The below text is written in conjunction with “Why Are You Here,” the first exhibition of TOZ, the artist-run space that has just opened its doors in the Kadikoy neighborhood of Istanbul. This essay is a continuation of our ongoing interest in thinking about the status of the image and the role it plays in shaping near history. “Why Are You Here” departs from a series of propositions made about and around photographs taken in areas characterized by distress, asking the inexhaustible question: What type of claims do images make, and how does the viewer respond to them?
Could the photograph become a performative act? How can it transform the relationship between the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer? For me, “Why are you here,” the first exhibition of TOZ, takes these questions as a departure point. Bringing together works by Valentino Bellini & Eileen Quinn, Emanuele Satolli, and Merve Ünsal, the exhibition is placed in an artist’s studio-cum-exhibition space—a storefront, to be precise—, which also amplifies this proposition.
Among the works in the exhibition, Limbo (2015) has the most obviously documentary sensibility. Conceived by photographer Valentino Bellini and researcher Eileen Quinn, the project combines a series of photographs and a narrative text on people who have been affected by people smuggling in Tunisia. At the center of the installation is the photograph of a middle-aged man standing in a private garden, captured from a safe distance. (The caption introduces him as a Tunisian who was recently repatriated from Belgium). This photograph is placed against a gloomy seaspace with dark clouds over a wavy sea, captured at twilight—a moment of half-light, a transitional state that sets the tone for the series. On the next wall are clusters of smaller size images: There are fishermen who are involved in rescuing refugees on the water, as well as rescued immigrants who are portrayed individually in their private space, the apartment they share together. A refugee camp stands out as another living space with the bare minimum to share, to sleep, and to pray—all related to surviving the in-between moments.
In the installation, the photographs are attached to their captions and the quotes taken from the interviews conducted with their subjects (both in the text and audio format), which document glimpses of their daily lives. But what does it mean to look at these faces that emerge from places of neglect and oblivion? For me, these images don’t readily reproduce the categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander. Focusing on the banal representations of various people affected by the migrant issues, they don’t attempt to recreate the assumed causality between the representation of an event and the protocols to change it. On the contrary, it is the subjects who perform for the camera’s gaze that actively shape and participate in the perception of the images. In other words, the resulting photographs don’t simply describe these men, but rather perform an action—an appeal to the viewer—, and thus turn into “events” where the subjects present an ongoing claim, suggesting a space of negotiation.
Occupying the storeroom of TOZ downstairs, Emanuele Satolli’s In the bag for north (2015) calls for a similar interpretation of the potential of still photographic images. The title of the work contains a sense of exit and destination, which is placed in contrast with the claustrophobic feeling of the space with low ceilings and no windows. The short introductory text, made available on the way to downstairs, informs that Satolli takes photographs of undocumented immigrants traveling from Guetamala to the US. In the heart of the installation, six wooden boxes lie on the floor, each holding a photograph that captures personal items taken out of an immigrant’s bag. Daily objects, such as pills, sanitary items, and mobile phones, are all arranged in a grid and photographed against a concrete floor and from a distance, suggesting a sort of forensic aesthetics. These photographs are somehow capable of telling stories on behalf of the immigrants in question, revealing patterns of their needs and urgencies. Take the example of the image that features a tiny Virgin Mary statue, placed next to a hair gel and toilet paper, giving away personal details about what is irreplaceable, vital to survive. The most powerful image for me is the least visually crowded photograph, which shows only a pair of glasses—tactfully using a minimal language to voice the need to blend in or rather to disappear.
The large-scale photographs hung on the walls hint at those who carry these items in their bags. These portraits are taken in a dimly lit indoor space, presumably a safe haven for protection. Although a few divert their eyes from the camera, most of them directly look into it, suggesting a demand for getting noticed—something that they would not be able to favor in their journey to their destination in the north. Thereby, the photographs temporarily serve as speech acts, asking for a provisional visibility. Featuring excerpts from a Guatemalan radio that broadcasts news about immigration, the audio piece that occupies the space furthers that sense of distance and in-betweenness, creating a gap between what is heard and expected, what’s intended and achieved or failed in the end.
The act of seeing what is considered to be private is also present in Merve Ünsal’s From a window (2015). Installed on the ground floor, the work uses three monitors to show static images coupled with narratives that the artist recorded herself. The first image is a close-up of a window with metal frames shot from outside, allowing a sort of futile voyeurism: There is no one standing by it, except an empty chair that builds up an anticipation of someone to show up. The second image is an abstracted fragment of a beige-colored building façade, imperfect with its cracks, spots, and dangling cables on the side. The last one is the most obvious about where the artist stands, showing an urban view from the inside of a window. In the audio pieces, Ünsal speaks about the need to watch, the desire to recreate what one sees and cannot capture, and the urge to continue to see things outside. Here she explores a personal pursuit as well as the potential of static images, using a monotonous, flat voice: “These uncertainties constitute a layer, as thin as a pair of stockings, between you and the reality,” the artist says, “These stockings are so seductive to the extent that they lose their function; they’re there only for you to touch them.” The work stands out as a rather intimate inquiry, and questions how one crosses the threshold between the inside and the outside, somehow never giving up on making images.
Departing from her own daily rituals of looking and observing, Ünsal tries to build intimacy between her, her view, and her viewer. Here the trope of window becomes a placeholder for thresholds, for obstacles. But really, when does the camera turn into a protective shield or a window through which one reaffirms a power hierarchy? In her text-based gesture attached to the glass window of the storefront gallery, Ünsal creates another threshold, the one that sits between passers-by and the confined space of the exhibition. Only visible from outside, her sign reads: “All horrors are dulled by routine.” This quote (taken from Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile) poses an essential question for all the works on display here: What type of engagement does one seek to keep looking at images, regardless of what they show, be it images of distress or the banal details of daily life?
For me, “Why are you here” goes beyond the affirmation of the customary tropes of documentary photography, as it triggers an inquiry on the mediations between images and the idea of change. “Why are you here” is no longer the usual question an immigrant receives at in-betweens; it rather becomes a question addressed to the viewer himself/herself. After all, image-making is not only about producing images. It is rather a constant negotiation that exists in the gap between the image and what it attempts to represent. That said, let’s remember that the performative potential of the photograph depends on its receiver. So now, what does the viewer desire to see?