Turkey is a strategically important nation, poised geographically and symbolically between Europe and Asia. But the tensions at the heart of Turkey are becoming increasingly severe. A struggle is taking place between modernity, tradition, secularism, Islamism, democracy and repression — often in unlikely and contradictory combinations. Usually these tensions and our gaze are focused almost exclusively on Istanbul, the Kurdish issue, or religion, ignoring the far deeper complexities of a large country searching for a modern identity.
While living in Turkey for four-and-a-half years, I was surprised at how quickly change was taking place: landscapes, towns, and cities reshaped, an extensive road network under construction, town centers “beautified,” and large apartment blocks springing up at a rapid rate around every town and city. Almost always, the architecture and infrastructure follow the same blueprint. Cities are becoming carbon copies of each other.
This modernization is designed to handle the mass migration from village to city that is transforming Turkey. Istanbul, a city of a million people in 1960, is now one of the world’s largest urban sprawls with an estimated population of over 15 million. The migration is raising a host of new issues.
One of the most immediate concerns is the rapid disintegration of community in Turkish villages and towns. The low-cost housing projects replacing these communities are a model that has generally failed in Europe, though it is too early to tell how they will work in Turkey.
Turkey is often seen as the country that will bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East. At the moment Turkey is at a political crossroads that will define the very nature of the country. With a large, dynamic, and young population there is always hope that a truly democratic and liberal country will emerge, and that Turkey will be able to fulfill its role as a bridge between cultures and religions.
My work, by focusing on the altering landscape, seeks to address and question this process of modernization, urbanization, and national identity that is being played out against a rising tide of nationalism and religion.
For part of this work, I made photographs as I traversed the nation from East to West, seeking both the global and local. Another part is a series of candid photos made in the modern centre of Istanbul, Taksim Square, where I have deliberately avoided any architectural or cultural context: all you see are the people photographed against a universal sky. At first glance, they appear almost indistinguishable from people inhabiting major metropolises around the world. However, my intention here was not to suggest a move towards a globalized identity but by alluding to the appearance of a fashion show, to the possibilities of individuality.
— George Georgiou
Editors’ Note: The work presented here is an extract from the book Fault Lines: Turkey from East to West