Why Women Photographers?

In 1991, after my first slide show in Women’s Library, the Q&A starts with the question posed by Stella Ovadia, one of the activist feminists of Turkey in the 80s: ‘Is there such a thing as woman’s perpective in photography?’ My answer is concise: ‘No, the eye is neutral.’

In my self-­‐confident response, I actually meant to refer at ‘the moment of shooting’ in which you cannot think of anything but what you are shooting. But since that was the first time I was asked such a question, I panicked, couldn’t express myself at all and ended up talking nonsense. Admittedly I deserved a harsh criticism from dear Stella whom I hadn’t known well then.  

I concede that the question asked in 1991 in my first slideshow is indeed the milestone for me to start thinking about being a woman photographer.

It has been 22 years since I was asked that question and today, as a woman photographer and a member of the committee of Semiha Es Women Photographers International Symposium, giving this talk entitled ‘Why Women Photographers?’, and perhaps more importantly, as I get excited for the inauguration of ‘The Second Eye: Women Photographers from Turkey’,   the exhibition paralleling  this symposium  for which Ahu Antmen  and I have been working  since May, I am reminded  mostly  of  that  question  which  introduced  me  to  a  whole  new  world  and  my unfortunate response to it.  

What I meant that day by saying ‘the eye is neutral’ is that the brief moment when you hit the shutter button to capture that scene is the only moment during the entire process of photography  in which  you  don’t  think  about  anything  else.  I could have described this very moment as a moment of dismal emptiness or a deep silence. In that moment, the photographer is standing at the top of a pyramid all alone, insecure, desolate and, in fact, in danger. There’s no sape for anyone else at the top of the pyramid, but the moment of shooting triggers a sort of explosion   that will take him/her back to his/her  secure  environment   (family,  friends  or colleagues).   The photographer hits the shutter release, completes her shooting and instantly s/he heads back to the world, to his/her crowded and secure environment.  

But when you say that ‘the eye is neutral’, this statement is packed with actually only one significant meaning, ‘the photography has no gender’ or, in other words, you mean, ‘there’s no such thing as a female or male photograph, the perspective has no gender.’ However the photograph is gendered because of its photographer. The sexual identity is one of the elements that subjectivize the photograph making it a unique production of that particular photographer, and it is directly in  relation  with  the  gender  of  his/her  perspective,  how  he/she  perceives, interprets, experiences and reflects that gender.  

What we call perspective is your perception, your approach,  your scream,  your silence,  your rage, your confusions, your questions and your love; therefore the perspective is gendered in photography, and in life as well. The way we live our lives as women or men makes a difference; and this difference is surely stamped on what we write, say, think, ignore, and even what we choose to shoot.  Namely, our mind, soul and eyes are molded with this  difference;  it  is inevitable that our life carries its reflections in all corners.

During her short life and her journey as a photographer, reflecting the personal encounters she had, starting with her family members, Diane Arbus (1923-­‐1971) is one of the leading figures in photography who, after  Wegee  and Lisette  Model,  supports  the personal  and the  subjective approach,  and  change  the  course  of  the  history  of  photography   to  shift  it   towards  the subjective. The memories of her childhood cast their shadows on her life, her photographs and her death:  ‘When I was  a  child,  one  of  the  things  that  gave  me  pain  was  to  have  never experienced  hardship,  to have never  gone through  dire conditions.  As if I were trapped in a surreal feeling [...] How absurd it may sound, the fact that I was leading an immune life, exempt

from  hardship  was painful  for me.’1  Sontag  claims  that ‘Arbus’  works  are reactionary  – they originate from her reaction against nobility and all the things that are approved by everyone.’2

Her   photographs   represent   a   reaction   against   the   conception   of   docile   and   beautiful photography   which   was the common   trend   in  1920s;   they  are  not  compassionate,   her photographs  (and  herself)  do  not  intend  to  embrace  the  humanity,  and  since  they  reflect  a world we don’t see, or rather avoid to see, they are extremely disturbing.

Arbus sees life and photography via defects. The world is a place for good, ideal and beautiful things, but much more than that it is filled with defects, ugliness, evil and pain. Just like the royal and rich people, heterosexuals, people with average height, beauty queens or movie stars; the poor  poeple,  prostitutes,  transvestites,  homosexuals,  midgets  or  giants,  as  well  as  Arbus’s ‘freaks’ belong to this world too. People are all different; diversity and plurality come from difference. We can then say that by showing us that there is an other life, Arbus stands against the   processes   of making   the   humanity   shallow   and   identical   that   harshly   neglects   the differences.

According to Arbus the life does not consist of generalities, but details; life is made up of lacks, defects, secrets, dreams and desires. One of the ways to better understand life is to hold up a mirror to the lives of the unknown, marginalized  and ignored  people, as well as the lives we know and are familiar with; that is indeed to look at life in the face as we take its mask down. It

is not easy to do what Arbus did, namely to ‘oppose the successful life with the life that failed.’3

Arbus prefers to look at life from its dark side; to shoot what has never been visible to the eye (just like to read what has never been written) and be dragged deeper into that darkness each day.

Among infinite possible ways, the photographer chooses ‘this’ way of seeing and makes it his/her own.

That is why photographers are not ‘scriveners’, but ‘poets.’ Likewise, photographers do not  ‘quote’  the  reality;  they  ‘re-interpret’  the  simple  reality  by transforming it into their own way of seeing. This is how the photographers construct their own subjectivities.

And just like the other ways of existing that belong to the photographer, being a woman or a man is important, in fact prior, in the construction of his/her subjectivity.

In countries, societies and  families  in which  we are  born  and  raised  as women,  we become ‘someone’ through some specific choices; some are voluntary, whereas some are ‘dictated’ to us even though we are not fully aware of them: we become a woman, a writer, a scholar, a singer, an actress or a photographer.

Some of us re-define our sexual identity either during or after the process of becoming ‘someone’; some of us become a leftist, an activist, an environmentalist,  a fundamentalist or a fascist. Some of us are educated in bi-lingual colleges; some of us live in a country surrounded by three seas but have not seen the sea until reaching 30. The process of becoming ‘someone’ is diverse, the lives are different and get more complicated; as the states of becoming and existing interact with each other we grow, as well as our audience to whom we reach with our works.

Eventually we attain an ‘I’, a state of existing that embraces everything we have collected and eliminated; namely the choices we’ve made and the ones we couldn’t/didn’t make...

Today I stand here as someone with a finance degree who started her path to pursue her graduate studies in finance but after studying for 5 years,  changing  her mind and deciding  to become a photographer and been involved in photography for more than 20 years now; and I know that the perspective, the perception and the eye can never ever be neutral, and that I can start constructing  my subjectivity as a photographer  as soon as I realize that neither my mind, nor my heart or my eyes are unbiased;  on the contrary,  I build my subjectivity  and find that someone I call myself when I am completely biased.

To open new paths for different readings to be possible, to contribute in developing new suggestions of visual reading, which will, put in doubt the so-called ‘normal’ selections, I deeply believe that it is urgent to fight with ‘sins of omission’  as Nanette Salomon says.  In 1991, Nanette Salomon makes the following claim in one of the most influential texts of feminist art history, ‘Art Historical Canon: The Sins of Omission’: ‘In our own historical moment, women have fought for and regained the privilege and the responsibility of having a say in the ways culture gets produced and disseminated.  Feminists have opened places within canonical discourse to allow  for the inclusion  of women  as artists and women  as critics. But at this juncture, inclusion alone is not enough. Feminist practice has produced several strategies for dealing with the academic field of art history and its canon. Primary among these is the archeological excavation of women as creators. The the canon of the history of photography through a fresh perspective that emphasizes the construction of subjectivities.

To recover a hundred years of emptiness in photography (or photographlessness)  in Turkey and to create  a history  and a tradition  of photography,  I believe we, as photographer,  first of all, need to confront  our ‘sins of exclusion’  in this geography  and to fill the gaps in our memory through retrospective research (like the studies that have been going on recently on Semiha Es and Yıldız Moran today), then to find and support new strategies  which will question  the  so-­‐ called ‘normal’ selections by carefully observing how the subjectivist approaches that were born in the 80s and have became manifest in the 2000s, are being constructed.

With this symposium  and the exhibition  curated  by Ahu Antmen  and myself  inspired  by the visuals from the archive of Özgün Levent, we will be able to honor the memory of Semiha Es (1912-­‐2012),   the  first  travel  and  war  photographer   of  Turkey,  whose  name  is   generally associated with her husband Hikmet Feridun Es, a popular journalist of the time. Thanks to this symposium and the exhibition, I consider myself very lucky to be able to introduce Semiha Es as a woman photographer in Turkey.

We all know that there are other woman photographers who were born and raised in this land, but still insistently ignored  or not taken  seriously,  such  as Yıldız  Moran  (1932-1995),  Naciye Suman  (1881-1976),  Maryam  Şahinyan  (1911-1996),  Eleni  Küreman  (1921-2001)  and  all  the others...

It is obvious that we have a long way to go and so much to accomplish.

We have  a  long  way  and  so  much  to  do  because  when  we  look  at  the  history  of  modern photography which is born in Europe and the USA as a reaction against the first trend in photography called Pictorialism  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 twentieth century modern photography can be located in the domain of subjectivity among all the others.

During 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. TheSecond is the appearance of women as critics and interpreters, receiving and inflecting works of art in ways meaningful for them. The implications of the two developments –women recovered as artists and women as critics  – are vast, and they are, of course, not mutually exclusive.  Among the most useful consequences of the first strategy, the recovery of women artists is bringing ‘normal’ selection under direct scrutiny and thereby denaturalizing and politicizing it. What heretofore had appeared to be an objective account of cultural history, the ‘Western European Tradition’, suddenly reappears as a history with a strong bias for white, upper-class male creativity and patronage.  It is a history in profound support of exclusively male interests. Feminists’ insistence on exposing exclusions reveals the ways in which works within the canon cohere with one another  in terms  quite  different from those traditionally advanced.

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.’5 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) connection with the reality.


Yousuf Karsh explains this (re)connection as follows:


“I only know that every man and woman holds a secret within themselves…  The revelation of this secret, if it reveals, happens in a tiny  millisecond,  through  an unconscious  gesture,  in a sparkle of an eye, when the mask we wear to hide our innermost self from the world drops for a very brief moment.”6


As part of Semiha Es – Women Photographers International Symposium taking place in Istanbul on November 28-30, 2013, we will have two exhibitions: Semiha Es Exhibition and The Second Eye: Women Photographers from Turkey. Dear Ahu Antmen addressed the photographers in her introductory text for The Second Eye Exhibition and stated the following about the exhibition (and its publication),  “to make visible the  potential  of  the  women  artists  that  has  started growing   intellectually    and   artistically   in   Turkey   after   1980;   to   introduce   the   women

photographers who have been very productive in the field of photography  up until today and the woman  artists  who have been using photography  as a way of artistic  expression;  and to exhibit the efforts and contributions of the women photographers and the women artist in the process of subjectification  of the photographic expression. As a photographer in Turkey, in the

21st  century,  although  with a long delay to talk about a tradition  of photography,  I hope The Second Eye Exhibition, as Nanette Salomon said, will put in doubt the readings that have been considered ‘normal’ and bring about new horizons of visual readings.

Many people have put their minds, hearts, efforts, time, ideas, questions and suggestions in this project and a significant number of institutions supported. Such an important symposium and photograph exhibitions held at Greek Consulate, in this historical place, Sismanoglio Megaro, on

İstiklal Caddesi (“number 60”) once the center of photography, would not be possible without their contributions.

I thank the people and institutions that helped and sponsored us in every stage of ‘Semiha Es International Symposium of  Women  Photographers’  and  ‘The  Second  Eye:  Women Photographers from Turkey’ exhibition, jointly undertaken by Koç University, Sabancı University and Women’s Museum Istanbul. I also offer my gratitude to Rafineri, Zarakol Public Relations and  Difo  for  their  professional  volunteer  support,  my  colleagues,  dear  Özgün  Levent  who opened the Semiha Es archive for us, my students who took part in this project with me, last but not least, all the photographers who made this project “visible” by participation in the exhibition

The Second Eye: Women Photographers  from Turkey’ through their photographs, and all the participants from different countries of the world who kindly accepted our invitation to be with us today. I thank you all from the depths of my heart.


Laleper Aytek

November 2013