Istanbul’s Secret World That Reveals Itself at Night

Cağdaş Erdoğan’s cinematic first book offers a glimpse into Istanbul’s grim underworld of snarling dogs, criminals, and sex workers.

© Çağdaş Erdoğan, from the book, Control

Their faces, lit up against the surrounding darkness that engulfs them, float as though separated from the bodies to which they belong. Their eyes are fixed on something we cannot see - something outside of the frame. It is a disconcerting yet powerful way to begin a photobook and sets the tone for what follows. Çağdaş Erdoğan’s Control, which offers a glimpse into Istanbul’s dark, twisted underbelly, is an assault on the senses, a book intent on unsettling the reader at every turn.

Throughout its pages we witness dogfights, gun violence, and sex up stiflingly close as the book whisks us through a seedy underworld hidden from view. Gazi is one of several districts Erdoğan takes us to, where communities are fractured and those who don’t fit in retreat or are forced to the fringes of society. Largely forgotten about or ignored by day, sex workers, criminals, and lost souls rule the night, and in Control Erdoğan’s unforgiving lens places them centre stage.

© Çağdaş Erdoğan, from the book, Control

Since the early 2000s, Turkey has been plagued by economic and political instability, unemployment, and protests, and it is these things that Erdoğan, who is from Eastern Turkey, takes as his starting point. Segregated neighbourhoods are home to Kurds, Alevis, and refugees he says, and he describes how little hope there is for some young people who fall prey to a life of crime.

A sense of malaise and indeed sadness weighs heavy on the book, its black and white images depicting hastily caught moments - fragments of people, dogs, streets, lives cloaked in darkness. But the book isn’t explicitly about politics or an attempt to document the crises that have befallen Turkey. Rather it is a visceral account of a city that has lost its way, and Erdoğan invites us to watch.

There is something intensely cinematic about the way Erdoğan has approached his subject, namely in the way he’s edited together his images, and it feels as though Antoine d’Agata - his signature blurred and erotic images - could be an influence. The book switches unapologetically from shots of violent dogs gnashing their teeth to couples having sex, but Erdoğan handles his subjects with confidence and ease, embracing rather than shying away from moments that must have been at times difficult to watch let alone photograph in any meaningful way. 

© Çağdaş Erdoğan, from the book, Control

The book ends with a lengthy piece of text, which circles around biblical and Babylonian themes. In this, darkness becomes a character in its own right and we can surmise that it is a metaphor for Turkey’s troubles. “It was dark, pitch dark. That was the greatest plague of our age. We had been cursed and had lost the sun.” As if to underscore the sense of helplessness, an image of an outstretched arm ghoulishly appears from the darkness - visually bringing the book full circle.

One is left feeling empty, with questions about what has just occurred. But the best photography challenges and provokes, and at 25-years-old, Erdoğan gives a masterclass in how to use the medium - and the photobook - to brilliant effect.

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Control by Çağdaş Erdoğan

Publisher: Akina // Date of Publishing: July 2017 // Hardcover // 112 pages // £35.00

BUY HERE

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Çağdaş Erdoğan is a self-taught photographer and artist who documents conflict areas and minorities issues in Eastern Turkey, where he was born.

Gemma Padley is a photography writer and editor based in the UK.

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