial. Among the evidence used against him were his photographs including those comprising his first book Control which was published earlier this year by Akina Books. He has been a prolific photojournalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, Buzzfeed, and the British Journal of Photography had named him in May as a photographer who is “one to watch.”
Control is more of an artistic book, or at least represents a departure from Erdoğan’s earlier journalistic style. It depicts an imaginary night out in the streets of Istanbul, edited from hundreds of photographs he took between 2014 and 2017 in the Gazi district of the city. In his introduction to the book, Erdoğan explains how he rented an apartment and lived among his subjects. Gazi is known to be an old shanty town, cum ghetto, almost exclusively inhabited by Kurdish and Alevite minorities, along with a growing influx of refugees. Historically speaking, it is also considered the headquarters of the left-wing, revolutionary struggle against the Turkish state, with pronounced sympathies for Kurdish independence. It is considered one of the most dangerous districts of Istanbul, commonly viewed as an autonomous zone which houses much underground activity. The Turkish government has regularly tried to rehabilitate Gazi — most recently using an urban transformation scheme — but has so far failed. Hence, Gazi is also seen as one of the last bastions of a struggle against the gentrification that has transformed the central districts of Istanbul, and made them inaccessible to less wealthy citizens.
However, unlike the criminal charges seem to suggest, Control is neither a romantic ode to a utopian enclave, nor a book of terrorist propaganda. Referring to the Turkish-Kurdish military conflict on one hand, and the Syrian civil war on the other, Erdoğan writes:
The conflicts in the east of the country, often increase the severity of the pressures applied to these neighborhoods … Long term projects such as urban transformation are being introduced and disassembling the culture created in these neighborhoods. Problems within the education system also bring pressure and problems to the neighborhoods.
The children grow up trying to prove themselves from a very young age. Unfortunately this leads some to follow a path that leads to drug trafficking or taking part in illegal dog fights. After a while, this becomes a way of life. Sexual activities are one of the most secretive events that are pushed into the night. Those who cannot live out their different sexual orientations and preferences within society, live them secretly at night.
The book offers an intimate portrait of Gazi, the well kept secrets of a marginalized community. It depicts dog fights, secret sex parties, prostitution, drug dealing, along with an armed revolutionary movement, all caged inside an urban geography. But, it also focuses on something more, in a fragmentary and often blurred nature. All photographs are dominated by a vast darkness which surrounds smaller patches of light. Erdoğan appears to be more intrigued with the black void surrounding his subject, and we barely see what is happening, feeling that the image will soon be reclaimed by the night. Each image embodies this tension of what one is allowed to see, and what darkness could at any moment repossess. Under the current circumstances, it becomes impossible to not associate this void with the purge the Turkish state have unleashed upon its own citizens. Our only hope is Erdoğan will soon emerge from it without being too terribly harmed.