“A prisoner exchange, outskirts of Istanbul”—reads one photo’s caption. “A man approaches a murder scene,” says another. “Murder of the mistress.” If you suspect that these captions seem inspired by the plots of a crime novel or a soap opera, you’re not mistaken. They are. Many of the photographs found in City of Dreams, Guy Martin’s Emergency Fund–awarded project, were taken on the sets of Turkish soap operas.
And although a soap opera—with its ever effusive acting, outlandish drama, and tantalizing resolutions—might seem as antithetical a visual medium to photojournalism as can be imagined, what Martin found was that in one sense the two worlds weren’t really that much different. In both worlds, when the camera’s on, life takes its stage and performs.
The late photojournalist Tim Hetherington coined the term “feedback loop” to illustrate a self-perpetuating relationship between those who fight in a conflict and those who capture images of them. He suggested that the movies, television, and photography that people ingest might influence not only their appearance but also their actions on a battlefield. “It’s the fact that there could be a revolution fought by young university students, teachers, and normal working people when they have had no training or knowledge of battlefield tactics or military planning,” says Martin about the feedback loop. “How are you supposed to dress, behave, act, or be a soldier? Where does that knowledge come from?”
Martin was with Tim Hetherington and fellow photojournalist Chris Hondros when they were hit, in Misrata, Libya, by a rocket-propelled grenade. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed. Martin suffered a severe pelvic wound and underwent surgery at a triage center held by rebels. City of Dreams was his first project after taking a year off shooting. “I felt that there was something that I wanted to say, on a very basic level, that dealt with the way we (as western, foreign photographers) were documenting the region” he says. “I wanted to talk about notions of power and how countries exercise power . . . and as weird as it might sound—Turkish TV was one of those tools.”
I spoke to Guy Martin over email about his thoughts on photojournalism photography and City of Dreams.
City of Dreams was your first project after your recovery, and it’s different from what you had shot previously. How did this project get its start?
This project got it start from a deep sense of frustration I had in the years after my experiences in the Arab revolutions. After my time in Libya, I had a developed a deep sense that my work was in some way unfinished. That to turn my back on the region and start a project far away, start afresh, would have been the easy thing to do. But, fundamentally, I felt that there was something that I wanted to say, on a very basic level, that dealt with the way we (as western, foreign photographers) were documenting the region. I wanted to talk about notions of power and how countries exercise power. But I didn’t want to cover conflict. That’s where I started to research about how countries use “soft power,” and as weird as it might sound—Turkish TV was one of those tools.
What made it different from your previous work?
I felt my previous work was deeply routed in journalism. I was focused on a tight narrative structure and working within a set of aesthetic conditions that I was not ready to question or challenge. I knew that I was being drawn to stories with global significance, but I also knew that I was far more at home with the peripheries of those events, seeking out the more subtle and quieter images of revolution and conflict. Trying on one hand to balance my ideas of journalism but then, on the other hand, turning my back on it in favor of something far more obscure. I think I failed most of the time to strike that balance, but sometimes I think it worked. City of Dreams started out as a long-term study into Turkish soft power, but, as the project developed and the Gezi Park events took place, I found myself almost simultaneously photographing on soap-opera sets one day and then dodging rubber bullets and tear gas the next. For me, the two worlds collided, and it enabled me to blend those peripheral journalistic images into more abstract personal work. But it should also be mentioned that the St. Brieuc Festival for photojournalism photography supported the first phase of the project and was exhibited in France at the end of 2013 and into 2014.
You took the narratives and characters of these soap operas to shape your project, but you also used them as a way to examine Turkey’s influence in the Arab world, describing the them as examples of Turkey’s soft power. Could you explain this idea more fully? What do they say about Turkish culture? How did they influence this project?
Well, what did Dallas say about American power in the 1980s? That show was all about power, money, Reagan-era attitudes of wealth formulation, sex, woman’s roles. Looking back on that now and looking at it for its basic story lines, I would say that it pretty accurately characterizes and perhaps satirizes a period in history. The exact same can be said of Turkish soap operas taking the Muslim world by storm right now. The shows are a powerful way for Turkey to export a version of itself to its neighbors. Audiences are intrigued by the way Turkish woman are portrayed, by the characters that men play, how the locations and landscapes of Istanbul are portrayed, the roles that transgender actors have. This for many people, particularly from more conservative Muslim countries, is deeply fascinating. When researching this project I spoke with many tour operators that lead Arab tour groups around the city, and lots and lots and lots of people on those tour groups said that it was TV, particularly Turkish TV and soap operas, that made them come to Turkey. A shared sense of history, culture, and religion all contributed, of course, but we can’t ignore how important TV and media visuals shape people’s opinions.
City of Dreams was published in TIME as a photo essay. I read that you studied under David Hurn, who taught you how to deconstruct a photo essay. For any aspiring photojournalists reading this, could you explain what the building blocks of a photo essay are? What makes one successful?
I did, I studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. It was and is a wonderful program initiated and maintained by some of the UK and Ireland’s finest photographic documentarians from the past and present, including Paul Seawright, Ken Grant, Martin Parr, Clive Landen, Simon Norfolk, Paul Reas, Helen Sear, Daniel Meadows, and, of course, David Hurn. As any Newport graduate will tell you, the first semester is all about deconstructing the photo essay, looking into the essential elements that go into the making of it. For example, the “relationship” photo is hugely important. Try to find a photo story online that DOESN’T have an image of two or more people interacting with one another. Also, the observed portrait, the “person at work,” the “detail,” the “landscape”—all these elements find a way into the ebb and flow of a well-sequenced narrative. I still find myself retreating to the warm confines of these very basic elements when trying to come up with a new project. Invariably, I always try to break those rules. But you have to learn the rules before you can break them!
This is one of my favorites. You say that it wasn’t staged. It actually happened. He lost consciousness after being gassed, and you photographed him. Could you explain how this image was made from start to finish? When did the idea of using flash come in?
That image was key to my understanding of the role that I play as a photographer. It reinforced the importance, or perceived importance, of what we do as media but also confounded and undermined it as well. That image was made at the height and most violent days of the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013. As the young man was sitting on the grass of the Dolmabache Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, he saw me, recognized my role as a photographer and fell back onto the grass as his friends pulled his shirt apart. It was an image that I think I would not have made if I had been in the role of photojournalist working for a news organisaton. I would have felt that that moment was “un-genuine,” but he and his friends seemed to understand, in a split second, the power and role of media. So I decided to play, too, and I photographed him and his friends as if he were a wounded hero on the battlefield (which maybe he was).
In shooting it as you did, you reveal that photojournalism photography, even ostensibly neutral reportage photography, is still a stylistic medium that’s dependent on the ethics, sensibilities, and tastes of a photographer and his or her editor and those above them, and so on. Ultimately, how you read an image depends on how it was shot. What do you think your approach revealed about the genre of conflict reportage? Do you see artistic style as incompatible with this genre?
Quite the opposite. I think a sense of deeply personal style, of a deeply personal, subjective voice, is exactly the thing that photojournalism needs right now. It needs highly thought-out, well-researched and visually challenging bodies of work. More often than not, the industry needs it where there’s an abundant media presence on huge global issues. Photojournalism seems to be in a constant state of crisis. I just hope that the current and future generation of documentary photographers are able to progress and change the way audiences engage with photojournalism photography. We need to take more risks as an industry, and I’m a huge supporter of anyone trying to do this at the moment.
Could you explain the “feedback loop” that Tim Hetherington talked about? What is it? And how does it influence reportage? Is there anything that you wish people knew about it?
Well, I know that it was reinforced for Tim in Libya. It’s the fact that there could be a revolution fought by young university students, teachers, and normal working people when they have had no training or knowledge of battlefield tactics or military planning. How are you supposed to dress, behave, act, or be a soldier? Where does that knowledge come from? Well, in part it comes from TV and movies. Acting and playing up for the camera played a role in that particular war. I’m taking nothing away from the many thousands of people that died for a revolution that they deeply believed in. But, looking back on that period, I think it has propelled my curiosity into into studying the “roles” fighters, revolutionaries, and the news media play in the narrative of modern conflict. As a side note, but not completely offtrack, I was reading the editorials of the last David Letterman show. Many critics and media analysts were saying that his brand of TV nightly entertainment and news is coming to an end. Now, TV entertainment and TV news is curated for one-minute social media for clicks and shares that it should be getting online. It needs to be sensational. The normal, nightly news, where people sit down on a couch and watch a TV, has finished. I think that’s a nice analogy for how audiences are engaging with the world right now. Particularly with news and events from the Middle East. The news media in Libya at that time were the “Hollywood movies” of that particular war, and the way I saw Libyans behave in front of the TV cameras and the way that the media let the rebels “perform” was staggering. I used to get upset that I couldn’t find anyone that was “genuine.” But I missed the point. I saw the same things that Tim saw. But Tim made an attempt to show and exploit this vitally important aspect of men in war in the 21st century—how you look and perform on camera.
What’s the attraction of shooting these areas of conflict to you, exactly? What compels you to risk your life for it?
Huge question. But, essentially, I enjoy challenging people’s perceptions on stories. I like finding out new or, perhaps, overlooked stories. I enjoy challenging stereotypes and preconceived ideas of what a place “should” look like. By doing so, I hope that history will be better illustrated by it. Perhaps more in a sense of duty to challenge ideas, not least my own.
All images © Guy Martin