Suzan Pektas

2017 - 2021

NAOMI is a lively young woman from Sierra Leone. She fled from the devastating ebola pandemic in 2015 and settled in Istanbul. She was 22 years old at the time, with a boundless determination and endless dreams in her mind.

I am a photographer myself, uprooted as well. I left my native Bulgaria when I was 12 as a result of forced immigration and settled in Turkey. I met Naomi in 2017 a bit by chance. Immediately, we developed a friendship. I was fascinated by the energy that emanated from her.

Since the days she had been dreaming in her small room in Freetown as a teenager about traveling to distant lands, Naomi, a matriarchal persona, stands against all odds. She disrupts the norm, the societal ideals and pushes beyond the accessible, opening her own path. She has achieved so much in so little time, both in Turkey and Sierra Leone. In just a few years she has become an indispensable figure in Sierra Leone, a small country that she holds so dear. She has founded a foundation specifically to support the growth and empowerment of girls, resumed her studies in Istanbul, organizes beauty contests, acts as a mediator between the youth of her country and the authorities and was recently the guest of honor at the inauguration of the Sierra Leone Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. She dreams of being a fashion model, even the president of Sierra Leone one day.

I wanted to tell the story of immigration from inside, crisscrossing with my personal story. As I got deeper into Naomi’s extraordinary life, I realized that I had no choice but to connect her two lives, both in her homeland and in Turkey. I visited Sierra Leone in 2019 to portray her community and family life. As I unraveled her layer-by-layer and we built a stronger connection and the project evolved into a a joint narrative about Naomi. An inspiring and complex woman, far from all clichés, conveys the image of a young Sierra Leonean, alert, changing, claiming the right to be different, and celebrating diversity.

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  • "I frequently remember my grandma Mamie, hear her voice saying “Imagine your smile as a torch in the darkness. Don’t let anyone to change it, you can change them with your smile.”. My grandma was a real feminist, though she didn’t even know the meaning of the word."

  • Naomi is a self-taught, skilled tailor. She had started sewing and selling dresses at high school to support herself. Nowadays it’s not only an extra income source but also, even more, a way for self-expression. She frequently dresses with her own creations. She puts it straight, “I play on an idea….For me it’s about the spirit of the person, not a fashion thing; it’s about the energy. I want people to see the person.”. In time, she developed a personal style combining traditional African and trendy Western styles. I remember her spending hours in designing her outfit.

  • Wigs are not an integral part of their culture but an essential connection to the modern world, a symbol of their contradictions. They also fit to Naomi’s multi-façade personality. Hair styling has always been a statement. As Lynch says, “The Afro hair style, which emerged in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, was a symbol of rebellion, pride and empowerment.”

  • Religion holds an important role in her life.

  • NAOMI's colorful social life seems at first to contradict with the hardship she has to endure in her daily life. But she put it straight: “I want to make a statement that “here I am”. So I dress in vivid colors with a lot of symbols. When I step in light, I want to shine”. She and her friends have created their own illusion of paradise.

  • “My color is black… Shall I tell you a secret? My soul is also black and all blacks of the world are beautiful. No matter what their skin color is, I hail the black souls."

  • Naomi embraces multiple identities spread across a wide geography and multitude of cultures. A childhood during civil war, one of the most catastrophic ebola epidemics, immigration … Yet, she is so resourceful, optimistic and energetic. A woman who truly enjoys life as it deserves, gets stronger with community, keeps dreaming despite all, rises her voice saying “I am here”. Unravelling the multiple layers of this unique personage, observing the different identities she could assume, has been a real experience.

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  • I accompanied her on a trip to Sierra Leone, where Naomi was reuniting with her family and developing her foundation.
    The 11-year civil war from 1991 to 2002, that marked Naomi’s childhood, had left hundreds of thousands dead and over two million refugees. During the war years, large numbers of young girls were forced to prostitution or early marriage, thousands of youngsters were amputated by the militants. This graffiti, in the open air museum in Freetown, serves as a communal memory of this immense tragedy. (upper)

  • With Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs in Freetown. The Ministry recognized her as Youth ambassador in the Youth in Agriculture Project.