Istanbul based photojournalist Kürşat Bayhan believes that a photographer must become a part of the story. And the intense relationships he creates with his subjects are poignantly reflected in his work.
Kürşat works with Turkey’s extremely popular daily newspaper Zaman as a photographer. Alongside, he also works on his various personal projects including ‘Away From Home’ – which resulted in a spectacular book – about migrants in Istanbul. His ongoing work titled ‘Roots- A point of Origin’ is a highly self-reflective work about his own identity and origins.
In this interview, I had a long and insightful conversation with Kürşat about Zaman, Istanbul, his personal projects, his various travels to Iraq, his current project and his ideologies, among other things.
TFM: Tell us something about your childhood.
KB: l was born in Isparta, a small city in the Mediterranean region, next to the famous holiday city of Antalya. At an early age, l had to leave my family to pursue education in a private school. I am the youngest of the five members in my family. So everybody has always taken care of me. For most of my time during childhood, l remember walking in forest, climbing mountains and cycling with my friends to the nearest lake called Eğirdir.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
During my childhood, l think most of my creativity came from being in the nature and from family albums. In my spare time, l loved looking at the family photo albums – at people and how they looked, how they were dressed, etc. And during high school, most of my time was spent in the school’s dark room. It was a hobby from e-shooting around with my first Zenith 122 A, gifted to me by my geography teacher. While l was in high school, l was also working as a tourist photographer in holiday clubs. This also helped me cover my education costs. Eventually, photography became a part of my life.
When did you really realize you wanted to pursue photography?
Photography is a passion and a way of life for me. It is a kind of a gift and voice. When I start taking pictures, l forget everything else except the scene captured in my frame. I connect with people and situations. Even though l dreamt of being a copywriter in advertising while I was in university, l soon realized the reality that l see the world in a frame. And l woke up to that dream, and have followed my passion ever since.
So did you take up any formal training in photography?
I can’t say it was a formal training, because I graduated from Marmara University Radio and Television Department, and photography was an optional extra lesson for us. But our photography teacher Haluk Çobanoğlu was very talented and an open minded person. In my early years of photography, l was quite influenced by him.
Tell us a bit about the newspaper Zaman you work with. Since when have you been working there?
l have been working for Zaman newspaper since 2003. Its circulation is around one million which is a lot for Turkey. The newspaper has a photography department comprising of around 14 staff photographers, which is quite a huge number if we compare it with others. They really care about their photography, and follow international standards like giving a whole page to a photo essay every week since the last five years. That’s unique and fantastic.
Could you pick up one project and tell us a briefly about its making?
It depends on the project actually. Sometimes I get inspired with some words l have read in a book, and sometimes from the life of a person I met on the street. Or any story from my country inspires me. Mostly l like working with people and city. Any kind of story that focuses on human relations, migration, poverty, environment and conflicts attracts me.
It’s very important to find the right language and aesthetics for each project. l know that many photographers choose to keep the same style across all their work, and a lot of people say this is the best way to achieve success, but it’s not right for me. I like challenging myself to keep my thinking fresh and to find the best solutions. Other artists change over the course of their lives, so I don’t know why photographers should be any different.
During my childhood, l think most of my creativity came from being in the nature and from family albums. In my spare time, l loved looking at the family photo albums – at people and how they looked, how they were dressed, etc.
How do you balance between newspaper work and personal projects?
It might seem very complicated, but usually it’s very easy. Because photography is a style of thinking and seeing, so I can easily change the way of looking at something. For example, if I travel to east of Turkey for an assignment, somewhere in my mind I am thinking about the frames for my long term personal project as well.
Migration is an important theme in your work including your project ‘Away From Home’. Tell us about how that started.
The project ‘Away from Home’, which I began working on nearly nine years ago, covers the inhabitants of Eminönü and Küçükpazar, the areas in Istanbul largely populated by migrants. Thousands of young migrants, while chasing after their hopes and dreams, work hard for their livelihood under challenging conditions.
After the migration waves in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, this group of people – which we could call the “fourth generation” – work in day jobs because they lack professional education. They dwell in single-room homes with limited supplies of water and electricity. Individual rooms of apartments are rented on a monthly basis. One room is typically occupied by a minimum of 10 people. Often, rooms in houses that lack a kitchen and bathroom are also used for cooking and bathing. Migrants, usually occupied with peddling and junk and scrap dealing, make approximately $200 a month. After spending $50 on rent, migrants send the balance of their income to their families back home. Only a few are able to achieve their goals of a better life and manage to bring their families to Istanbul.
When I first decided to make ‘Away from Home’ a long-term project, I gave up working with a digital camera and started to shoot with a film camera. This is because with a digital camera, I couldn’t feel the emotion and couldn’t live inside the frame. With a film camera, I wasn’t able to take in everything I saw. And that educated me about what I should and shouldn’t take photos of. I think living inside the story makes it powerful. A photographer must be a part of the story.
Tell us a bit more about your project ‘Roots- A Point of Origin’. This seems to be a deeply personal work.
Yes, ‘Roots – A Point of Origin’ is more about myself and my family. I was born in Isparta but I belong to Malatya which is east of Turkey, because your origins come from your father’s city in Turkey. I don’t really know anything about my homeland. I do remember the time when we traveled for 18 hours by bus from Isparta to Malatya for a family visit. And because of our limited budget, I had to sit between my father and mother and that was making me crazy (smiles). After ‘Away from Home’, I tried to find a connection between the two stories. My father had lost his parents when he was 17 years old. And he had to be away from home to survive. And l had to be away from home because of my education. So l tried to find similarities in the both of us, and Roots is where I address these notions of origins and a sense of belonging.
While Malatya is a place mentioned on my identity card as my place of birth and I have been there a few times, but it doesn’t really express my origins. Apart from my father being from Malatya, we were also generally considered to be Eastern Anatolian or Kurdish. I spent my childhood in the conservative Mediterranean city of Isparta, and ended up in İstanbul where I completed my education. İstanbul is also the city where I earn a living and to which I feel quite connected, and all of these elements together make me ask: where do I feel I am from?
My father was 17 when he traveled through Diyarbakır, Adıyaman İstanbul and Isparta. Years later, while on jobs in those same cities, I took photos relating to identity and a sense of belonging in order to form the parts of a fictional story. If the first photographs don’t represent a step-by-step visual account of the places my father has lived, they take important steps in answering questions about cultural identity and where I am from.
It’s very important to find the right language and aesthetics for each project. l know many photographers choose to keep the same style across all their work, and many people say this is the best way to achieve success, but it’s not right for me. I like challenging myself to keep my thinking fresh and to find the best solutions.
You have traveled a lot to Iraq for many of your projects. Is there any particular story there that left a deep impact on you?
l have traveled more to northern Iraq as compared to the south of Iraq. So l have witnessed the establishment of Kurdish Government and State. Most of the time when l came back from Iraq, I realized what is war and what it means to not have a government. Think about a city where a mother is sending her two sons in two different school buses so that she can save at least one of them if a terrorist attack happens on the street.
After war, Iraq has become a bombing city. Every day people are dying. Even now while l am writing these sentences, may be a family or children are being killed somewhere. It is a pity because before the war, in Turkey we referred to Baghdad in these terms – “Any one cannot be closer more than a mother and any city cannot be more beautiful and Baghdad”. But now Baghdad streets are separated by walls. People are not walking through Tigris River. And especially after ISIS captured many cities and established İslamic Government, there is no right of living for minorities. Yazidis, Kurds, Christians, Alavies were all forced to migrate.
How does Istanbul inspire you/your work? How is your relationship with the city?
İstanbul is a fantastic city. Each and every street and person is full of inspirations. But despite of all that, sometimes you feel lost in the crowded city. l love the city though. And as a citizen of İstanbul, I try to document the changes in the city. Everyday you can see a change. Right now, in the north of the city, there are two huge projects under construction. One of them is the third bridge to the Bosphorus and the other is an airport. This is good for business and for employees, but it’s not good for the city. More migration and more construction will turn this city into hell.
More than 4 million trees are destroyed because of these projects. And north of İstanbul is usually full of forests and small lakes which is the source of oxygen for İstanbul whose population is now more than 20 million post the migration of Syrian refugees. Residents of İstanbul need more green areas and clean air. So for my second book project ‘Last Exit Before the Bridge’, l am focusing on the northern part of the city.
I mostly spend my weekends in the north of İstanbul on the route of the new bridge. I talk with villagers, farmers and local people. I try to show them what beauty we will lose in the next five years. The third bridge project over the Bosphorus will be a disaster for İstanbul, its residents and the animals that live in the northern forests.
With a film camera, I wasn’t able to take in everything I saw. And that educated me about what I should and shouldn’t take photos of. I think living inside the story makes it powerful. A photographer must be a part of the story.
Tell us a little bit about your usual day at work.
l usually have to be at the office at 9.00 am for a meeting. As per the daily work requirement, I have to go for any kind of assignment. A portrait for the weekend magazine or a press meet or an accident – you can’t select the work. You have to do what’s been assigned to you. But you can also suggest projects that you would like to work on.
Which are the photographers around the world that you really admire?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a photojournalist?
Follow your passion. Don’t mind the rules.
FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:
From the series ‘Away from Home’
Kürşat Bayhan’s profile photo is provided by him. ©
All the other images are taken by Kürşat Bayhan. ©