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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In Conversation: Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay

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Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay is a Turkish photographer and researcher whose works reflect her commitment to understand the cultural, ideological, environmental, and sociological order of the world, as well as the ordinary structures of daily life, by reading, using and producing images, which will hopefully open up new doors to the future.

31 January 2023

Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay, received B.A., M.Sc., and PhD in Journalism from Anadolu University in Turkey. Her B.A. graduation project titled “Faces of Prisoners” was exhibited in IFSAK İstanbul Photography Days in 2002. He worked a year in Anadolu Agency in 2002. She studied in The Academy of Performing Arts, Film and TV School (FAMU), Department of Still Photography in Prague for a year in 2006. 

She was one of the curators of Intimate Revolt exhibition, which was funded with a grant from FAMU, the Cultural Ministry of Lithuania and Czech Republic in 2007-2008. This exhibition took place in Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Turkey consisting of 10 photographers from 10 countries. She opened “Faces of Prisoners”, “Narodni Divadlo”, “Children of Maticni” as her personal exhibitions and participated in group exhibitions “66-II”, “Spirit of Prague”, “Six Czech School Photography”,” History of Photography Is History of Miserableness”, “Living Woman Self-Portrait”, “It Seems as If Anything I Feel”. She was the producer of “Merter Oral’ın Ardından”. She was selected World Press Photo (WPPH) Seminar organized in Turkey in 2002-2004. Her photo-story “Children of Maticni” was published in WPPH Magazine and at the book titled Photojournale Connections Across a Human Planet. 

She established Living Woman Photography Group, which advocates for women and children who are victims of violence. The group has made projects opened exhibition and presented the photograps between 2011-2022. She opened exhibition is titled “My Self-reflexive Diary: The Balkans” in Toronto Contact Photography Festival 2017. She participated Seeing Across Disciplines, the IVLA 2021 Virtual Art exhibition in 2021 and have taken part in many national and international exhibitions between 2018-2022. She published articles in some edited books, journals, and magazines (2001-2022). She held a post-doctoral fellowship at the Centre for Ethnography at University of Toronto Scarborough in 2016-2017.

See more of Akarcay's work here.

Artist Statement

In all of her work, both academic and creative, She tries to understand the cultural, ideological, environmental, and sociological order of the world, as well as the ordinary structures of daily life, by reading, using and producing images, which will hopefully open up new doors to the future. She uses photography to conduct visual ethnographic research, and produce photographic installations that are highly conceptual. As an artist, teacher, and curator, She endeavors to hold in balance the artistic with the anthropological, sociological, and the theoretical. Many of the photo-essays, installations, and social-artistic projects She has launched concern social issues: projects protesting violence against children and women; installations about cultural diversity, gender, mindset, and the environment; and her work with an all women photography collective as an activist and curator. The conceptually driven photography She produces is socially embedded and theoretically engaged.

Would you mind telling us a bit about your studies and background? How did your art career begin? 

I studied journalism at University and that was the very first time I was introduced to photography. For me, who had a quiet but naughty childhood, photography has turned into a means of expression. With photography, I started to document people and their lives who were unlike me, then. Basically, I focused on people, seasonal workers, industrial workers, nomadic women, artisans and so forth. What really excited me as a photographer was taking photos of incidents that ordinary people could not witness, of places they could not go and portraying distinct human stories. That is the reason why I photographed the prison, as a place where it intends to rehabilitate, surveil and punish. My prison project enabled me to join seminars organized by World Press Photo. In these seminars, I was lucky enough to produce two different photo interviews, the first focusing on gender and the second on the environment. Thus, my relationship with photography gave me hope to contribute as a changemaker as a photographer, even though I could not change the whole world entirely. 

As a feminist, I’ve started to think about gender issues and actively participated in NGOs. During that period, I founded a women’s photography group. In this group called “Living Women”, we produced conceptual photography projects on violence against women and children. This is how my transition to conceptual photography started as well. I developed projects concentrating on identity, and gender issues and I shared these projects at some festivals and exhibitions. In short, currently, while I’m producing documentary photography projects in search of curiosity and discovery of human conditions and issues, I try to produce conceptual photographs aiming to make the audience think about it. 

Children of Maticni by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Image courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay.

How important is research for your artistic practice?

Photography has had an impact on every phase of my adult life. My work has taken form gradually and has become to reflect how I define myself over time. I consider myself a “social documentary photographer”, having worked as a freelance photojournalist creating documentary photography projects. In the early phase of my photography career, I preferred to take black and white photographs, and developed and printed the photographs myself, using traditional darkroom processes.  

Transitioning to academic life, I began to define my path as a “social scientist as a photographer”. During my graduate studies, I learned sociological and ethnographic approaches to photography, and I made use of visuals and visual materials, particularly photography, in the field of communication sciences. I was working as a research assistant and made the most important discovery of my life: the relationship between photography and social sciences, particularly, in two main disciplines sociology and anthropology, and art as well. Then, I began to consider myself a "photography artist as a social scientist". In this phase, which is my current phase actually, I realized that reading the visuals is as self-reflexive as producing them and decided to conduct visual ethnographic research by using photography and have produced conceptual photography, and created installations by using photographic materials. In almost every phase of my work, one may find similarities and commonalities. I may claim that in my entire portfolio and studies, I have attempted to examine photography sociologically, anthropologically, theoretically and artistically as well. I conduct photo essays and projects strongly opposing violence against children and women, sexual harassment, rape, and discrimination by establishing photography groups as an activist and curator. My work portrays conceptual photo-project and installations about cultural diversity, gender, mindset, and environment as well. In general, and hypothetically my work urges the viewer/audience to question all these ideas theoretically. 

Children of Maticni by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Image courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay.

In 2007, you created a collection of photographs entitled The Children of Maticni which documented the racism and discrimination in Czech Republic. What motivated you to start this project? What can you tell us about the methodologies behind its creation?

I spent time photographing Romany people when I was living in the Czech Republic in 2006-2007 and revealed what is the ``racism and discrimination” found there. I started a project to highlight the Romany minority “who are stigmatized as `gypsies` by the majority in the district of Maticni-Usti Nad Labem in Prague.” Maticni is seen as a ‘gypsy' district and the local government built a wall there in 1998 to separate the Romany and Czech people. The reason given was to prevent environmental pollution caused by garbage left by the gypsies but the main reason was the prejudice and the negative image that the natives had about gypsies. So, the wall was constructed in order to isolate the Romany minority in Maticni. The wall was demolished in 1999 thanks to public reaction in the Czech Republic. All social conditions affected particularly “gypsy” children by then. There was a social organization, which organized some activities for `gypsy’ children, but it was not enough. Some could not even go to an ordinary school. Mostly they go to special training schools that discriminate against Czech children. On the other hand, it was commonplace that Romany parents didn’t make a special effort to support their children.

Many of the photo-essays, installations, and social-artistic projects you have created over the years investigate social issues. What drives you to dedicate most of your practice to these issues?

I am a person who cannot remain silent against inequalities and has a high sense of justice. I am so curious and I have always had an interest in those who are not like me, those who are different, the other since I’m the “other” in the country where I live now. That is why I find myself being on the side of the oppressed. In Susan Sontag’s words, I’ve always been in search of understanding “çukurdakiler”. Photography is a tool that takes me away from the space, place, environment and climate I’m surrounded by and also brings me closer. I use diverse photographic languages, codes and styles in order to produce images. These images create representations and these representations meet people. My biggest dream is to work on social issues in-depth with NGOs in a more comprehensive way because documentary photography projects produced alone may remain pale in comparison as they could not find enough voice in the public sphere.  

My Little Self-reflexive Diary: The Balkans by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Image courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay.

What can you tell us about the collection My Little Self-Reflexive Diary: the Balkans?

These photos are a self-reflexive interpretation of the Balkans. My memories of the Balkans are upsetting. I remember some heartbreaking photos in newspapers during the war in the early 1990s. I saw dead bodies for the first time in my life that was hard to conceive as a child. I’ve always wanted to go to the Balkans. I had the chance to visit the region in 2007. This exhibition was the first time that these photos came to light. In 2017, as part of the Scotiabank Toronto Contact Photography Festival in Canada, I read and created the photos again with self-reflexive-consciousness. The exhibition attracted a lot of attention. I witnessed the emotional relations that immigrants from the Balkans established with photographs. It was an exhibition that proved that a single frame of a photograph could remain alive in memory and memories.

You are part of the first women's photography group in Turkey, called Living Woman. How did you come together as a group? What have you learned over the course of working within the collective?

This is the first women's photography group in Turkey that came together after a basic photography seminar and started creating works of art in 2011. This women's photography group produced 8 different projects in 11 years, including members from different professions like academicians, students, engineers, secretaries, housewives, civil servants, beauticians, art directors and trades. When I was the director of the Photography Association in Eskisehir-Turkey (EFSAD), I recognized that women were the majority of the audience, but they didn’t find enough courage to show their photos. Then, as the director of the photography association, I made a call for women photographers in order to bring them together. In the first project in 2011, we stood against the murders and all kinds of abuse of women with the slogan “Living Woman, ironically despite the women who are beaten or killed” and photographed the woman who had gone through these difficult situations. 

We did 8 projects titled “Self-portraits” (2012), “MADAM” (2013), “Time” (2014), “All for One” (2015), “Memory” (2016), “Chaos” (2017), Living Women Retrospective (2019), Face Off (2021), The group has been working together for about 11 years. We call ourselves “The Living Woman” against those who kill women. The photograph became our mutual point. We get closer with smiles and sharing. Not only does March 8, International Women’s Day unites us, but also being human and women with a conscience who want to tell our stories with photographs. You can see our project

My Little Self-reflexive Diary: The Balkans by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Image courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay.

Describe your experience so far with the public. How much do you feel viewers relate to your art? 

I have participated in four solo exhibitions and dozens of group exhibitions so far. I think that the relationship between my documentary photography with the audience is more sincere than my conceptual photography. Maybe it is because I have a modest and frank relationship with my subjects. I’m not a photographer who is captured by technology and technique. In my understanding of photography, perfectionism is more in modesty, plainness and innocence rather than the aesthetics of light. My subjects let me take their photos even if I don’t know them in person. One way or another, I’m successful in convincing them. That is why my photos can establish a sincere relationship with the audience. The viewer may find my conceptual works more protest because I critically construct what I’m thinking conceptually. I make my way towards a concept. As a feminist, in my conceptual works, I prefer to focus on identity and gender. These photos may disturb the conservative viewer in a sense. 


You have an ongoing project called Mindset: Gender. What is the creative process behind it?

I combined the close-up fruit and vegetable photos I took in the studio while I was studying at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) with another project where I designed being Western and Eastern, particularly Middle Eastern through femininity and masculinity. Thus, dual colleges emerged. I thought that if I could combine the close-up photos of tangerines, pepper stalks, pomegranates and red cabbages with the coincidental portraits, would make the gender critique woven with the fate of geography stronger. I exhibited this idea in a group exhibition in Prague. It was surprising to use such metaphors in one of the most naïve countries of Europe, the Czech Republic, particularly the picturesque city of Prague. However, it had already become a cliché for Middle Eastern geography. Although these metaphors continue to be clichés, unfortunately, we still see brutal violence against women and the oppression against them increasing exponentially. What I was trying to do was to highlight these issues and make a criticism. 

Mindset-Gender by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Images courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay

With your art, what do you hope to convey? Also, what do you think differentiates your approach from others?

My main task is to produce images. While I’m producing, I’m being nourished by sociology, anthropology, ethnography and cultural studies. I follow what is happening in the world and in my country. I want photography to turn into my way of thinking and to narrate myself and the criticisms that I think I owe to this century through my lens. I like to emphasize that I respect my subjects in my work of art by producing a modest and sincere attitude of self-reflexive documentary photography. In my photography, the subjects can easily look at my lens directly, mostly showing their pride in any circumstances. When you come across my photos, instead of feeling sorry for them, you rather try to develop empathy. I attempt to reflect my subjects in such a way that the viewer would like to be there in the moment with the subjects, not the viewer to have mercy for them. I want the audience to develop a relationship with the subjects. I also like to highlight the fact that no one is superior to another, however, some are more privileged than others. I might say I differentiate as I define myself as an ethnographer who is always in the field as well. I use photography as a data collection tool in ethnographic research.

I produce both documentary photography and photo-ethnographic articles out of these fieldworks. As an ethnographer, I intend to reflect my photographer’s view in my recent documentary projects. On the other hand, I cannot be plain and smooth in my conceptual work of art since I develop metaphors, relations with objects and the meanings that reveal. Therefore, the viewer could act more reactively when perceiving my conceptual photography. 

Finally, any upcoming exhibitions or collaborations? Are there any new projects you'd like to share?

Currently, I am working on two different documentary photography projects. The first one is an ethnographic documentary photography project based on how migrant women construct, form and call their “new” living places “homes”. These living spaces are where I live currently as it is my hometown as well. The second one is more like documenting a historical industry complex still producing sugar, trying to narrate its history and social memory with a collaborative study including a sociologist. Besides, I also started a conceptual work which I call “This is not fabric anymore!”. In this one, I give a shot to describe the fight for freedom of Iranian women (Middle Eastern in general). I intend to exhibit this project in a couple of group exhibitions. 

Cover Image:

Children of Maticni by Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay. Image courtesy of Gulbin Ozdamar Akarcay.

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