RWCP Exhibition “Photos and Stories”
Kars, Turkey 2010
Kars sits on the far eastern edge of Turkey near the border of Armenia. I visited for two reasons: to accompany my friend Asiye on a train trip to her childhood home and to seek out the locations visited by Ka in the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which takes place in Kars. As Asiye and I walked through the snowy, grey city we shopped for honey and cheese, the locally produced specialties. This photo was taken in a bulk goods store and reminds me, in a way, of what general stores must have looked like before the era of mass production.
Nasser and the Painter’s Apprentice
Cairo, Egypt 2011
I hadn’t been to Cairo before the Revolution of January 2011 which forced long-term president Hosni Mubarak out of power, so I was challenged to imagine what Cairo looked like pre-revolution. This atelier proudly features a painting of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian nationalist and military strong-man who asserted Arab independence from European and American interference. Before Mubarak’s fall, would this workshop have also featured Mubarak’s visage? In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s photo graces many public walls and every business: allegiance to him—or public support at the very least—was required. Would the same have been true of Egypt?
Cats and Books
Istanbul, Turkey 2010
A cat in Istanbul is it’s own individual. If the degree to which space is afforded to an individual or a species is proportional to the respect it is given, cats in Istanbul are fortunate indeed. Roman felines may have an internationally-renowned shelter for them at the site of Caesar’s assassination, but nowhere I’ve seen allows cats the same generous space as Rome’s sister, Constantinople. The city itself is a sanctuary, likely safer for cats than for humans.
Istanbullu dogs are largely a phlegmatic sort, content on donated bread crusts and slow to react. Far less territorial than their human counterparts, they rest in gangs of two or three on street corners. Pedestrians are obliged to go around them. Petting them is optional and is ignored as often as it is appreciated. Cats demand their public space more emphatically, to no-one’s surprise. They inhabit basements, alleys, mosques, museums, restaurants, balconies, roofs, plazas and dumpsters. They are paragons of enterprising usufruct.
Why would street animals be so well cared-for in Istanbul, while in most of the west they are treated with derision? Americans often see non-pet felines as nuisances. Humane Societies, true to their name inasmuch as their actions are representative of humanity, regularly kill animals who don’t have care-takers. I asked friends about why cats are treated well, and a rationale I heard frequently was that Islamic moral sensibilities towards the poor and oppressed also apply to animals. Istanbul’s cats and dogs find themselves the fortunate beneficiaries of this tradition. I heard this most often from Turks who rarely prayed, visited the local mosque on Friday or fasted during Ramadan. These conversations often took place after a glass or two of wine, which I find endearing. This suggests, to me, that while obligations to animals may be inspired by the religious tradition they are now a more interwoven part of Istanbul’s moral fabric.
I saw hundreds and hundreds of cats in Istanbul, but only two dead cats. I found the first in a dumpster: a white and orange tabby, supine and frozen. It’s face grotesque and twisted in a stiff half-snarl, it died in a moment of confrontation. Someone in the neighborhood had tossed—or placed, it was lying as if it had been placed—the cat in the dumpster but I couldn’t decide if this was an act of sympathy or callousness. My second dead cat was a recent automobile victim, and I gave it the same burial and lingering goodbye, though I debate if “disposal” is a better word. Pathetic obsequies, born of guilt. To what degree are we beholden to dead strangers, whose presence is only felt or known at the moment of—indeed, by virtue of—their passing?
Barcelona, Spain 2008
Catalans have a fondness for festivals and for fire. It’s difficult to spend a weekend in Barcelona without encountering some form of celebration, sacred or profane. Many of Catalonia’s most profane celebrations are in honor of saints, including midsummer’s festival for Sant Juan (St. John), when revelers across the city set off fireworks and small explosives throughout the night. Recently banned in Barcelona was the tradition of burning an item no longer needed in a bonfire—typically schoolbooks for students—and thrice jumping over fire. Prohibitions such as these are proudly ignored.
The Correfoc —literally, “fire-run” —may be the most thrilling and terrifying spectacle I’ve encountered. They are short parades made up of three of four collas, fire-corps of 10 to fifteen people each. Dressed often as devils, dragons or malevolent clowns, they dance through the street carrying poles with a swivel at the top which holds two fireworks. When lit, the fireworks swirl in a halo of sparks and light. Colla participants run about, showering viewers and pulling them into the street; crouching underneath the spinning halo of pyrotechnics if about the closest one can get to being inside a firework.
Collas bring their representative monsters: large floats in the forms of demonic pigs or dragons, each of which has multiple swivel-poles protruding from it. The poles are fit with fireworks and lit at once and used to chase bystanders—often small children. Accompanying the collas are hard-hitting drum corps, who specialize in unearthly cacophonies and marches of dissonance.
Altogether the correfoc is a frightening and frenetic experience and perhaps the closest and most enjoyable earthly rendering of one of Brughel’s hellscapes. They happen frequently in Barcelona throughout the year, normally during neighborhood parties.
Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq 2011
After living in Istanbul for a year, I had grown accustomed to the pleasures of Turkish tea. As a country Turkey consumes the second highest per capita amount of tea per year and most of my friends admitted to drinking six to ten cups a day. Tea houses fit every empty corner or alley in Turkish cities: if there was enough space for a few plastic chairs and a burner, someone was selling tea there. Consumers were adroitly aware of the quality of their tea and could discern flavor by variations of tone so minor they eluded me entirely. Tea consumption was, overall, a very social practice, not to be rushed but to be enjoyed during animated conversation, through nargileh smoke or over a backgammon board.
Nations define themselves both by what they are and what they are not. Turks and Kurds—both highly nationalistic nations with long histories of partnerships and antagonisms—are quite aware of how they are not each other. The Kurds are the largest nation without a state, and their traditional territory occupies southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran and small parts of Syria. We were visiting the Kurdish Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah when we came upon this tea shop.
Kurdish tea culture was different from Turkish in a few surprising ways, the largest of which was the tremendous amount of sugar added to each cup—normally a third of the cup was sugar. Unlike the precision with which Turkish tea houses brewed their tea, tea in Kurdistan tended to be scalded and burnt. Drinking tea in Kurdistan was not a social activity but consumed on the run. I learned the quickest method to do this was by pouring the tea into the saucer itself and drinking it straight from the saucer. What do the tea cultures share? Both use tulip glasses, and both believe their tea to be the world’s finest.
The Crow’s Castle
Matsumoto, Japan 2011
What is worth preserving? What qualifications must something have to be purposefully left alone? When does an object, a building, a street achieve a kind of quality that compels us to say, “this thing says something about us: who we are and what we were. This has greater value than the immediate financial value of the real estate. It must stay as it is, and we must strain ourselves to accommodate the needs of its form.”
The Matsumoto Castle dates back to 1593, making it 195 years older than the United States. Its beauty, derived partially from its brooding black exterior, is rivaled in Japan only by the Himeji Castle. In design it also is unique, notably the hidden third floor: it is only internally visible, giving the six-story castle the outward appearance of having five.
All of this seems like enough of a reason to preserve it. Yet the closest the Matsumoto Castle ever came to destruction was now through war, fire or negligence but the Meiji restoration’s budget cuts. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, medieval castles had no military value but were expensive to maintain. Struggling for cash, the Meiji government auctioned the Matsumoto Castle and nearly all other medieval castles for disassembling. It was the actions of two men that prevented this fate: a local preservationist named Ichikawa Ryozo saved it from auctioneers, allowing the town to purchase it in 1878 and a middle school headmaster named Kobayashi Unari, who lead a fundraising campaign to restore it in 1902. A very cautionary tale.
Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt 2011
As we watched the protests in Egypt on al-Jazeera from our apartment in Istanbul, we felt a compelling desire to participate in some way. The anti-ideological determination of the Egyptians, like the Tunisians before them, inspired us. Their struggle, unburdened by an overt political agenda, aimed at freedom from persecution, equality within the public sphere and the ability to live lives of dignity—an often repeated word.
We were wary of exporting our own goals, values and strategies for political, social and economic change to places we weren’t from. So how, then, to show Egyptians that we—and many more outside Egypt—support their struggle? We wanted something visual, and something that communicated messages in an international scope. Something physical, and less ephemeral than online notices of solidarity. And we needed something we could carry which would survive the five-week overland route we were taking to get to Cairo.
Our solution was postcards. They are small, easy and cheap to send, and can be arranged in a way to create a suitable physical display on a site we couldn’t see beforehand. More importantly, they allowed us to present many different voices from many different places. What is a better symbol of genuine international connectedness, imbued with the intimacy of real handwriting, than a postcard? So we wrote up a request from friends and strangers to send us postcards, which we would bring to Cairo and display at Tahrir Square, the centerpoint of the protests. We posted it online and spread the word. We received postcards from friends and strangers from different countries and from people we met en route to Cairo.
When we arrived in late April, Tahrir Square was a popular place to go for public discourse. Kelly and I walked though site frequently and discussed the revolution with young people and families. We met our local contact Mariam Hesham, a young woman who had participated in the revolutions. She helped us hang the postcards across a lanyard running for 130 feet, in a form resembling Tibetan prayer flags. We decided to hang the postcards when they would be most visible: the large May Day rally that would take place in Tahrir Square.
Once the piece was tied up, groups of people began reading looking at the cards. Throughout the day we interacted with dozens of individuals from the region and further afield. Many spoke English—my Arabic being limited—and for those who didn’t, Mariam was on hand to translate and clarify. Hundreds and hundreds saw the cards and examined their messages, and brought their friends by to discuss them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Most interactions were accompanied with hopeful and discerning discussions about Egypt’s current trajectory. The amount of public discourse and vibrancy was tremendous.
During the Occupation of the Madison Capital building, a photo spread across the internet of a young man with a sign reading “Egypt Supports Wisconsin.” I’m glad that we had the opportunity to show a few Egyptians that the reverse is true as well.
Safranbolu, Turkey 2010
Safranbolu’s name derives from the spice saffron and the Greek word for city, polis. It suggests the town’s former commercial importance as an intersection of Ottoman trade routes. Pictured here is one of Safranbolu’s prominent caravansereis, the 17th century Cinci Hanı. This imposing, rectangular building—an excellent example of the many caravansereis stretching from the near-east to the far-east along the Silk Road—was a traveler’s inn. In seeking to promote trade, the Ottoman Empire refurbished and created many such travelers’ inns and allowed traders three nights rest without charge. Their animals rested in the central courtyard where traders sold their goods. Today the Cinci Hanı has a second life as an upmarket hotel and restaurant.
Safranbolu is picturesque: preserved, partially restored but not so much so that it seems unreal. Time has graced it with the charm that comes from the picturesque John Ruskin describes: a form emerging from the slow, unplanned accidents of decay and alteration. Safranbolu has Turkey’s best-preserved and densest collection of 17th and 18th century Ottoman architecture, which has brought the town UNESCO World Heritage Status—both a blessing and a curse.
UNESCO World Heritage status endows a city with money and an incentive to preserve its architecture. How many places, like Safranbolu, have saved their rare and unique architecture because of UNESCO? How much has the world lost by acting too late? World Heritage status also brings money from tourism—a boon in poor towns like Safranbolu.
This status is also greatly limiting. Architecture—often outdated and unsuitable for the needs of today’s residents—can only be altered under the strictest guidelines. This greatly influences the commercial prospects. Many citizens subsist on the capricious whims of the tourism industry. They are limited to providing tourists needs by starting hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops. A few blacksmiths remain, forging pieces for local and tourist consumption. There are not many options available in a town which is not allowed to develop. The need to preserve Safranbolu’s unique charms has rendered the a living museum and it’s inhabitations living figures of a grand diorama.
Above the valley outside of this frame—outside the frames of most tourists—is another Safranbolu—the “real,” living Safranbolu. It is a small, bustling Turkish town, with little to distinguish it from other small Turkish towns. It’s where the majority of citizens of Safranbolu live, work and entertain themselves, while those living in historical, UNESCO-recognized Safranbolu attempt to find their way in the constricted margins and opportunities of preservation, tourism and history.
Mexico City, 2012
“Death is a mirror that reflects the vain gesticulations of the living.” -Octavio Paz
The Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe—officially declared the “Patroness of Americas, Empress of Latin America and Protectress of the Unborn Children” by the Catholic church—sits atop a hill in a northern suburb of Mexico city. It’s a major pilgrimage site and in 2009 accommodated a record-breaking 6.1 million visitors in a single day. The Virgin of Guadalupe is often credited for being the impetus in Catholicizing Mexico’s “pagan” indigenous people: it was her miracle-granting, life-giving powers which made gave her this mass-appeal. Inside the Basilica today the visitor can view hundreds of hand-painted placards of miracles attributed to her: people saved from diseases, war, dementia, and automobile accidents by her grace.
At the base of the hill, deep in the shadow of the Basilica, the mirror of the Virgin of Guadalupe dominates a small market: Santa Muerte. In the labyrinth of Mexican Catholicism, Santa Muerte occupies a distinguished post. Over two million people who are condemned by the Catholic Church to be devil-worshipping cultists follow her. Her ancient form pre-dates Catholicism but her contemporary form is very much a Catholic package. The church may despise Santa Muerte but it cannot do away with her. While the Virgin may save lives and prepare them for the afterlife, Santa Muerte prepares us for a mortal death and us that, Paz’ words,
“Death, like life, is not transferrable. If we do not die as we lived, it is because the life we lived was not really ours: it did not belong to us, just as the bad death that kills us does not belong to us.”
The stall Santa Muerte guarded sold talismans from around the world: squatting Vishnus, Turkish nazarlik, mass-produced “vodou dolls” in plastic wrapping. I bought a plastic lunch-box shaped diorama with a Santa Muerte figure inside, some magnets and a packet of incense with Santa Muerte’s likeness on the package. “Lighting this incesnse,” the woman who owned the stall told me, smiling, “will make you rich or kill you.”
Tokyo, Japan 2011
Objects matter. Being animate is at times unnecessary. As children most of us took comfort in stuffed animals. They elicited emotions from us, emotions as real and as deep as those elicited by living pets and humans. As adults we view our stuffed animals again with nostalgia and lament that these objects, in the lives we had created for them, felt the betrayal of our aging. They can’t provide the emotional comfort they once did, so we stop using them. Yet we are too connected with them to throw them away and so they sit in boxes in basement and attics.
We visited the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo in October of 2011, and were surprised to see tens of thousands of dolls—organizers estimated the total at over 50,000—displayed throughout the interior halls of the shrine. Large banners read simply, “Thanks Dolls” in English and Japanese. We were encountering the ningyo kanshasai, a Shinto ceremony. The purpose of the ningyo kanshasai was to provide way for people to say goodbye to their dolls and toys respectfully and acknowledge their value. It was, essentially, a mass funeral, and carried with it recognizable obsequies: priests chanting prayers, the burning of incense and the somber atmosphere of melancholy and loss.
Taken together and facing the spectators, the dolls seemed to take on a life of their own. They looked at each other, sat together, appeared to interact with each other. They were, in a sense, among their own kind and separated from us human spectators by a physical barrier and our not-physical difference as viewers and viewed. It gave me some solace to imagine the dolls had all gathered to each other there, and were setting out to find their own way in the world.
Children in the Umayyad Mosque
Damascus, Syria 2011
“In Damascus, there is a Mosque that has No Equal in the World. ‘ –al-Adrissi, 1154
The great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was built in CE 705 and is a major Muslim pilgrimage site. It houses the mausoleum of Saladin and the shrine of Hussein, grandson of Mohammed. It’s impossible to not be awed by the finery of the architecture, the unique mosaics and the ageless importance of the building. What I enjoyed most about the Umayyad Mosque was the atmosphere itself: welcoming, friendly, respectful and convivial. In contrast to the solemnity of many religious sites, the Umayyad Mosque was a lively place. Children ran about, families talked and joked and sat about.
Outside the mosque, south of Damascus in the city of Dera’a, anti-government protesters rallied against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. While government security forces shot them, the ambience within the mosque was tranquil enough to suggest the country was not in a state of crisis.
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