Fieldwork blog: the many Istanbuls

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A photo I took in the neighbourhood where I stayed, in Karakoy. It was referendum day, which is why it’s was so quiet and empty. Every other day, this street is packed with people, scooters, and cars.

I noticed that the sheer expanse of the city meant that people only really lived in a few neighbourhoods of it. In everyday life, there seemed to be no single Istanbul, but more of a series of passages through, and dwellings within, more particular settings. People regularly attributed their lack of time for meeting up to the long travel times between different places they had to be. And although I realise this condition isn’t specific to Istanbul (the same probably happens in any city, especially one on this scale) I nevertheless had the feeling that any singular idea of the city as a whole evaded me.

I had no unitary image of the city. At least not, for instance, like the one I had of Los Angeles in the first months I spent there for fieldwork – however partial an image that was as a result of tireless representations of LA in films, songs, and other cultural productions. My lack of having this mental picture of Istanbul made me think about the kinds of representations of the city I had (or maybe, hadn’t) been exposed to previously. It also made me think about what kind of representation of Istanbul I would produce through my research.

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While reading the novel, Istanbul, I noticed Pamuk’s praise of Antoine-Ignace Melling’s landscape paintings of the Bosphorus from the 19th century. This was part of Pamuk’s way of creating his own representation of the city, via painted representations of how the city used to be.

“Seeing the details and materials of Istanbul as its own inhabitants saw them, Melling was not interested in exoticizing or orientalizing his scenes in the manner of so many other celebrated painters and engravers… Melling’s is an insider’s eye. But because the Istanbullus of his time did not know how to paint themselves or their city – indeed, had no interest in doing so – the techniques he brought with him from the West still give these candid paintings a foreign air. Because he saw the city like an Istanbullu but painted it like a clear-eyed Westerner, Melling’s Istanbul is not only a place graced by hills, mosques, and landmarks we can recognize, it is a place of sublime beauty.”

Reading this passage from the novel suddenly made me more aware of the images of Istanbul I had been exposed to (tourism commerce, Ottoman history, news of terrorism, beacon of progressive escape from neighbouring Iran where I have family) as well as those representations I was humbly in the process of making. It also heightened my awareness of the “techniques” for representation that I would use. And it was with this awareness that I started taking photographs of the city with a small, lightweight and inexpensive analog camera (Diana F+) and expired film that I bought from a shop nearby one of the apartments where I stayed. Partly because of a lack of space on my phone memory, and partly as a way to make myself more aware of what I was taking photos of and how, I decided to experiment with film photography for the first time.

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As a newcomer to the city, it was impossible for me to capture it as a long-time inhabitant like Melling did according to Pamuk’s account. But something strangely thrilling happened when I got the photos developed. I actually saw something in them that connected with the feel of the city as Pamuk portrays it in Istanbul, a dark, nostalgic melancholy of a city in decline and decay that is felt communally by all its inhabitants. To quote a 2005 review in the Washington Post:

All happy cities resemble one another, to paraphrase what Tolstoy famously observed of families, but each melancholy city is melancholy in its own way. The saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkeit of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston share only on the surface a common sense of melancholy. According to Orhan Pamuk, the melancholy of Istanbul is huzun, a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”

Somehow, the photos I made unexpectedly turned out to resonate for me with the affective atmosphere of the city that Pamuk conjures up in this novel. But maybe it’s just me. In any case, the novel and these pictures together started to give me a way to see many different little Istanbuls of everyday life city as a whole city, at least for a moment. But perhaps more significantly, they also provided an interesting way for me to understand how the city can be represented in terms of its feel.

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