Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Perspectives of Perception and Artifacts of Memory

Thoughts on Memory and Immigration in Istanbul

This post is my response to our first assignment abroad. I will highlight some of the details of the assignment through my writing but, if you are curious, head on over to our course blog and check out the assignment in full (it really is interesting food for thought).

The gist of this assignment is embodied by two primary parts. First, we are to select photos taken by ourselves, or other members of the group, that are appropriate examples of the subjects and ideas prompted by the assignment (I'll include a "short version" before each photo - long version is on the course blog). The second part is a written post that expands on the final two photos; we'll just cross that bridge when we come to it.

For the first image, I was supposed to select a photo that shows the camera's ability to make the different, the other, an object available for experience. This photo implicates me as an outsider, while the technology of the camera provides a mitigating force between my experience of a new and unfamiliar place, and the "excess of sensations" that accompany it.

The bustling waterside streets of Istanbul.
Photo by Elizabeth Cook
I chose this photo because it immediately and vividly shows the differences from what is normal to me and the  streets of Istanbul. This photograph can be digested somewhat easily - the differences can be picked out and negotiated - but the photo is unavoidably removed from the reality of the street itself, and the shock and challenge of interacting with that reality when you are not behind the lens of a camera is an entirely different experience.

The second photo is supposed to show the difference or otherness of the social space of Istanbul that has in some way surprised or shocked me. In contrast to the first photo, this shot makes no offer to control or conceal the differences that are present, but instead focuses on and represents them.

A street-side ice cream stand. One of many, and just a drop in the ocean of shops, peddlers, and
small goods merchants vying for the money of tourists on the streets of Istanbul.
Photo by Juliya Ziskina
This photo reminds me of the shocking amount people running small shops and businesses in Istanbul. Their presence is staggering, and their symbiotic relationship with the other architectural and natural wonders of Istanbul create the backbone of the city's tourist attraction and economy.

While I expected things like this in Istanbul, it was amazing how many people could survive providing the exact same wares and services. Any type of shop could be found as easily as a Starbucks in Seattle (yes, there were several in Istanbul too...). What really made this a "shock," though is the interactions you would have with these people; the aggressive competition that inhabited the streets was almost overwhelming at times. People would literally block your way on occasion to try to convince you to sit down and spend your money at their restaurant. I likened it to the style of the stereotypical used car salesman, only much more aggressive.

Third, we were to choose a picture that conveys the limits of the camera to capture reality, and implies the limitations of technology to depict the human experience.

Me gazing at the gates of what used to be a palace on one of our bus tours of the city.
Photo by Elizabeth Cook.
Though clearer and higher quality pictures of this itself were available, and I could have chosen any of them, this photo implies a meaning of its own. While we can capture the appearance of reality through a camera or the sights and sounds of a moment through video, we can never truly document the magnitude of an experience. The thoughts that run through our head are fleeting themselves, and are entirely temporary; technology cannot hope to capture those (at least not in the reality we live in right now), and a photo is little more than an artifact of a memory - a low fidelity reminder of an experience.

The fourth picture is a little tricky; we were tasked with finding a photo that challenges the common politics of photography in the non-western world. Historically, the camera has been seen as showing Westerners the truth of foreign lands. Because our Western understanding of truth is through a scientific, empirical lens, the camera has been used and perceived as an appropriate apparatus of scientific truth, rather than an apparatus of art.

In light of these ideas, we were tasked with finding a shot that counters this "binary perception" between how we use a camera in the West, and how we use it when documenting the rest of the world. To accomplish this, we were instructed to find a shot of a clearly artistic composition that demands interpretation, and is removed from possible interpretations and judgments of culture through a strictly scientific lens. We were not in a museum or a zoo; any attempt to really understand another culture requires individual thought and interpretation.

A degraded wall covered with hand prints, deep within the veins of Istanbul.
Photo by Juliya Ziskina
Try to make your best guess what the motivations and circumstances were surrounding this artistic expression - the interpretation is yours to make.

The next challenge was to depict my struggle to capture a deeply personal memory. What picture could I take that would evoke a personal memory? What personal memory can I capture in a photo without losing, degrading, or diluting the memory itself?

I could not find a real photo that responds to this challenge, but there is an image that remains salient in my mind; during one of our tours, I saw a little Turkish boy jumping about in a toy store wearing a flashy white sultan costume. As he romped about in his curled, white, pointed shoes, I was reminded of my experiences as a child. Though many of the characters and realities that were constructed by my imagination are no longer available to me, the importance and majesty that I associated with them has an enduring meaning. A photograph of this Turkish child bounding around the kingdoms of his imagination could inflict a deeply personal memory of the times when the world was so undetermined and incomprehensible that I was free to create my own rules, my own worlds, to create realities that I could flourish in. A striking reminder of the omni-cultural phenomenon of young imagination penetrates my memory deeply, without diminishing the memory itself; the specifics are already gone, all that remains is a memory of memories past.

Finally, we were asked to select two photos that represent the most important take-aways from the first three days of lectures and tours in Istanbul, and then to write about what makes these issues so interesting and significant.

A wall of facades in varying states, bordering an alleyway in a poorer area of the city.
Photo by Andrew Chan.
The issues I will be focusing on were presented to us via a walking and bus tour of Istanbul that occurred on the second day of our trip. During this tour, we were exposed to an overwhelming amount of information relating to the history of the urban and cultural development of Istanbul; we visited all sorts of areas of varying economic status, all with a rich and complex history. The picture above is from an area of the city is being strongly affected by gentrification - the government's attempt to "improve" parts of the city in accordance to its interests. These houses have yet to be directly affected by gentrification; the poor residing here have mostly been left to their own for the time being, but other areas are gradually being changed, and their residents driven out in one way or another.

The streets around here are steadily being renovated. In most cases, the residents are temporarily relocated until the renovations are complete. At this point, they have the option to refinance their homes and move back in – but few can afford it. Those who can and do return to a familiar location that looks and feels nothing like the home they knew; their neighbors are gone and their community dissolved. There are several reasons why the state is gentrifying areas of the city. For instance, rebuilding homes anew with steel frames and less wood makes it less likely for fires to spread to the valuable parts of the city. Other areas are gentrified to make them more suitable for tourists, which is a pillar of the economy in Istanbul. The unrecognized and voiceless lower class, however, are both those who bear the burden of these changes, and benefit least from the results.

The government claims that many of these changes are made to support and stabilize the growing middle class. It is clear that this is coming at a great cost to the less visible residents of the city. Stability and equality among the middle class will be championed by the government as the process of gentrification concretizes the new middle class of Istanbul, but this untold story shows that equality implies the conflict and pain that is necessary to attain it.

A church, open to visitors, located near our hostel. The roped off section is due to restoration of the gate.
Photo by Andrew Chan.
This photo hints at another issue that we were exposed to in our walking and bus tour on the second day of our trip. To me, it represents the difficulty that migrants and squatters have in trying to integrate into the Turkish society. In the past, churches have been the first, and ususally only point of access into Turkish society. The churches welcomed immigrants into their communities, offering a rare foothold by which to access the integrated Turkish community in a welcoming and accepting setting.

This is also significant because the Turkish state has been making a strong effort to homogenize its population. This poses a very difficult challenge to the immigrant population, as the state has went to very little effort to ease or enable the integration of other groups into whatever is held as real, homogenized "Turkish culture." Homogenization been the justification for gentrification (which results in the exclusion immigrants on a basis of class) and the offering services and support only to Turkish citizens, despite their historical (and I think present) reliance on migrants for economic support through labor; if the society is championed as being one homogeneous group, it implies the absence of other groups that would require support and accommodation by the state.

Even though the state has not made much serious effort to improve the live of immigrants, or to integrate them into Turkish society, their existence has been accommodated in a couple ways. First, because of their reliance on immigrants for labor, the state was forced to make a decision about how they would be handled. Istanbul decided to recognize squatters as "irregular immigrants," effectively legalizing them. In addition to being "legalized," this also provides immigrants with the benefits of simply being acknowledged; another possibility was that the state could have ignored them, removing any issues relating to their treatment and needs from the societal spotlight. Though discourse over the lives of immigrants is still very limited, it was a very important step to be formally recognized by the state.

Another way immigrants were somewhat accommodated by actions of the state was through the creation of the Mass Housing Administration. This organization was created to deal with the huge influx of migrants in the 80's (when the population of Istanbul exploded from 3.5 to 9.5 million people). This rush of immigration was largely due to improvements in health care; rural farmers would typically have around 8 children and only 1 to 2 would survive. As healthcare improvements reached rural areas, the farmers kept pumping out the same number of children. As a result, technology allowed 5 to 6 children per family to live past their youth. The rural farm systems couldn't support this many people, so the extra 4 or so children would migrate to urban areas. This huge influx of people forced the state to take actions that would handle the masses pouring into cities. Because of this forced action, migrants benefited from the institutional efforts to create mass housing and accommodate huge numbers of people.

Though these forms of "support" have helped enable migrants to endure in Istanbul, they only exist as preventative measures to support the city's interests and to avoid unrest. Furthermore, was the state not historically dependent on migrants in the past, and pressured to take them in by the E.U. in the present, I do not think that the state would even go to this limited effort to accommodate them. And, even still, the challenge of integrating into an unwelcoming society is nearly insurmountable. Migration is a topic that will always be in the forefront of societal importance, but that takes a back seat in terms of progressive discourse and acknowledgement.

No comments:

Post a Comment