It happens to anyone who uses social media. One second you are scrolling through your feed viewing a coffee someone is drinking and the next you land on a post featuring any number of brutal human rights crises around the world. From wildfires to femicide, no matter your political beliefs, our mass media consumption casually places personal images mere milliseconds from those depicting the greatest challenges of our time.
While each photographer has a unique view on what a photograph is and what it accomplishes, those that work in a documentary or socially conscious manner deal directly with ethical questions around whether photography can rouse empathy in viewers. How then, does an image-maker maintain integrity in their work as the lines between personal and political become nonexistent?
For many, the answer lies preciously in the idea that photography can be used to accomplish both personal growth and a particular political agenda. The previously clearly defined roles of art photographer and photojournalist now blend interchangeably. A very necessary and almost forced solution for any photographer whose work deals with subjects as serious as those of Turkish activist and photographer Cansu Yıldıran (@cansuyildirann). Based in Istanbul Yıldıran searches for peace and belonging with their camera. Working both in a documentary style for publications like The New York Times and in fine art photography tradition, their images confront discrimination faced by women and queer people in Turkey's strict heteronormative patriarchy, run by authoritarian president Erdoğan. Yıldıran captures powerful moments during protests like the one below in which a Kurdish member of "The Peace Mothers" stands in a crowd gathered in Istanbul to urge state authorities to accept Leyla Guven's, the MP of the People's Democratic Party, demands on the 175th day of their hunger strike.
Yıldıran looks for freedom from class and cultural norms, risking their safety to document the queer and gender nonconforming community in Turkey. A community that Yıldıran describes as both a safe space and a prison, simultaneously sheltering from the limitations on self-expression and free speech enforced by Turkey's conservative government and marginalizing people for their identities. Photography has largely helped Yıldıran define their identity by processing childhood experiences and their idea of home in the ongoing series "The Dispossessed". This work centers around the women of Turkey's highland villages, who are barred from owning any property even if they inherit it. Here, Yıldıran's voice meets that of her mother's and other highland women. The photographs show how difficult it is to discern a barrier between political control and the personal lives of the Turkish people. Those that argue against the personal being political in a "liberal" Western context should take a pause and reflect on how in a society where the state intrudes on a person's personal choices and liberties to such an extreme - photographers are left with little choice.
Yıldıran sought an escape from their life in Istanbul when completing their project "Fathom" while on residency through TAPA or the Transformative Art Project for Activists. Taken in Turkey's forested Marmara region the images are ethereal and play with the idea of queer individuals being part of a Utopian 'other'. Featuring Yıldıran's queer friends the pictures act as a refugee for activists and artists to freely express their experience without the watchful eye of the state. Instead of contrasting Yıldıran's photojournalistic work - the two exist in dialogue, one rendered more powerful by the other.
As photography changes, photographers can find hopeful inspiration in how Yıldıran approaches their work. Rather than being concerned with which genre of photography their work belongs to Yıldıran makes work that feels urgent. There is a desperate need for photographers that investigate the plight of others while consciously reflecting on their own experience. For those that take images seriously, and earnestly believe in their power to foster peace and understanding, embracing the contradictions of our image-sharing environment only strengthens their practice.