In Memoriam Cem Ersavcı

Tuna Uysal
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Although writing a memoir on Cem Ersavcı will not be sufficient to get to know him, introducing him and his works is crucial to go beyond a certain understanding of photography within this geography and broaden the horizons of new generations to establish the boundaries of a novel conception of photography.

Cem's works are modest and sincere in line with his character, saying more with less, images that are filtered through his perspective and way of thinking by someone who has analyzed his living space so well without any pretension or exaggeration.

To analyze his stance towards photography, it will be useful to examine his artistic practice. Studying his master thesis "Personal Narratives as a Sub-Genre in the Aesthetics of Documentary Photography" which are valuable as his works and which contains unique assessments on photography and analyzing his work "Outside" which is the basis for this essay, will help us to understand his sophisticated tendencies in photography.

His attitude in life and hence photography can be summarized in his own words: "I am interested in the situations of our time rather than daily events. I hope my work would be read in the context of the relationship people establish with the earth."

We can define Cem firstly as an artist who thinks in line with the observations he makes from his environment and creating images through his ideas, and a documentary photographer in terms of his approach to the method he uses. Then, we can describe him as a story teller who detects situations from contemporary life with his idiosyncratic way of approaching city landscapes.

In his thesis, he established the difference between conventional and contemporary documentary photography taking into consideration the historical period. He argued that documentary photography's approach prompting the viewer to look into situations from a narrow perspective, usually portraying poverty, hunger and conflict has lost its function as a result of growing immunity and doubting reality in time and feelings of mercy and compassion has been replaced by distrust.

In addition, he observed that documentary photography by aestheticizing violence and misery that is witnessed, has desensitized the viewer. These images "victimizing" their subjects has reduced them solely into representations of their occupations, ethnic origins and their poverty.

Sontag argues that photographs on atrocity and mistreatment aestheticize violence and that they create an insincere and fabricated visuality which is far away from a public opinion that is wished to be created through these photographs. So, she asserts that photographs taken with an amateur spirit are more convincing.

In Cem's words, the "New Documentary" approach developed as an alternative to the previous approach has found its way into photography as follows: "...Second half of 20th century has been a period in which documentary photographers took on new ways. Photographers recreated their own subjectivity through various levels from their frames to their choice of themes. This period also brought about critical approaches in terms of the function of documentary photography. New approaches in documentary photography embody commonalities in the context of personal perspectives..."

In the introduction to "New Documents" exhibition in MOMA in 1967 which laid the foundations of this new approach, Szarkowski talked about this new approach on documentary photography as follows: "In the past decade this generation of photographers has redirected the technique and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand. The world, in spite of its terrors, is approached as the ultimate source of wonder and fascination, no less precious for being irrational and incoherent...What unites them is not style or sensibility: each has a distinct and personal sense of the uses of photography and the meanings of the world. What they hold in common is the belief that the commonplace is really worth looking at, and the courage to look at it with a minimum of theorizing."

This approach is defined by Cem Ersavcı as: "It can also be argued that there is a different kind of approach in which the photographer becomes integrated with his/her subject matter, where the relation s/he establishes with the outside world becomes prominent instead of his/her perspective on it, in other words an approach in which the subject matter gives way to photographer becoming visible. Through this approach which has gained importance to this day, photographers convey their own subjective realities and experiences."

In Cem's photography practice, taking the road was crucial. Cem was part of a school of photographers whose works were exhibited in the exhibition "New Topographics" in the US in George Eastman House in 1975 which changed the understanding of landscape photography and photographers who are aware of the impossibility of doing a topographical research, a surface analysis from one's glass house. He used to believe in taking the road, to be mobile and just like Stephan Shore and Robert Adams who went on expeditions to understand the changing topography of US, Cem chose to be on the road in terms of his photographic method. In fact, he once mentioned he covered 10.000 km with his motorbike solely to take photographs.

At this point, it would be useful to mention John Berger's metaphor on "Narration" for us to understand Cem's photography practice. Berger says: "No story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous....Every step is a stride over something not said... The essential tension in a story lies elsewhere. Not so much in the mystery of its destination as in the mystery of the spaces between its steps towards destination...when a story makes sense of its discontinuities, it acquires authority as a story...And it is the authority of all these together that makes the action of its being told, and vice versa."

The predominant dynamics of contemporary documentary photography has averted practices which hasn't resulted in dictating a specific idea to its viewers and looking down on its subjects, as an exact opposite of conventional approach. Therefore, it has enabled the photographer to stand in equal distance to all the components of the narrative, the subject and the viewer in a way that allows the story to flow easily.

Cem addressed his stories with an artistic consciousness of the world he lives in, but when he translated these stories into artworks with an eminent plastic sensibility, he did it without aestheticizing the incidents and situations in an objective perspective and tried to find ways to assess the situation in the simplest way possible for his viewers, and he reflected this understanding to his works.

In the series "Outside," Cem used the lives in the city and its surroundings as an active element for his narrative background, he examines the ever-growing urbanization and the city life which is shaped by this urbanization in anthropological and sociological terms.

Cem's stories on suburbs which can be considered as the backyards of industrial societies, allow the viewers to re-question the area around them. The images within the scope of the stories he is telling, were composed in a way that symbolize the dilemmas, anxieties, fears and problems people face as a result of this urbanized way of life.

Cem summarized his series "Outside" in the introduction to his book as follows: The consumption of life itself in the city center, rampant crises, the booming of real estate markets and the rediscovery of land as the ultimate commodity have turned the surroundings of the city, which once functioned as backyards, into yet more land to be conquered. Settlements comprised of highways built over catchment basins, residential complexes gnawing away at forestlands, and copious shopping malls define the new topography. The result is an amorphous urban landscape which insatiably devours its own surroundings, and thus resembles a neverending construction site. It is said that the concept of the city is intrinsically utopian; urban planning, in a way, means planning how life is to be lived in these places. But what I see are more like images from a dystopia..."

When creating his works, Cem formed a memory for the future generations to come by conveying them in his personal perspective, rather than dictating the viewer what is going on. Memory as we approach here, is comprised of sensations created through images and apprehensions that are a result of these sensations, rather than a direct recording of what is happening. We hope that future generations know and understand him through his works, and that all his efforts to bring about a new way of approaching photography...


2- "Regarding the Pain of Others", Susan Sontag, Çev. Osman Akınhay, Agora Kitaplığı, İstanbul, 2004
3-"Belgesel Fotoğraf Estetiğinde Bir Alt Tür Olarak Kişisel Anlatılar" Cem Ersavcı, 2011
4-"Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Photography", ed. Lynne Warren, 2005
5-"The Photography Reader", Martha Rosler, ed. Liz Wells, 2003
6- "Another Way of Telling", John Berger-Jean Mohr, Çev:Osman Akınhay, Agora Kitaplığı, İstanbul, 2007
7-"Outside", Cem Ersavcı, Statement, 2013