Hayal & Hakikat A Handbook of Forgiveness & A Handbook of Punishment

The photographs in his book depict the hands of prisoners from the early 20th century, drawn from the photograph albums of Abdul Hamid II, the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Hayal & Hakikat (translated as Dream & Fact), by Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, takes the form of two groups ⁠— A Handbook of Forgiveness and A Handbook of Punishment .

Abdul Hamid II utilised photography as a tool for documenting the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th Century. A photography studio was build inside the Yıldız Palace and albums reproduced and sent across the world as a testament to the progress of the Ottoman Empire. Abdul Hamid II himself rarely left Istanbul but commissioned photographs so he could become acquainted with his own country, otherwise invisible to his eye.

Amongst other things, Abdul Hamid II was obsessed with crime fiction and in the 25th year of his reign he ordered all murder convicts to be photographed with their hands visible, in preparation for a planned amnesty. He has been moved by pseudo-scientific information he had read in a crime novel that “any criminal with a thumb joint longer than the index finger joint, is inclined to murder.” To this end, the photographs in this book show the subjects’ hands for the purpose of classification. They are presented in the book in categories – those chained with iron bracelets and those without. Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, has cropped out the faces of the subjects so their emotional state is ambiguous. The ‘Dream’ of the title refers to the inmates’ desire for release and the “Fact’, their actual circumstances. The fate of the individual prisoners remains unknown as there is no record of the verdict of Abdul Hamid II after viewing the hands awaiting forgiveness.

Hayal and Hakikat is dedicated to those in contemporary times who are arbitrarily detained. These photographic treasures, though unable to alter history nor the fate of the inmates, shed a comparable light on the troubling era at hand, where the line between ‘Dreams’ and ‘Facts’ is often convoluted. In a time of repression and arbitrary detentions, these images are like free speech written through history—a silent protest.

The work is a result of the workshop ‘Interpreting the Encyclopedia of Istanbul with Photographs’ organised by Geniş Açı Project Office and SALT in May 2019. Cemre Yeşil Gönenli found the story this archive of crime photographs in this unfinished encyclopaedia by Reşat Ekrem Koçu. She then went on to investigate the images preserved in Istanbul University’s Library Collection of Rare Books within the albums of The Yıldız Palace Photography Collection.

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