Istanbul-based photographer Suzan Pektaş operates as a medium between reality and dream. Her photography is a visual exploration of the mundane, the fantastical and everything in between. Be it timeless, black and white street shots, more abstract experiments with movement and light or documentary story-telling, Pektaş’s output is nothing short of prolific and invariably high in quality. For her latest series she focused on a personal story, relating to her own childhood and the time she spent on the Black Sea coast. Shot with the Leica M-P Typ 240, the resulting photographs reveal the multiple cultural layers of the region, with a touch of personal mysticism and spirituality.
How did you first get into photography?
I have had an intimate relation to light since my childhood. I loved playing with shadows a lot. But it was not until my college years that I picked up photography. A close friend of mine was an amateur photographer and I would borrow his camera. He once sent my pictures to an open call to be considered for an exhibition and some were accepted. That’s when I started to see photography differently and exploring it as a creative medium. I built my own darkroom in the college dormitory and bought my first camera.
They were fascinating years, full of self-experimentation and exploration of this new medium. But it was not until five years ago that photography became an almost full-time occupation. Having spent years in the corporate world, I was looking for an exit from this life’s routines and there it was, my old film camera. However, it was the age of digital photography, so I bought my first digital camera. Since then I have been investing ever more time in it with increasing passion. I also have to acknowledge that photography has surpassed its significance to me as simply an escape route. It now offers me a means to express myself and to further share my creative vision.
Who or what would you say are your biggest inspirations and influences?
Among all the masters of photography, such as Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Sally Mann and others, I would give Bill Brandt a special place. His work motivated and inspired me to build my own visual language, my own style. I should also cite Eugenio Recuenco, whose style has always been a spark for my creativity. Likewise, Tarkovsky’s poetic language, which focuses on the existence and consciousness of the individual, has an undeniable effect on my exploration of the individual.
Some other things that swirl around in my brain, in no particular order: my daughter, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, train trips, painters, August Sander, Diane Arbus… I should also mention a few writers, who are also a great source of inspiration, such as Bukowski, Jack Kerouac and Raymond Carver.
And finally, I should acknowledge the positive effect of new media such as Instagram, online magazines, etc. Through these media I can not only achieve exposure for my work but they also expose me to different minds and visions. This provides me with stimuli for coming up with new ideas.
Your style could be described as somewhere between the seemingly conflicting genres of art and documentary photography. How would you describe your alluring style? Do you think art and documentary can exist together?
Your observation is totally right. That’s where I position myself, at the crossroads of art and documentary. Documentary practices have traditionally been understood as the opposite of art, its alter ego. However, there is an increasing trend, especially in the last two decades, to reinvent and reinvigorate traditional documentary photography. In fact, contemporary documentary practice is no more a mimetic or naturalistic reproduction of reality but an entirely manufactured process. It is a catalyst for a different reality instead of being its representation.
The defining quality is the fidelity to truth, rather than the truth itself. In fact, documentary can neither be associated with a single genre nor a medium any more. And, as in any creative process, there is subjectivity, the artist’s seal in it. There is an equilibrium that photography offers as a unique medium. It allows me to blend various stylistic elements from pure abstraction to documentary reality in a single frame.
I try to blend my personal identities, my subjective view into my photography, directly or as a metaphor. I want to challenge people’s way of seeing other people and the world at large, to perturb static minds and to enrich the dynamic ones. I’d be very happy if I can ignite anything in people through my work because that’s what will eventually open up space for discussion. That’s what we need so much.
Coming back to your original question, yes art and documentary can exist together, as they do in life.
When did you first visit the Black Sea coast and where does your affinity for this area come from?
I was born in a Bulgarian city close to the Black Sea coast. Some of the most memorable times of my childhood are the summer times when my whole family would spend a month in a small hut on the beach. The idea of making a series emerged when I decided to visit my birth-land with my family after 25 years. The initial idea quickly flourished into a series about the Black Sea coast and its people.
What was the concept of this series? What were you trying to say?
There is a personal relationship between myself and the region, hence the series. My grandpa, who was a slightly disabled actor (and had to retire because of that), would tell us fascinating stories in our summer hut. Stories about headless horses, pretty girls, the sea, etc. I think those performances of his were what kept him alive. This intimacy with the Black Sea must have been engraved so deeply on my soul that even decades after we moved to Turkey I keep on taking shelter on this coast.
Compared to its bigger sister, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea has largely been overlooked. I travelled mostly on the southern coast from Bulgaria to Georgia. My photographs are the result of a fusion of my memoirs with contemporary scenes. They often served as reflections of my faded dreams and fantasies in these forgotten lands. I framed daily activities of people, simple and fragile events along the coast, delving into multiple cultural layers of the region, with a touch of personal mysticism and spirituality.
You live in Istanbul, an incredibly vast and chaotic city. How much is your Black Sea series a personal form of escapism into a parallel universe or dream world?
Yes, I live in Istanbul, a mega-city of millions of estranged people. Fortunately, it is close to the Black Sea coast. But, as I have mentioned before, I have a personal intimate relation with the Black Sea, beyond any form of escapism. You will find my memoirs in this series, reproduced with a documentary eye. Yet, it is also true that the Black Sea coast offers me a window to breath whenever I feel I am drowning in the city.
Some of the scenes and motifs in this series were clearly staged. How much are these images voyeuristic snapshots into a different world and how much are they artistic constructions of your own? Who are the people we see?
I call my staged works planned spontaneity. It may sound contradictory but I brief my subject about the overall mood and let them interpret and execute it. I enjoy finding small stories in their interpretations rather than going with preconceived ideas. It is definitely a collaborative work as it very much depends on my subject’s mood and attitude. That is why I prefer to work with my close friends because this offers an area of deeper intimacy between myself and my subject. Having said that, I perceive them as anonymous beings while shooting. They are usually females in their 30s, which is a special period, in which one transforms into a certain state of maturity. Their body language drags me into a surreal world, feeding my fantasies and dreams. I am fascinated with different levels of narration, a mixture of dreams and reality.
Several of these images include people turning their heads (even the horse!), or closing their eyes as if trying to avoid your lens or the eyes of another person. Was this something you were aware of while shooting? And what kind of effect do you think this has on the series as a whole?
Mostly, it’s my curiosity about people and their unseen stories that drives me, the characters that are lost in their own inner worlds. I want to access my subject’s emotional layers, unearth them, explore how deeply they shape us. I want to evoke the notions of memory and melancholy, the persistent sense of longing and solitude, the hope and joy of living, in short all the invisible ties that bind us together. It is the extraordinary within the ordinary. I am a storyteller and this is essential for my photography. I believe a good storyteller relies a lot on his/her instincts, that’s how you decide to push the button to release the shutter. It is quite impossible to explain. Those turning heads, eyes avoiding the lens are those instinctively captured moments.
One of the most personal photographs in the series is of my daughter sleeping in the garden where I had spent my childhood. I was scared to wake her up while pushing the shutter release. Fortunately, Leica cameras are almost silent.
You shot this series with the Leica M-P (Typ 240). How did you find shooting with the camera?
Using a rangefinder has transformed my work because you really have to be quick. It does not tolerate mistakes, if you miss the shot, it’s gone. I had to practice a lot and nurture that. That is what’s so good about the M 240, you have to get things right, just as they need to be. After many years of using a Nikon D800, Leica has disciplined and re-trained me. I believe this has improved my work as well. It is also a beautiful camera. There is a sense of pride in using it.
What do you appreciate the most about shooting with Leica cameras?
I have a Nikon D800 that I have been using for years. It is a good but quite an intimidating camera. It has a bulky body and lens, which draws a lot of attention from people. The Leica, with its small size and familiar look, has transformed my relations to people. The camera does not intimidate them, so they look at me instead, which eases our communication. Once you become proficient with it, the rangefinder also provides total control of the image.
What are you working on at the moment? And what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
Since 2015, I have been working on long-term projects, mainly on urban transformation and gentrification, immigration and women. In one on-going project, I focus on the people of East Anatolia. East Anatolia is not only home to archaic settlements and villages spread over a poetic landscape with monumental mountains, but also to people with strong character, endurance, a strong hold on life and joy, yet tired under the heavy burden of local moral codes. Another on-going project is on the African community in Istanbul. I take photographs of a young African woman living in Istanbul. I accompany my subjects in different settings ranging from Sunday masses to boat parties, which allows me to reach an unhidden yet unnoticed urban African culture in Istanbul.
During the last two years I have travelled a lot but next year I plan to stay in more and work on the material I have accumulated. I would like to focus on preparing a book, which I believe will be a unique experience in itself, and participating in exhibitions. Building collaborations with other artists and planning some collaborative projects is also important to me. I would like to reach out more in 2019.
What one piece of advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
They should keep in mind that photography is a never-ending exploration. They have to explore to find their own voice and to find the right tools and techniques that allow them to produce distinctive and engaging works. There are at least as many perspectives of the world as there are people, and everyone has a unique voice. And, there are also more tools than ever at their disposal. Our time is absolutely fascinating in all aspects, use it. So, be insistent, try hard and stay passionate.
Connect with Suzan and see more of her fascinating photography on Instagram.