Gender Identity in Photography

As Long As We Withhold Our “Words” They Think Our “Eyes” Are Weak, It Cannot Go On Like This - Without Words and Struggle…

In 1994, I was in the audience of a round table discussion called “Woman and Photography” in The French Cultural Institute, organized for the International Women’s Day. All of the five speakers were women (including the moderator), photographers (excluding the moderator) and academics (excluding one speaker). The question I raised was for all the speakers and it was something that had been puzzling me and which I thought would be pretty relevant for the significance of the day: Can we ever speak of a woman’s gaze in photography?

All the speakers agreed on a common answer for my question: “No, the language of photography is universal; we cannot talk about it in terms of gender.” When I followed up such a hasty and perhaps too straightforward answer with further questions in order to better understand the motives behind this almost instant consensus, I was warned my the moderator that I was “dragging out the topic”, so they passed on to more “pressing”(!) topics relevant to the title “Woman and Photography.”

How dare we attempt to destroy the universality of photography by bringing up the question of the woman’s gaze? (The fact that is was the women photographers and academics who, without even showing a hint of interest to open it for discussion, dismissed the topic immediately, was itself begging the question. But I prefer to postpone it for now) I also spent a lot of time thinking about being a woman writer, a woman director, a woman poet and a woman photographer (or in other words, which I truly fail to understand, “photography artist”) as I witness the predominance of reasoning and evaluations which specifically result from such approaches. When we think about the experience of being a woman in these areas, do we really eliminate and restrict the universality, do we really end up with an unnecessary and even a false distinction?

Undoubtedly, what matters is the photograph itself. However, to claim that the gender identity of the photographer was an element that destroyed the universal language of photography was clearly to reject the role of the gender of the photographer as s/he was producing “those” photographs. Those who put this claim forward or those who endorsed it perhaps could or even should, explain why there had been only a few women photographers in Turkey until the mid-90s. When I come across with the ones who defend this claim, I realize that Linda Nochlin’s following claim is not “something we all know by heart”: “The order of things, not only in art but in hundreds of various fields, has always been obstructive, oppressive and discouraging for all, except for the ones who was lucky enough to be born as middle-class, white men.”[1] Obviously, for them, “what lies under the question of the female artist is the myth of the Great Divine Artist, which has been the topic of hundreds of monograph. This male artist, similar to the goose that laid golden eggs, has a mysterious nature and it is called the Genius, the Talent. Just like the inevitability of murder, whether the circumstances are convenient or not, it will eventually occur.”[2]

As Ahu Antmen states in her introductory essay for the book The Second Eye: Women Photographers from Turkey, “in such a country where the pioneer of the establishment and the institutionalization of the academic education for photography is a woman[3], where there are many women educated in photography, many women as members of amateur photography organizations, many women already working in advertisement[4] or journalism, and there are many already expressing themselves artistically through photograph, it is indeed very astonishing not to see many women photographers historically and contemporarily.”

Yes it is indeed an astonishing situation, however it is further astonishing to realize that Linda Nochlin’s observations on photography are still predominant, not just in Turkey, but all over the world. To illustrate this claim, we can look at David Gibson’s book, dedicated to his mother, The Street Photographer’s Manual.[5] The book is comprised of 20 photographers examined through their approaches and important works in each different chapter. Only three of these photographers are women, isn’t that even more astonishing now?

Somehow we can still manage to conceal repressions and still claim, without hesitations, that photography has no gender…

In fact, photography is a practice implying a gender identity and it has a gender because of the photographer who produces the photograph.

The fact that the photographer is a woman or a man determines the entire historical, social, economic and personal components of what makes the photographer and the photograph as such. While these indissociable components form the photographer’s “own” photograph and his/her personal visual language, they carry the traces of the photographer’s relations of belonging. With each shot, they transform and enrich the photographer as well as his/her relations of belonging.

Being a woman or a man is a common denominator that determines the photographer’s relation of belonging to his/her identity; hence the significance. To stand as a woman photographer and keep producing as a woman photographer in a world, which has been suppressing women and their work for centuries, is not a privilege but a demand to be seen.

This demand, emphasizing the importance and the necessity of providing a space for the women to appear as they are, is also an effort to come up with a certain response to Linda Nochlin’s question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” What motivates this effort is, in Nanette Salomon’s words, “to bring the supposedly ‘normal’ selections under scrutiny and to find new strategies and possibilities of visual readings.”[6]

What is crucial is to renounce thinking certain features that are considered as “female” or “womanly” to be the basic traits of a personal style when we talk about a woman photographer. Because, as Linda Nochlin argues, the question lies “not in our fate, hormones, menstrual periods or our experience as women, but in our institutions and education. Here I use the word education to embrace everything we undergo as we enter into our world of meaningful symbols, signs and codes.”[7]  The women art students could finally liberate themselves from depending to a certain model in their works towards the end of the 19th century, the number of the women artists were three times less than the number of men artists until the middle of the 20th century. In this world in which the fundamental career of a woman is considered as “a house wife”, Linda Nochlin is right in her following claim: “no matter how talented or genius the women are, they have always been obstructed institutionally from achieving the same measure of authority and success as men do.”[8] In order to eradicate these social and institutional obstacles, it is necessary for the photographer’s gender identity to be allowed to appear alongside his/her work. It is important for these photographers to be supported, not merely because they are women, but also because they raise certain awareness.

Today in 2015, to disturb the man’s perspective that judges the works of the women photographers in Turkey as “quite weak” is to resist against this stiffened canon through remarkable works. Instead of dismissing the question of the gender of photography without a hint of hesitation, we need to be able to invite the women photographers and the academics in recognizing the increasingly successful works of the women photographers emerging especially in the second half of the 90s.

This effort signifies the requirement to unveil the voices, the words and the eyes of Semiha Es, Yıldız Moran and many other women photographers in Turkey. We need to declare relentlessly that disregarding women and their works cannot assert universality and that it is indeed this very discriminating attitude itself that fails to be universal.

We cannot and should not give up this endeavor; we must pay our debt to the women photographers who passed way by saving them from going unnoticed and to create opportunities for the future generations of women photographers to grow and flourish freely.


To Be A Woman Photographer in Turkey

I believe that the exhibition “The Second Eye: Women Photographers from Turkey” curated by Ahu Antmen and myself, held as a part of Semiha Es: The Women Photographers International Symposium organized in cooperation with the Women’s Museum Istanbul, the Gender and Women’s StudiesForum at Sabancı University, and Koç University’s Center for Gender Studies, should be construed as a real opportunity to evaluate photography in gender identity framework. In her essay in the exhibition booklet, Ahu Antmen specifically underlines the “gendered” nature of this exhibition. She asserts that the main aim of the exhibition is to ask “how come the exhibitions (I would also like to add the jury members for photography contests) that are put together as a result of ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ preferences, can end up being comprised only or mostly of men?”

During the process of research and selection[9], we realized that neither the voices, nor the words or the eyes of the women photographers in Turkey are ‘quite weak’ as claimed by Gültekin Çizgen.[10] On the contrary, their voices are quite vibrant, their words are quite courageous and their eyes are quite strong. They finally belong only to them. It is obvious that the reason why the photography in Turkey, beginning from the mid-80s and throughout the 90s, went through a transformative phase was the active presence of the women photographers in that arena. As the number of the women photographers increased, the number of remarkably qualified works has increased as well. One of the essential components of art, ‘the introspection’, has begun to find its way in photography and women photographers have followed this new trait in their works too. As they looked at their inner world, which was not unfamiliar for them, through photography, they succeeded in opening themselves to a new world, looking at it while reproducing themselves and eventually participating in it. Finally they heard their own inner voices, which had been either banned or sacrificed for the noise outside, they believed in themselves and what they have done, then, they learned not to silence their voices and not to hide.

When we look at the history of modern photography, born in the beginning of the 20th century with Paul Strand, as a reaction against the first trend in photography called Pictorialism in Europe and the USA, and has been extended to almost 200 years now – from 1839, the year photography as a new invention was officially registered to Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre by the French Academy of Sciences-, we can say that, starting from the second half of the 20th century, modern photography can be located first and foremost in the domain of subjectivity.

After the Second World War, ‘direct’ photography dominated by perfect compositions and idealized and ennobled images is replaced by the search for what is personal and subjective. The desire for perfection and the urge to capture the ideal were deeply wounded after the two world wars. As a result of the catastrophic experiences of war, photography departed away from the conception of “perfection” which had been considered almost sacred. The world was not a secure, ideal, complete, perfect place to live any more. On the contrary, the world has become an imperfect, unjust and discriminatory place. In such a place, there is not, and cannot be, an option to remain unbiased. The controversial black-and-white photographs of crime, punishment and death reflecting the dark sides of the streets of New York that Weegee took as a police officer, Lisette Model’s tender prostitutes, Diane Airbus’s freaks, prostitutes or midgets, the series of “Passengers” of the New York subway captured by Walker Evans with his camera hidden under his coat; these photographs are neither motivated by the desire for perfection, nor they seek to be perfect, instead with the demand to touch on so many details by interrupting the secluded and intact readings (emotions, thoughts, questions etc), they actually add up as the photographs of a great surveillance. It is exactly to bring them to life if the photographer can accomplish it; in other words, to reveal that the emperor has no clothes, to cleanse away from fakeness, to unmask the reality and point at other/new/different realities. As a result of this action, what the photographer shows the world (and collects) is nothing other than his/her own image.

Photograph oscillates between an ideal of perfect beauty and states of imperfection, between the efforts of adorning the world and attempts of unmasking it, and photography makes its entrance only when the “Spirit, con­quering mechanics, gives a new interpretation to the likenesses of life.” A photograph makes its entrance only when the make-up of the visible reality is removed. This is a sort of peak point. In Camera Lucida Barthes claims, “nothing is rejected or transformed in photography.” The photographer cannot transform what s/he shoots but s/he can transform it as s/he shoots, and with each shot s/he (re)- establishes a (new) relation with the reality.

Photography in Turkey couldn’t relate to the ‘beautifying’ and ‘docile’ photographs of the 80s. The desire to make the world look beautiful was having its last moments (even though it hasn’t vanished completely) as I began my career as a professional photographer in the beginning of the 90s. The world was full of pain, wars, imperfections and ugliness as much as the beauties. Again back in the wake of the 90s, photography in Turkey was dominated indisputably by the photographers, whom we call “doyenne” today, who are all men. It was as if they had immunity against criticism. Other than news announcing their new works or upcoming exhibitions, nothing was written about them. What they produce was photography, the rest was just trivia. They were seeing, and we were watching. For a long time, it went on like this. In order to exist as photographers in this male-dominated field, it seemed that all we must do was to become like them and support them. They were older than us and they were men. But still, we had to be similar to them because being different meant taking the risk to be left outside, exiled. In fact, what was expected from us was essentially, to re-produce the same and not to create difference. The understanding of photography, the photography societies, the centers, the slide screenings and the exhibitions held very rarely, all followed the same definition of ‘ideal’ photography. Photography was not a personal activity, but a social one. It was like a web of social message that brought together the peasant, the poor, the children, the mountains, the forests, and perfect landscapes. It took a while to understand how this web caused the photography in Turkey to lack a genuine and unique tradition and confined it to a uniform structure. Even though Yıldız Moran was contemporaneous with Ara Güler, we were unaware of her formidable works and the education she’d had on photography. In Çoşar Kulaksız’s words, “in Turkey, when photojournalism was just a toddler and today’s ‘masters’ didn’t even know about the artistic dimension of photography, in 1951 Yıldız Moran was completing her studies in photography in England, and she succeeded in selling all of her 25 photographs in her first exhibition there.” While she accomplished all these remarkable achievements, we were trapped in a world of photography, which was dominated by the nationalistic discourse, that ‘only the Turkish photographers could shoot Turkey perfectly.’ In this sense, I think it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the photographers, who are in their mid-50s today, namely the generation of the 1960s, are caught in the middle of these two tendencies.

In the period that covered the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, for an image to be accepted as ‘photograph’, it needed to obey some strict rules: photography was about the beautiful, it had to beautify the world but also it needed to be have a social dimension. The techniques such as backlight or shadow tricks were good, indeed creative; but photography has golden rules, like the rule of thirds. The rules on the place of the horizon and on how to position a person in a photograph were very straightforward; there was no need to argue on them, they were pretty consolidated. One could only achieve what was beautiful and perfect in photography by strictly following these rules. Achieving beauty was the indispensable goal, after all. This prohibitive approach in photography was actually an obstacle in seeing what life really was. It strictly refused to stand by what was personal and it could never ever claim, “the most important rule was to defy all rules.” So we could finally started realizing that this approach would eventually come across a deadlock and fail inevitably.

All the major establishments that are central for photography in Turkey have produced (or perhaps, we should say “reproduced”) photographs that have been loyal to this approach… Keeping their distance to what is personal… Furthermore, this approach has been rewarded and confirmed in photography contests, which kept increasing in number. The judges in these contests were selected among the doyennes, which ended up being composed of mostly men. In some of the contest, just out of courtesy, we could see a woman photographer among the judges. Now, how can we disagree with Linda Nochlin? In those years, photography was defined as a structure totally closed in itself and far from being universal. We witnessed a phase of photography in this country when the ‘masters’ were worshipped and celebrated in almost identical exhibitions or contests organized by uniform associations, when people could become ‘photography artist’ just because s/he came first or second in a contest, or because s/he had a couple of slide shows. No criticism and questioning were allowed during this phase. In this claustrophobic atmosphere, no photographer could be raised in this country, neither any photography criticism nor tradition, until the middle of the 90s (of course, I maintain that there were exceptions)… I guess the photographers who were able to break and resist the monotonousness in photography in the 90s, without even knowing that they were actually standing against it, were the ones working in advertisement as well. Since advertising was a completely different world, these photographers, although they were in close connection with the doyennes, managed to keep their distance from it in terms of studio photography. Advertising is a medium, which requires ‘differences’, ‘novelties’ and ‘distinctions’ in order to develop itself. In this sense, we can say that, it is one of the lucky fields that have managed not to sacrifice its creativity in this country.

Photography in the world has already entered into a certain circle and been surrendering to the depths of personalization. All the pre-established rules were being replaced by the freedom of no rules. However photography in Turkey was being more and more pushed away from the circle. Whereas the rest of the world was taking its mask off, our masks in this country were getting thicker and thicker. As Roland Barthes says, “what the photograph reproduces eternally has actually happened only once. In this sense, photograph reproduces the mechanical and what cannot be repeated in existence ever again.”[11] The creator of the optical images is the mental images. They are not static like the optic images. When the photographer captures a mental image, it reflects a totally different reality on each frame, constructing a world new reality each time anew. Each time an image is captured, it is a new reality and a death at the same time. Hence the term ‘punctum’ that Roland Barthes employs to express this return of the dead. Punctum “refers to the concept of punching and piercing. The photographs that I talk about are in fact pierced and punched by delicate edges; these traces and scars are definite points.” Punctum disrupts the first constituent, which is the stadium. It refers to a sort of surrendering which has no specific certainty; it implies a certain taste, a general enthusiasm […] The punctum pf a photograph signifies the accident that pierces me (but at the same time, painfully scars me) […] It is possible to approach the ‘unique’ world of the photography either through a certain generality, lightness and superficiality, like studium, or personally, intensely and deeply, like punctum. A trace, a restless feeling or an emotion regarding the image “rises from the stage, bounces off like an arrow and sticks right into me.”[12] It creates an inner turbulence and causes, although for a short while, a bouleversement. This is the “coming of the photograph” in Barthes’s words. The ‘coming of the photography’ is possible when the makeup of reality is removed, when the photographer embarks on a journey to reveal for him/herself and for the spectator what is hidden and invisible for them, just like Eugene Atget does in his photographs of Paris shot in the beginning of the 20th century.

When the real and the external can be re-interpreted as blended with the inner world of the photographer dedicated to that specific moment, that is the encounter of the inner and the external world of the photographer. This encounter implies that the real can be reconstructed with a subjective touch without being loyal to the original things.

Photography in Turkey perhaps began its construction of its subjectivity; nevertheless it is pleasing to know that many women are already involved in this process.

Laleper Aytek



[1] Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? – Turkish translation: Neden Hiç Büyük Kadın Sanatçı Yok?, İletişim Yayınları, Sanat Hayat Dizisi, 13, 1.Baskı 2008, İstanbul, s.125-126.

[2] Ibid, p. 130

[3] The first photography department in Turkey was founded in Mimar Sinan University in 1978 by Güler Ertan, who dedicated herself to photography education. When the photography department in Marmara University was being established in 1994, she was one of the forerunners of the undertaking. Also she published many books on photography.

[4] In Turkey starting from 1980s, one of the sectors in which women photographers appeared was the professional publicity photography.  Photographers like Gülnür Sözmen, Tülin Altılar and Selvi Sert became experts in their fields and their names became trademarks. When we look at their works, we can see that some of them have tried to maintain a personal portfolio; for instance, Gülnur Sözmen categorizes her photographs under advertising, corporate identity and art, however she presents them in the context of “light.” The photographers such as Ani Çelik Arevyan and Laleper Aytek, whose artistic works are more familiar for us, also had career experience in publicity photography.

[5] David Gibson, The Photographers Manual, Thames & Hudson, 2014.

[6] Nanette Salomon, “The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission” -  Turkish translation: “Sanat Tarihi Kanonu: Dışlama Günahları”, İletişim Yayınları, Sanat Hayat Dizisi, 13, 1.Baskı 2008, İstanbul, p.171.

[7] Linda Nochlin,  Neden Hiç Büyük Kadın Sanatçı Yok?, İletişim Yayınları, Sanat Hayat Dizisi, 13, 1.Baskı 2008, İstanbul, s.126.

[8] Ibid, p.157.

[9] Ahu Antmen, in her introduction to the exhibition The Second Eye: Women Photographers from Turkey, claims that this selection is not a historical or a contemporary inventory of the women photographers in Turkey, and that it has no such ambition.”

[10] Gültekin Çizgen, Sanat ve Kadınlara Dair, İFSAK Fotoğraf ve Sinema Dergisi, volume: 152, 2014/02, p.57.

[11] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 18

[12] Ibid, p. 41-42