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Çağdaş Erdoğan
Photography Çağdaş Erdoğan

Photos that lift the lid on Turkey’s illicit underground subcultures

Çağdaş Erdoğan spent 161 days in jail and was accused of links to a terrorist group for his documentation of Istanbul’s hidden subcultures

Since the failed coup in 2016, state repression against critical voices has steadily escalated in Turkey. Now in its 21st month, the state of emergency – which was originally conceived to empower the government in case of a disaster or armed conflict – has resulted in human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people, including people who work for the press. Turkey is currently the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, with 245 journalists and media workers in jail as of April 4 2018.

The relentless crackdown comes as no surprise to Çağdaş Erdoğan, a Kurdish Turkish photographer who was imprisoned on September 13, 2017. In a seemingly typical work day, the 26-year-old was taking pics at Yoğurtçu park, a popular hangout spot in the Asian side of the city, before being taken into custody. He was accused of photographing the MIT building that is home to the National Intelligence Organisation in Istanbul. “But there was no such building in the photographs I took,” Erdoğan explains. “Even if there was a building, there wasn’t a warning sign that showed photographing was not allowed.”

In total, he spent 161 days in jail awaiting trial. Officially, Erdoğan was accused of membership to a terrorist organisation and terrorist propaganda. “This arrest was carried out because I refused to share information on my news sources,” he explains. Erdoğan, who was born in the Kurdish town of Muş, embedded himself for the last few years with militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – a group that advocates for Kurdish autonomy through armed resistance, and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. His photojournalism of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict earned him international recognition – it was published in New York Times and The Guardian amongst others – but it also put him on the government’s radar. Prosecuting journalists on bogus charges of terrorism has become a common practice in Turkey to restrict the free flow of information.

Çağdaş Erdoğan was released on bail in February and will have to go to court again in June, “to listen to other non-existing witnesses or potential criminal partners”, he says. Until the judge makes a decision, Erdoğan faces up to 23 years in prison.

In addition to his work with Kurdish communities, photographs from his book Control were used as evidence against him during the trial. Published in London by Akina Books, it compiles a series of photographs that Erdoğan took between 2013 and 2017, mainly in Istanbul’s Gazi district. Gaziosmanpaşa, or “Gazi” for the locals, has a reputation for being the centre of crime and clashes between left-wing groups and the police. Overcrowded and impoverished, the working-class neighbourhood is inhabited by a majority of Alevis, Kurds and a growing influx of refugees.

Exclusively shot at night or in the dark, Erdoğan’s photographs bear witness to the city’s neglected ghettos and the rare spaces that remain out of the government’s suffocating grip. Though the photos give the impression of a blurry vision, Control depicts precisely the difficulties Turkish people are facing. “I moved into Gazi to be able to get into these issues,” reveals Erdoğan. The sex parties, dog fighting, and armed protests captured in the series are some of the many symptoms of the deep social malaise. “I think Turkey has entered into a dead-end, economically and socially”, he muses, adding that his images reflect the current climate of fear and conservatism in which “people with opposing thoughts are vilified and pushed into the night.”

Sexual activities are one element of the underground. “Those who cannot live out their different sexual orientations and preferences within society, live them secretly,” says Erdoğan. “Men and women from different social classes and professions gather to perform their fantasies.” Slowly making his way into this scene, Erdoğan started photographing meetings where people would have sex, sometimes in a group, in front of other partygoers. For those forced to hide, the night is an escape and a possibility to feel even the slightest sense of agency over their desires.

“Those who cannot live out their different sexual orientations and preferences within society, live them secretly” – Çağdaş Erdoğan

In other stills, men in balaclavas – “members of armed leftist organisations” and “mafia members” according to the photographer – seem to pose with their guns. It’s precisely due to this closeness to his subjects that Erdoğan was accused of belonging to terrorist groups. “(The authorities) alleged that I was a member of this organisation”, he explains, “because I was able to shoot these photographs.” The proximity is even more apparent in the shots of dog fights in which the photographer is, quite literally, nose to nose with the animal. During the trial, Erdoğan had to explain that his job is to tell stories and that physical closeness with his subjects didn’t make him his subjects.

“In recent times the government has increased the pressure,” Erdoğan says, “and is looking into different policies to wipe out these segregated neighbourhoods. The conflicts in the east of the country often increase the severity of the pressures applied to these neighbourhoods.” Longstanding problems like unemployment, a poor education system, and refugee arrivals accumulate in zones that seem ready to blow up once the stress becomes unbearable. “There are simply not enough schools in these areas to cater to the population and there are also not enough teachers, which results in most of the children leaving school without completing high school. This causes the children to carry out their potential in other areas.”

Until his forthcoming trial, Erdoğan is banned from travelling abroad. “I can’t attend my exhibitions in other countries and that’s a very saddening situation for me.” His work is currently on show in Paris at “Circulations”, a festival showcasing emerging photography talent. While the future seems uncertain, Erdoğan has not given up. He is working on “Cold Summer”, a new series that brings him back home to south east Turkey. Despite his incarceration and the scrutiny he is subjected to, he is determined. “I mostly tell hard-to-swallow stories such as war, minorities, oppression, sex workers, animal abuse, etc,” he says. “My motivation is my reason to pursue these stories: I live in a problematic point of the world, and I feel responsible to get these stories out. This is my drive, and I will keep driving.”