From images of the Bosphorous to intimate images capturing the people of Istanbul Niyal Akmanalp lives and breathes Istanbul.
Inspired by the great name of the Turkish photographer Ara Gueler, Niyal takes us on vicarious journeys into Istanbul to experience this historic metropolis in all its diverse and enigmatic glory.
We know you are from Istanbul-explain how it affected, a young Niyal?
I was born and raised in Istanbul but I have been exposed to different cultures with an American mother and a Circassian mixed father. Istanbul is very cosmopolitan so you are invariably exposed to very different cultures and backgrounds. When I was a child I lived in a neighborhood with people with different origins. I grew up with lots of Armenian, Turkish, Greek and Jewish friends and so that is why (I think) I enjoy taking pictures of people with different origins and backgrounds.
Did you start taking images from a young age?
Photography started to become my passion when I was quite young. I had friends taking photos as a hobby. They would take photos and I would just wander around with them and ask questions but I did not dare take photos with them because at that time I was too much of a perfectionist. During my first years in advertising, my passion towards photography became more serious. I took some photography courses in Istanbul and started taking images was a hobby that allowed me to de-stress.
What special memories do you have of that time when photography was a burgeoning passion?
When I was young my uncle gave me a very old Exakta. He got it second hand from a photojournalist who took photos with it in the Second World War. Then my uncle used it for a long time. I was the third person using it. That camera was a fetish for me at that time. I felt it had its own spirit. I remember holding it in my hand and trying to feel what the first owner of the camera felt when he was shooting in the WWII-what he saw, how it felt-I practically daydreamed.
And the most memorable image you took with that gem of a camera?
I remember I took an image of some laundry hanging outside of an old shaggy house in a back street in Istanbul. The person who lived in the house was so angry that I took the photo of his laundry, he flew out of the house and chased me down the street. Other people helped me get away but the photo was really a good one-it was worth it!
When did photography become in a way your raison d’etre?
I studied political science and started my carrier as a journalist and then I slowly moved into advertising and it is here my passion grew. I started advertising as a copywriter, and then moved to being a creative director. This was a great contributor in helping me think creatively. Being able to reduce an idea to a single visual or 30 second clip trained me, both visually and verbally, to simplify and tell stories effectively and working on photo and film shoots taught me a lot in terms to knowing what I want visually and being able to convey it to my counterparts. I believe that mastery lies in simplicity. I strive to capture that simplicity in my photos. Sometimes I envision a photo in my mind before it has been created, just like I would for an ad and then I roam the streets trying to find that photo.
Who would you say has been the most significant name in Turkish photography for you?
I grew up with Ara Güler’s photos. He is an internationally known Turkish photographer who mainly takes black and white photos and is nicknamed ‘The Eye of Istanbul’. There are other great photographers in Turkey but he was and still is my inspiration and my reason to start photography. I practically worship him and his work-I can still spend hours looking at his photos.
The environment obviously has an impact on what is captured-what do you try and capture in your images of Turkey?
Every city has a special mood. I like to bring out that mood, that smell, that music in the photos. Istanbul is a mix of the West and the East. Even the music, the smell of the city is a fusion. If I try to describe the mood of Istanbul in words, there is sorrow in its joy, and joy in its sorrow. I try to bring out this feeling in my images. I like to reflect the simple lives and feelings of the people of this big metropolis.
And what is it about the characters of Istanbul that captures your attention?
In my pictures, there are people who were chewed up and spat out by this giant city. There are people who find happiness in small things like playing with a cat, there are people who left their villages with big hopes and moved to Istanbul and lost their dreams on the way, people who are considered to be useless by many but who add a lot to the city’s mood, people who are lonely, people having fun, people who beg and people who help… I love to catch and reflect this mood.
Love the fact that you seem to capture the essence of Istanbul through architecture.
I also love to include elements in my photos that are emblematic of Istanbul like Bosphorous, the historical buildings and mosques often serve as a background but there are other elements; seagulls, the ferries and the stray dogs and cats – which have now become symbols of Istanbul and they have become my main subjects in some pictures.
Here at itchysilk we love black and white images but why do you use this medium what does it add?
Black and white has a magic, I feel it is more artistic. It strips out all the distractions and brings out the core emotion and the poetry of the visual. It brings out the feelings of the person more clearly while the light, the shadow and the contrasts help the subjects stand out.
You seem drawn to the elderly in your images?
I like the wisdom elderly people carry. When I say wisdom, I do not mean culture, education, wealth or any such things. Their approach to life, the way they carry the load of their years… their expression… the lines on their faces tell a lot about them. The young people are still learning but have lots to say, the elderly are the ones who know but say less. They learn to accept life as it is. They carry a certain mature mellowness and this is generally reflected in the images.
What makes a great shot what are you specifically looking for?
If I can make a person look at the image and create a story in his/her mind, then I believe that the image is a good one. Taking images is not just as simple as picking up the camera and shooting. First, I feel it, so that other people can also feel it, I need to see things with my heart. Eyes come after the heart and the camera just captures the feeling. The main thing I look for in a photo is the emotion it brings out. If I do not have that special mood, if I cannot look from my heart that day, I come back home with nothing. For me, the camera you use and the technique are just unimportant details.
What are the difficulties of street photography?
There are two types of street photographers. Those who first talk to the person before taking their photos, and those who just hide in the crowds and take photos without asking. I am the second type and this sometimes creates a negative reaction. A nice smile or sometimes a little chat afterwards and showing the photo or asking for the mail address and sending the edited version helps you get away with what you did. I think the most important part of this type of photography is to blend among the people and take images without disturbing them and making them uneasy. By doing this you get less objections and more natural poses.
What equipment are you using?
These days I shoot with a Sony Alpha 6000, which is a mirrorless small camera. It is very fast and practical and because it is small, it helps me blend in while taking street photos. The last thing I want is to stick out with a large camera.
Any photographers who you feel have had a profound effect on street photography?
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Vivian Maier. I believe they held the soul of the streets in their hands. For me they are the greats of street photography.