Don’t say you didn’t see. Don’t say you didn’t hear.

Foto Istanbul 2015 is a festival of testimony and personal narrative.

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The photography festival Foto Istanbul 2015 is held from October 12th to November 8th on seven different locations throughout the European side of the city, with a focus in the Beşiktaş area.

Besides exhibitions of 44 artists from all over the world, the festival’s program includes artistic and editorial lectures, round tables and “Master talks”. This years motto is Başka Hayatlar – Lives of Others. The festival-philosophy on the homepage, that is, in this case, called “manifesto”, reads:
„We would like to share life with Others instead of living it in homogeneous isolation.

For better or worse, and whatever may happen, we would like to know and understand Others’ lives.
We know another life is possible. And we can only get there if we build it with Others.“

A message loud and clear in today’s Turkey, that is so tragically marked by clash and conflict between the multiple groups – may they be social, political or ethical – that live within it’s borders.

The entire concept of the festival seems to be notably inviting and participatory. Not only are all events free of charge and all exhibitions open 24/7. The festival also had an open photo competition on Instagram as a part of it’s program and offers 20 minute review sessions for photographic works for everybody who signs up for it.
And than, there is the art works.

According to Erdem Varol, participating in the festival with his project „Free Fall“, only a few, big names were specifically invited to join the festival.

All of the others applied directly to the festival with an exhibition or project according to the motto „Lives of Others“, following an open call.

The insights of what 44 people from all over the world consider as „the Others“ are as diverse as they are intimate. The approach to „The Other“ seems, in most cases, a very personal one. It seems the artists, encountering the foreign, almost always discover a great lot of the own. Russian photographer Evegnia Arbugaeva traveled back to the city of Tiksi – where she lived until she was eight and never returned – and rediscovered the location of her childhood from the view of a stranger.

The basis for Azadeh Aklaghi’s “By an Eye-Witness “ where newspaper articles and eye-witness reports of political events in her homeland Iran that had happened before her birth, or when she was too young to be aware of it. On her photos, these events, mostly scenes of death and cruelty from the Iranian revolution and the years before, are reenacted, and for a moment you find yourself wondering if this is documentary (hence very artistic) war photography.

But on the second glance, the arrangement clearly marks the observed as something artificial, somehow put into scene, the aesthetic in fact reminds rather of historical painting than photography, the technically dynamic scenes look strangely frozen.

Transforming the scenes from newspapers and reports into her images, the artist proceeds those memories, which are not her own. Memories of events moreover, that she might now have witnessed, but that still have notable impact on her personal reality.  


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The idea of witnessing also made it’s way into the work of 27 year old photographer Erdem Varol.

He describes his pictures as a sort of “visual diary of his life” and what was going on around him.

“There is so much going on around us all the time. Somebody should see”, he states. And indeed “Free Fall” captures snapshots from the lives of various others: scenes from Taksim, Eminönü, Tarlabasi or his own district Sanayi, basically everywhere his journey takes him, portrait all different kinds of people and lifestyles, also those which might not be represented so much in major Turkish media.

Yet all these encounters appear as part of his own story, the subjective perspective of this “diary” makes it vivid and intimate, so the spectator initially catches a glimpse of both the portrayed and the photographer. “Especially in the internet age, where we’re so overflowed with images day by day, it is really important, for me, to create sincere images. In order to do that, I have to act in my personal way, I have to follow my story.”

In 2013, Varol, along with his friends Onur Gokkuz, Onur Korkmaz, Serkan Colak and Sinan Kilic founded the photography network “Mahzen photos”. In 2014, Cennet Kuşca and Sevra Nihal Ünal joined in.

Just as a great lot of artistic action, Mahzen popped up in the course of the Gezi protests. “Everything changed after Gezi. We learned what we can do together.” And so they did.

Mahzen is a collective of people who, using the medium of photography, tell their personal stories and bare witness to all that is and all those who are part of it.


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Unlike many similar platforms, Mahzen is open to other photographers. During the years, more than twenty different artists published throughout the platform, which raised a lot of attention since it’s foundation in 2013. The main idea was not to make money out of it. “We are all amateurs”, Varol says.

Beside the mere aesthetics, the great value of projects such as Mahzen or the Istanbul-based agency Nar fotos is it’s representative power. When after Gezi the turkish public realized the tendentiousness of the main media, internet and social media emerged as the main channel to tell a different version of the truth.

This year’s Foto Istanbul set it’s focus on the foreign. Forty four artists from all over the world approached what is, to them, the foreign, and did so with caution and empathy. What we get, as viewers, is a lot of narratives from strangers’ perspectives, glimpses into the lives of Others. The festival calls for us to get involved with those foreign perspectives as well as with the world happening all around us.

Don’t say you didn’t see. Don’t say you didn’t hear. Don’t say you didn’t know.

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