Soulful tales: Timurtas Onan

Born in Istanbul, Timurtash Onan started working in photography in 1980 and has been working as a professional photographer for 25 years. His photographs are beautiful, timeless and cinematic. Sometimes filled with nostalgia, sometimes with that absurd life irony. When we look at them, we move imperceptibly between shadows and light, between spaces and people. How to take a picture only “with a soul”, can a picture change a person and what is the social responsibility of the artist – we talk about these and other topics with Timurtas during his visit to Sofia for the opening of the exhibition “Istanbul – Out of Time” at the invitation of Photosynthesis.

How did you discover photography?

T: When I was a kid, more like a teenager, I started taking pictures with my dad’s camera – a Kodak with a brown leather case, a very nice camera. Then I watched Antonioni’s film Blow Up and the idea of becoming a photographer stuck in my mind. As the years went by, I gave more and more importance to photography, and started working as a graphic designer. After a while I gave up and started shooting in a studio, learning how to work with medium and large format cameras, how to compose the shots. And after a few years, when I was in my early 30s, I started freelancing.

At the same time I was shooting black and white, developing the films all night long until the morning. That was the way back then. There was nobody and nowhere to share – there was no internet, it was the 80s. There was only a photo club where I sometimes showed my pictures. In the late 90’s I was already an established professional in advertising, but I gave up because I felt this “professional photography” was killing my spirit for art. Photography had become a business, I had a team of people working for me. Then I gave up and started working as an artist only. I worked on projects commissioned by municipalities, organized workshops with amateur photographers, worked with schools, sold my photos – I still do that today.

What do you think makes a good image? What do you look for in photography – you mentioned that composition is important to you, the graphic element, but also the feeling itself?

T: For me it’s a combination of all of those. For example, for journalists or war photographers, when they’re in the field or at a demonstration, it’s different – they’re showing directly what’s going on. But for me art photography is a combination of the graphic structure, the moment, the feeling – everything has to fit to make a photo special. Sure, you can take very good photos that are technically polished, but that doesn’t mean they’re special, they’ll bore you after a while. But if a photo is really good, you will be able to look at it even after years and it will evoke emotion in you.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing about a photo – the feeling it leaves in us…

T: Of course. The feeling and the right moment. When I was young, I could find very few photography books in Turkey. I was particularly impressed by some French photographers like Robert Doisneau and Brassaï. I like the humour and sentimental moments in their shots. Cartier-Bresson, for example, was a painter before he became a photographer and perhaps that is why he had such a good eye to build an image literally in a second. You sense when “the moment” comes, then you press the button and the photo is ready – just like that. Maybe I have some influence from these photographers.

Some photos are so chic, so shiny, so polished – I don’t like that. I prefer simplicity and clarity. But the most important thing is to capture the right moment.

Have your inspirations changed over the years? For example, the things you look for in an image – have they changed in any way, or stayed the same?

T: Maybe in the early years one isn’t as professional, as technically forward as later on. Sometimes by chance, just with your “soul” you can make wonderful pictures. You should not lose that feeling even when you become a professional. If you seek perfection all the time, you lose your natural feel. Let technique come second. If you are “drowning” in technicism, that’s just terrible.

Yes, technique is important for professional photography like advertising photography, for example. But the moment, the feeling, should be leading. There has to be something of you in every shot and only then comes the technique.

Is this the advice you give to your students, or to someone just getting into photography?

T: When my students come to me, some of them have already taken basic photography courses, but have only learned about equipment, cameras, and optics. Before the age of digital photography, a person had one camera and used it almost forever. But now that has changed, supposedly new optics are coming out all the time. It’s kind of a capitalist trick to sell new and new things all the time. You can buy one camera without paying a fortune. You’re shooting, not the other way around.

There are a lot of settings and options in today’s cameras that can be confusing, so I advise just shooting in raw format. First I want to see how they approach the subject. It’s important how sincere they make it. When you go somewhere to shoot, first try to understand what’s going on there. People pay a fortune for amateur cameras and then use them like a football journalist – snap, snap, without a second thought.

One click, then you look, assess, think and decide again. That’s photography. Of course, if you’re somewhere where events are happening fast and you don’t have time for that – sometimes you even press the button, holding the camera in the air. But for art photography, you have to be slow. To learn what to look at and how to see.

During your presentation at Photosynthesis, you mentioned that it is important to respect the people who stand in front of your lens. How do you gain the trust of your models?

T: When I work with people, I go into the neighborhood and talk to them first. Sometimes, though, I see a really great moment and snap directly. Then I say hello and explain why I’m doing this, I don’t want to be a “thief”. Sometimes everything looks perfect and you just have to take the photo quickly or it will all be gone in a moment. I never take humiliating photos of people though.

For closer portraits, of course, it’s important to create some kind of connection with the person in front of the lens – they should be looking at you with sincere eyes. That’s important to me. But on the streets, sometimes someone passes in front of a fantastic background and I use the form of that person and just capture it, without talking.

You work in both color and black and white, as well as analog and digital. How do you decide what technique you want to use – is it a conscious decision, or do you sometimes just go with your gut?

T: Up until the early 2000s I shot entirely on film. But then it started getting harder to find someone to develop the films, and I started shooting with a digital camera. The principle is the same – I don’t take hundreds of pictures, but as few as possible – like shooting film. The digital technique gives perhaps a little more freedom than film. For example, abroad I prefer to shoot digitally because I don’t have so much time on location. And if I’m working with film, I’ll need more time to finish the project.

In another project of mine with portraits of people from Beyoğlu – artists, painters – the people who are the soul and spirit of this place, I preferred a medium format for shooting.

I’m also experimenting with old film and using a lomographic Diana camera. I develop old slide films using cross processing (so-called cross processing is the deliberate processing of photographic film in a chemical solution designed for a different type of film) to get different colors.

The “Nights of Beyoglu” series, as the name gives away, was shot on major streets at night. I used a high ISO digital camera and things came out easily. If I had used an analogue camera, I would have needed a tripod or stretched the film to the limit to cope with the low lighting. So sometimes the setting and the project itself require a certain technique.

For this project I also recorded a video of night sounds from these streets. For the presentation of the project at the French Cultural Center in Istanbul, I created a room where you enter and you are surrounded by these sounds. And the photographs were presented on 3-meter-high veneer panels as a collage – 11 panels in total. Something different from the typical exhibition and photo book. In the images themselves I also try to break the classical composition consciously. But in order to break the structure of something, you first need to have a base to afford it…

So you have to know the basics so you can play with them?

T: Yes or the result is just terrible. You have to start with the classics. Many artists, before they became abstract, painted classical forms first. It’s the same with photography.

During your presentation, you mentioned that you have a different eye when photographing the East (Istanbul or the Balkans) compared to the West. What is different?

T: Every place has its own flavor, its own taste. For example Paris – sometimes there is humour, sometimes you feel something very nice. The city has beautiful architecture, bridges and that gives a certain feeling. That overall feeling is also guiding when I approach a place. First I “breathe in” the city. For example, the Balkans are different, the people are different. It’s a feeling. It’s not easy to translate, to really explain why the city gives me that feeling and I follow it. The most important thing is that I have to somehow “put myself” in these photos, and my feeling towards the city, towards the people, has to be tangible in these images. Every city has a different soul, a different feeling.

Is there a place you want to visit and photograph that you haven’t yet?

T: Maybe in Turkey I want to go to Mardin. In Europe I don’t know, I’m not sure. But the Balkan countries are more interesting for me at this stage.

Much of your life is dedicated to Istanbul. It’s a city with many different faces. Which of these faces is yours?

T: I was born and raised in one of the best neighborhoods. But this neighborhood is the same one I’m so bored of. Everything is beautiful here. People live in nice apartments and visit the shopping malls or go to drink coffee on the main street, which also looks like a glossy shopping mall.

I’ve always been curious – maybe because of the cinema, maybe because of Fellini, I don’t know. I wanted to learn more about the neighborhoods in Istanbul’s historic peninsula – where the middle class or poorer people live. But kids still play in the street. It’s different. All the neighbors know each other. For example, in my neighborhood, I don’t know anyone in the apartment building I live in.

And when I go to these old neighborhoods, I know a lot of people. It’s the same in the Roma neighborhoods. I go to the café, sometimes I play cards. I like it – that’s real life. The rest is strange. I think it’s a kind of globalism. And then came neoliberalism. The system tells people “this is life – go to work and then spend your money”…

Working something you don’t like so you can spend your money on things you don’t need?

T: Yes! Every day you are told that something new is relevant. Today you buy one thing, and the next day you forget about it and buy something new from another brand. That’s popular culture today – the same happens with new music.

A kind of fast food, fast culture…

T: Yes, and modern art is developing in a way like that. Now a lot of people are talking about – what’s going to happen to contemporary art? Because right now it’s just a business. It’s a business for chic and rich people. And the gallery owner offers nothing as a something for huge amounts of money. That’s the problem with everything these days.

Do you have the feeling that somehow the human – what makes us human – has abandoned us? And people have become empty spaces just like the places in your “Abandoned” project?

T: Yes, it’s the same. Because this neoliberalism, this globalism is killing your soul. The idea that you have to focus only on money and luxury is forced upon you.

In that sense, do you think artists should have a social responsibility – not only to reflect what’s going on, but also to have that social aspect in their art?

T: Pointing out the problems is also important. I believe that photographing the street as a kind of capturing a moment of everyday life carries not only aesthetic significance, but is also a social document. Good photography documents the spirit. And this is important for the future. I’ve made documentaries on social issues like “Street Children”, “Remembering Gezi”. I also have a series of stills and some other conceptual works.

Do you think a photograph or art in any form can change the world, have a greater impact on people?

T: Yes, maybe. Sometimes I lose my faith, but it should have an impact. I don’t know… Maybe it’s the people who have to start that change. People who watched the documentary “Street Children” (a film about homeless kids breathing glue) realized that they are human beings too. Because before they didn’t see them as such and were afraid of them. The film was screened at various festivals and events, but perhaps even more people need to see it so it can overturn their misconceptions.

I made the film, people saw it, but at the same time the hostel where these children lived was closed due to lack of funds. Thousands of big companies could have paid his rent, but no one did. I tried to do something, to help by myself. No one helped this small group of volunteers who ran the place. Maybe it will be demolished and a shiny new luxury building will rise in its place, maybe that explains the inaction. Everything moves so fast and cannot be stopped – Istanbul is changing rapidly. They are chasing people out of neighbourhoods and building new, big 20-storey buildings. But in the end it will probably stop by itself, because it cannot go on forever.

I am reminded of the film “Leviathan”, directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev – it is set in Russia, but this is typical Turkey.

And typical Bulgaria. The question is how can we fight these leviathan times? Perhaps through art?

T: Yes, art helps – maybe not at this moment, but it remains for the future. There is a place for art in history. People come and go – politicians, CEOs, companies, empires – but art remains. We go to a museum and see sculptures from hundreds of years ago.

This is an optimistic end to our conversation. One last question – what do you prefer, watermelon or melon?

T: Melon, maybe because it’s sweeter. It’s also a very good appetizer with feta cheese 🙂


interview: Sofia Hussein for Dinya
photos: archive Timurtash Onan

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