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.