Dog fights and sex parties: the man who photographs Istanbul after dark

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Çağdaş Erdoğan captures the explosion of underground rebellion in parts of Istanbul. ‘People have been pushed into the night,’ says the photographer who is now facing jail

Tom Seymour

One day last September, Çağdaş Erdoğan took his camera to Parc Yoğurtçu, a popular spot in Istanbul near the Fenerbahçe football stadium. He took some photographs of the city skyline before finding himself accused by a police officer of deliberately shooting the nearby MİT (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı) building.

This, Erdoğan was told, is used by employees of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation. He was arrested on terrorism charges. A few hours later, his website was taken offline and his social media feeds disabled.

Erdoğan, a 26-year-old Kurdish Turk, is part of SO Collective, an anonymous, independent photo agency set up in 2013 by photojournalists who, for many reasons, have been blacklisted by the authorities and marginalised by the now largely state-run media. The group, originally called the State of Emergency Collective, pledge to provide “an alternative source of information” – unvarnished and objective photographs of the civil unrest and resurgent authoritarianism of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

‘The drug trafficking, the prostitution, the dog fights and the protests – they all had the same motive’ … from Erdoğan’s Control.

Çağdaş Erdoğan was released on bail last month and is now under curfew until his trial in June. If found guilty, he could go to jail for 23 years. “I believe I was imprisoned because I am willing to show the iniquity I witness in Turkey every day,” Erdoğan tells me from Istanbul. “But I was able to stay motivated because I believe I have done the right thing.”

Erdoğan’s photography has just gone on show at Circulations, a new Parisian photography festival held in a former funeral parlour. One can only hope visitors were prepared for what they saw because Erdoğan’s saturated monochrome photographs of the nightlife of Gazi – an impoverished, crime-ridden suburb to the north of Istanbul – are not for the fainthearted. Erdoğan captured the viciousness of illegal dog fights, the hedonism of underground sex parties, and the chaotic violence of armed street protests full of young men with masks and guns.

I often felt in danger but I learned how to navigate

After dropping out of a sociology degree to pursue photography in 2013, Erdoğan immersed himself in Gazi, known for its entrenched Kurdish community. There, he slowly gained the trust of its underground – accessing and photographing subcultures that have found a way to rebel against the oppressive conservatism of contemporary Turkey. Often illegal, these are secretive, dangerous environments, yet Erdoğan’s photographs his subjects with an intimate and expressive candour. The results are bold, uncompromising and thrilling. “I often felt in danger,” he says, “but I learned how to navigate.”

Erdoğan quickly sensed a larger reason behind Gazi’s turmoil: a feeling that the Turkish government was attempting to “wipe out” its Kurdish population. That sense of threat drove people to act in the way they did. “The drug trafficking, the prostitution, the dog fights and the protests – at first glance, these activities seemed different, but they all had the same roots, the same motive. Turkey has given certain ideologies a platform – and anyone with opposing thoughts is vilified. They have been pushed into the night. That’s what I photograph.”

 

There was, within this volatile environment, a newly liberated LGBT movement, as well as a desire among heterosexuals to experiment. Erdoğan began to attend gatherings in Gazi in which couples, and sometimes groups of people, would have sex openly, in front of other partygoers. Whether it was men with women, men with men, or women with women, it did not especially interest Erdoğan – he saw them as indistinguishable, one and the same. What was important here was the exhibitionism: doing this not just in front of others, but in the viewfinder of his camera. His photographs became visual, performative acts of rebellion.

“In modern Turkey,” he says, “anyone with any sort of marginalised sexual orientation is obliged to conceal their sexuality. I was allowed to witness acts at odds with the conservative image of Istanbul. They trusted me enough to open themselves up for my camera. Being able to photograph that was an amazing experience.”

Akina Books published Erdoğan’s debut collection, Control, in 2017. A representative, who did not wish to be named, said: “Erdoğan says the government is ‘present even in your own bedroom’. People might be repressed during the day but, when the lights go off, everything suddenly explodes. He found a way of expressing his fight against an invisible power – by showing the darkness in which his subjects live.”

While in Gazi, Erdoğan had begun travelling back and forth to the Kurdish region of his birth. He embedded with militants aligned to the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a separatist group affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and classified as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish authorities.

From this vantage point, Erdoğan documented elements of the conflict in the Kurdish territories of south-east Turkey. One of his first images was published by Getty in 2016 and used in newspapers around the world. It shows a Kurdish militant operating in Nusaybin, a city in eastern Turkey. His head wrapped in a kufiya, the young man prepares a rocket-propelled grenade as white doves fly above his head. “After the image appeared in Getty, he was on the morning news,” says the Akina spokesman. “A TV presenter said Çağdaş ‘must be a terrorist’ to take that picture. He knew they had their eyes on him.”

But Erdoğan’s photojournalism whilst in Kurdistan formed only part of the charges against him. Prosecutors say his photographs of Gazi, now on show in Paris, are “evidence of membership of a terrorist organisation” and “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation”.

However, Erdoğan’s single allegiance is, he says, to photojournalism. “My duty is to document the things that happen around me. As a journalist, I try to be as ethical as I can. I will never share the identities of my contacts. This, I believe, was a reason behind my arrest.”

Far from being cowed by Erdoğan’s experience, the SO Collective are continuing to grow, organising citizen journalists across the country. “Taking photographs of people in Turkey has always been hard,” a spokesman for the group told me. “Everyone is suspicious. As a photographer, you can be an agent, someone from the state, a terrorist. It can make it nearly impossible to connect with people. The country is in a state of constant paranoia. But we are finding ways to exist, to be out there – and chase the truth.”

 

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