“We are constantly fighting with demons”: Emin Özmen on Turkey’s turbulent decade

“We are constantly fighting with demons”: Emin Özmen on Turkey’s turbulent decade

The Magnum photographer talks about his new book covering protests, political crises, and human tragedy.

On May 28, 2013, protests against development plans in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park erupted into a huge, nationwide uprising that saw millions take to the streets across the country, while kickstarting a frantic 10 years in Turkey. With optimism wearing off from the election of the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a decade earlier, and continued conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the moment marks the starting point of photojournalist Emin Özmen’s new book ‘Olay’, which documents an unstable, tumultuous, and often violent decade that the country has faced since.

The book makes for tough viewing, as the pages flick between protests, political crises, and human tragedy. The Gezi Park protests and resultant police brutality is captured in black-and-white, as are refugees crossing the border to Syria or Greece as they attempt to escape being caught in crossfire between Turkish security forces and militant PKK forces. Destruction is ever-present, both from military conflict and natural disasters – in February 2023 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed 55,000 in Turkey and Syria, injuring a further 100,000, while Özmen also captured wildfires ripping through villages. Moments of resilience also shine through, yet they remain clouded with struggle – one shot depicts a joyous dancing crowd at a 2021 LGBTQ+ rights rally, where minutes later tear gas and rubber bullets were unleashed onto the crowds.

Huck caught up with the photographer and member of the famed Magnum agency to chat about the new book, hopes for the future, and how photographing pain and suffering for a decade in his own country has affected him personally.

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news about Sakine Cansız on January 9, 2013? And what was your instant reaction? Why did that moment feel like the right time to begin the book?

I was a photographer for one of the biggest Turkish newspapers at the time. I took my camera and went to Diyarbakır and Dersim. The chronology begins with these murders because it marks the start of an endless whirlwind of dramatic and chaotic events. Even if, for me, the real turning point is symbolised by the Gezi uprising. Everything was turned upside down after that point. But several events happened in the same year that led to the Gezi uprising.

During those years, I had no intention of making this book, because I had no idea where the country was heading. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it took time to understand everything and get the full picture.

Can you tell me and readers about the meaning of ‘Olay’? Why was that a fitting title for the book?

“Olay” can be translated as “incident” or “event”. This book chronicles the dizzying succession of events that my country has experienced over the last decade. When you turn on the TV or social networks, every day you'd see "Olay" (which can sometimes be the equivalent of "breaking news").

Olay also reflects my state of mind, how I feel as a Turk. Living a thwarted love. I think a lot of Turks feel that way. We are constantly tossed between the violence and the calm of everyday life. No respite. Never a week without a drama, never a month without a major event. Here, nothing is simple, everything is intermingled and confronted, the beautiful as well as the ugly, sadness as well as joy. We are constantly fighting with demons, which we are struggling to bring out the light from the depths of violence.

How did the idea for the photobook come about?

We forget everything very quickly in Turkey, which is why the main purpose of my book is to contribute to our collective memory. When I look back, I see that so many important events have taken place over the last ten years. I think their impact will be decisive for the future of my people. I tried to record as many of them as possible. I wanted these events and these people not to be forgotten, so that we can learn from our mistakes and, I hope, change them. So it's also an attempt to open up a healthy conversation – with the next generations, I hope (I say the next generations because I know that's impossible in the toxic political atmosphere that currently reigns in Turkey).

How different was life in Turkey before that point? Compared to now, 10 years later?

Until 2013, politics was not in the centre of everything, and Turkish society was not polarised deeply as of today.

We had a lot of problems but there was an optimist[ic] wind, especially when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power. The promises were great: the hope of ending decades of conflict with the PKK, bringing peace to the region, developing the economy, moving closer to the European Union. It seemed that we could move towards safer, more prosperous horizons. All this was only to unravel in the following years, inexorably, relentlessly. A whole generation and I were only going to know this shadow, to grow up despite it, to try to build ourselves in its shade. This shadow is still there, 20 years later.

Can you give a bit of insight into some of the events/crises that have affected the nation in that time?

Since 2013, Turkey has seen mass demonstrations followed by brutal repression, an urban insurgency accompanied by massive destruction in the southeast of the country. In 2016 alone, 16 large-scale terrorist attacks were carried out, targeting working-class neighbourhoods, bus stations, rallies, etc. Increasing repression and economic mismanagement have triggered one currency crisis after another, as well as galloping inflation.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalists, teachers, politicians and dissidents, were imprisoned after an attempted coup that saw army tanks trample cars and F-16s fire on demonstrators. Military operations, purges, repression, student demonstrations, disrupted elections, barricades, tear gas, police operations, detentions, bombings and funerals followed one another. Then earthquakes, floods, forest fires, extreme drought and an unprecedented economic crisis joined the ballet of tragedies. The massacres in Syria, Iraq and far away in Afghanistan have led to millions of refugees flooding into Turkey, changing almost every dynamic. The book aims to show us what has happened, but also to ask questions and warn us about the future.

As a photojournalist, what has it been like to witness first hand and up close, repression from police forces? Does it ever affect you?

In Turkey, journalists have been one of the main targets in any kind of event for a few years. As a result, I have been detained several times, my equipment seized by authorities for months. Of course it's affecting me. I became anxious and stressed.

But I’m highly motivated and strongly believe in the importance of the work we, as journalists, do. As Nazım Hikmet, the great Turkish poet said once:

If I don’t burn

If you don’t burn

If we don’t burn

How will darkness Ever turn

Into light?

I may be stopped, blocked or whatever you can imagine. Those will happen to some of us one day or another, but our response should be to keep collecting the evidence of these very special times of Turkey. That’s the best thing we can do.

What was your most memorable moment from making the series?

For me it's definitely the Gezi Revolution, once again. Because I've never experienced anything like it before or since. There was such hope for change, such solidarity, and such mass strength.

The years 2015 and 2016 and its failed coup d’état, as well as the conflict in the southeast were particularly memorable too. Two nightmarish and violent years. While I had to work in the south-east of Turkey to cover the conflict between the Turkish forces and the Kurdish insurrection, I was constantly afraid that my wife would be injured or worse in an attack in Istanbul. It was chaos everywhere and all the time.

Are there any positive stories of resilience and strength from Turkish people or individuals in the face of the turbulent backdrop that you could share?

No matter how hard I look, I can't find a specific example. What a terrible observation for me to see that I can't find a positive story to tell... there must be some but it's as if I had forgotten, without being able to explain it to myself.

Maybe it's a more general feeling that comes to mind. It's incredible how welcoming and warm all the people I've met who were going through tragedy and had lost everything were. Even though they had nothing, they would make me tea or a hot meal and offer me shelter if they needed to. This resilience and generosity touches me deeply.

How do you see the outlook for the next decade?

Even if I don’t see any alternatives to the current regime in the close future, one day it will change for sure. But the recovery will need time. How will the polarised society be reunited? When will the financial crises end? What about the future of millions of migrants? What’s the solution for Kurds and other minorities? What can Turkey do for the peace in its neighbouring countries? I have more questions but no answers. I just know that, in Turkey, everything is possible. In a good way and in a bad way.

What does the book and project Olay mean to you personally?

When I look back to all these years now, I will probably carry all these painful memories forever. This book is a way for me to bring closure, to put an end to this whirlwind that has left me exhausted and drained. Olay is my tribute to the people in Turkey who marched for justice, to those who wanted nothing more than peace and who in return were beaten, imprisoned, robbed of their dignity or died for freedom and equality.

It's also, in a very personal way, a symbol of what my wife Cloé and I went through during those difficult years. We lived through it all together, and putting the book together made us realise just how crazy and sadly remarkable those years were.

Olay by Emin Özmen is published by MACK

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