On Photography with Yusuf Sevinçli

Yusuf Sevinçli
Serkan Taycan
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Serkan Taycan and Yusuf Sevinçli had a conversation on various subjects from his approach to photography, and from the notion of "flaneur" to his latest works.


Serkan Taycan: What does it mean to be a photographer?

Yusuf Sevinçli: Does it matter? Like "who is a photographer"? Do you have a dictionary around here? I really wonder what the definition is, can we look up from an online dictionary?

Serkan: "Someone who takes or prints photographs." (From Turkish Language Society - TLS)

Yusuf: How much can we depend on TLS in these matters? Just look up some art dictionary, in English or something like an "art dictionary."

Şener: Then someone who is working in the darkroom is also considered a photographer.

Yusuf: Yeah, and how generous that is!

Serkan: But isn't that so anyway? If photography is the practice of transferring the image on a surface with the use of light, then we obviously don't need a camera to do that. We can also be photographers without cameras. And there is also a craftsman's side to it, in fact that side is more prevalent. So, rather than using photography as a narrative tool  in arts, isn't the description "someone who produces images" a more appropriate definition?

Yusuf: Photography in artistic terms could only be 1% of what photography is about; if we consider today it is very marginal. Scientific photography, astronomy, media, medical science...Even the insurance people have to use photography as a proof.

Serkan: How can we make a distinction between the two? What is the difference between people who are using photography as a "narrative tool" and relating it to other kinds of narration, and people who are using photography solely to record images in terminological terms?

Yusuf: It is up to the context in which people use it, when they say "I am doing this for these purposes" then that's it. But it has nothing to do with the quality, the goodness or the badness of the visual content nor it has anything to do with its novelty. Photographs taken by people who never claim to be an artist or photographs taken for different purposes could be much more interesting than the ones taken for artistic purposes. For example, in Paris Photo among all galleries I like NASA stall the most. Even in most standard terms, you find loads of interesting works there. And those are photos taken automatically by satellites or photos taken by astronauts who are not photographers. They are not interesting because they show you the space, places you don't know, but in visual terms they are really interesting and beautiful.

Serkan: Hasn't photography become something everybody knows about, like writing? If so, what's the role of the artist here?

Yusuf: See Gombrich, "The Story of Art", first sentence: "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists." And s/he doesn't have to take the photos himself/herself, lots of people are working by editing already existing images. So, there is no need for all these talk, there is no need to glorify photography itself. I mean these current discussions on social media, smart phones, the expression that "we are flooded with photos" etc...It's been 200 years since the invention of photography, and it keeps growing exponentially. "Welcome to the Matrix." It moulds our visual perception, it effects our visual literacy. To me, the crucial thing here is the discourse/statement of the person who practices photography. I mean, how can we evaluate the work without any underlying discourse?

Serkan: Ok, you say "statement", but what is the notion of statement here, how does a work have a statement or not? What determines it?

Yusuf: If someone who doesn't know who Dadaists were or how they practiced art, looks up some poetry book they published in some library, what does s/he think even s/he doesn't know that particular book was a product of a Dadaist performance? What then? There, knowing the statement is crucial, not the end result but the process before it, in other words knowing who Dadaists were and what they did. I am saying this to clarify the matter, isn't it so or what?

Serkan: Yes, it is...So, isn't it hard to find a response to these kinds of statements or approaches in contemporary art? Don't you think the works usually seem they are stuck inside the surface of the image limited to four sides? It seems to me that in general people who are using photography as a medium are outside of these discussions.

Yusuf: Well, yeah, you can tell a completely different story using the same camera which was produced 100 years ago and which is still in use. You can change the content itself. If you are going to shoot a movie...I mean, I like Ken Loach a lot, that guy has been shooting narrative movies for 40 years. The movies that have a story; men, women, workers...So, is this guy, as a film-maker, an old-fashioned guy? No. I have seen his last movie and I was like "Oh my God." A postman falls out of work in the UK. He works in an unemployment association with another woman. They meet. The woman is out of work recently. She has two kids. How she will take care of the children, no one knows. They fall in love. But because of poverty they cannot come together. It is such a story that it gives you nothing in cinematographic terms, nor provide any novelty, nothing in terms of the use of camera, nor in terms of the use of light. And really, the movie could also be made 50 years ago. So, it should not be like, say what Godard did, like "Man, we now have IPhones, I will make a movie with them. I will do a 3D movie" or like "I will hold the camera upside down so the people in the cinema feel nauseated."

And when we are talking about photography, sometimes I see some works, say, a young photographer takes black-and-white landscape photos. I keep looking at them, after 3 days, I keep looking. When I go to bed something in me stirs. The aesthetics of Ansel Adams...not really - I don't like Ansel Adams. Who likes Ansel Adams anyway? - This is just the opposite. It is grim, black-and-white, mountains, plains; you have full moon over some vacant plain or some valley...There is nothing in the photographs. They are what I call "cheesy" nature photographs.

Serkan: So, what fascinates you?

Yusuf: You have something romantic in them. You see something amazing. It is a girl from Holland, named Awoiska Van Der Molen. Nature harbors this notion of infinity and spirituality and she transmits this in a really beautiful way. When I look at a photograph I say "Oh my God", "How beautiful our planet is. How big the nature is, how impressive it is. Rivers, mountains, full moon, animals..." Most probably, she is taking her photos with large format cameras. They are all taken in a very smooth way, in contrasting lights. And no art theory can go beyond it. It cannot crush this, nor can it negate this. No one can make me believe this work is ineffective or bad just because same stuff has been done before, that it doesn't utter novel things, that it doesn't add into the history of photography...No one can make me believe that.

Serkan: So, the first thing, I mean the feelings it arouses in us, can it be some kind of a criteria for evaluation?

Yusuf: To me, it is a crucial criteria.

Serkan: To me, evaluating an art work based on the feelings it arouses falls short. For art is not something you can interpret solely through feelings. May it rather be something that comes into light as a result of research like science and reveals its statement through it, something rather addressing to a more cognitive world?

Yusuf: Surely, there are different points of view. Now, if we are talking about photography, where shall I place the Düsseldorf school with a sentimental perspective? Really, looking on and on, how shall I be moved? Water towers, forty water towers, really it just doesn't fill me with tears.

Serkan: But there you can also see the romantic foundation of German modernity. In the end, it is a statement that arises from the sentimental foundation as well.

Yusuf: I am not talking about that kind of sentimentality. Forget what you have learned, what you already know, just how can we interpret a work of art free from what we know, isolating it from what we know? Like only through your individual intuition...penetrating it...

Serkan:  But that discourse, don't you think it is a bit naive? I mean, we cannot just disavow what we already know.

Yusuf: No no, I mean, what kind of a criteria is it to perceive some work of art, trying to evaluate a work of art? Forgetting what you already know, like, forget what you have learned.

Serkan: It doesn't sound like a valid criteria to me.

Yusuf: For me, it could really be an important criteria. For there might be something there to break the already established hierarchical structures. Otherwise, it might also take us to the point of elitism. Should art really be something that only people who have studied art for five years should understand? I mean, we should question everything. By the way, I don't mean to challenge anyone.

Serkan: So, can we think of today's art, say like a laboratory? A laboratory concentrating on all subjects social, societal, individual, philosophical, scientific - and more - and associating them with its methodology to interpret them, and colliding them all together. And at the end, a discourse...And this laboratory is just like a physics laboratory, I mean it doesn't have to relate to the common man. I don't think it is an elitist discourse. Like, if we go inside a physics laboratory we don't understand loads of stuff, isn't it so? It is the designers who actualize those scientific data, it is the products which realize the scientific inventions...Like, in our daily lives, superconductive technology is actualized as IPhone.

Yusuf: You are talking about such stuff...But, do you approve this being the case? Is it normal to you?

Serkan: I am just asking if it is possible.

Yusuf: I am just trying to understand in a broader sense. Like, its being detached from people or not...I mean, I don't have any problem with elitism. I don't have this complaint like "The people don't understand." But I also think the current situation is conflicting: Does anybody understand or not?

Serkan: We are talking about a professionalized area.

Yusuf: I don't approve of this specialization. If this is so in this age, if even art is like that when we are ready to enter into the Matrix in today's neoliberal capitalism, it is not the problem of art. If we are talking about an era which has expanded this much, specialized this much, where no one have any control in any area...

Serkan: What I meant was the notion of research, it is about research being more focused.

Şener: Actually, I think photography adopts the academic research process directly. I mean we already have sociology and psychology; it seems to me that photography created its own language by embedding them. By the way, you and Yusuf are not thinking in the same lines. Yusuf argues that we can approach photography in more sentimental terms, that kind of a perspective is also possible. If I am to summarize, there is this sentimental way of perceiving photography and it has also formed a language by incorporating sociology, psychology, architecture etc. We have created a research process in which photography is the foundation, and there we have made use of other social disciplines.

Yusuf: Did we incorporate them into photography, or did photography penetrate into them?

Şener: They have penetrated into photography. When you are forming the boundaries of the city, you search it through photography, but the process itself, that whole search is based on lots of other references. The relation between people, topography etc...we are presenting all kinds of scientific data with a focus on photography.

Yusuf: Yes, but wasn't that so in the past as well? You have the same thing in the 19th century. French used to send photographers along with archeologists.

Şener: It seems at that period you have photography as a tool of documentation. But here, don't we have exactly the essence of documentation? Serkan doesn't say this is just for the sake of documentation.

Yusuf: To me, we have always had these aspects of photography, but they weren't that systematized.

Şener: Maybe the photographer wasn't the focus as s/he is now.

Yusuf: Do you think what you do is art? Going to the peripheries of the city, photographing building sites? I mean, do you use this as a tool of expression, Serkan?

Serkan:  :)  So tell me, what kind of a relation do you establish with the city?

Yusuf: You mean as a photographer? Lately, I am fed up with the city. Especially if we are talking about Istanbul, everywhere you turn is building sites...What I really need is silence. And I see this in my practice of photography as well. Now, I want to photograph flowers, animals etc. Mountains, creeks, hills, rivers...

The city has always been very influential to me. But with its conflicts, it has been influential. I don't like Erenköy, Bostancı, Moda, everybody is the same in those places. When I think about the city, I like Beyoğlu. There should be all kinds, types of people. What makes the city beautiful and special for me, is its conflicts, not its refined ways, types. I like the city where people, where night and day, where everything tangle. But now I feel a bit tired. In the year 2016, you have this as a result of the civilization created by mankind in 5-6 thousand years.

Serkan: It is us who have this problem, other places are different.

Yusuf:  Actually, I think human civilization has a little time left, let alone photography. It is obvious this system we have created is not sustainable. I think this system can only survive a century. Either capitalism collapses or it will be humanity. In that sense, some things will collapse, change. Where would photography stand in this picture, I don't know. I might just not give a shit for that matter. Taking the last photograph when all hell breaks loose...

Serkan: So, can we claim that in your previous works there is this notion of being a flaneur?

Yusuf: We love flaneurs, Bressons and Baudelaires, we adore Walter Benjamins. But I cannot really relate my practice with the notion of flaneur. As a photographer, I walk around, I like strolling around in the city, looking and studying things, but it sounds false to relate it to my overall practice as a photographer. In photography, it feels like I have more objective.

Serkan: What kind of an objective?

Yusuf: Like taking good photographs. By the way, I just don't separate these two in any way, surely they mutually influence one another. I go out to take photographs of things I have thought about before and to find them, and I look for them or I already know where I can find them. Say, there is a building and it reminds me of something, the surface of the building evokes something in me; so I take my camera and I go to take a picture of that building. I go to Eminönü or Tarlabaşı to take photos; I don't go to Etiler or Bağdat Street. I start from something I know. So in this sense, yes, I know something and it is in the back of my mind. Yet, we have to distinguish the moment of photographing from it.

Serkan: So you say "I don't loaf around, I am walking around to take good photographs." So what is a good photograph?

Yusuf: What is a good photograph? You don't always have that notion. To me, there is this notion of the right photograph. Depending on where you use it. Sometimes there are single photographs looking good, and sometimes they don't mean anything by themselves but they fit well inside some book. When you print a photo in small size it is one thing, and when you print it in big size it is another. I don't know what a good photograph is, if anyone knows I would like to hear.

If you photograph like Ansel Adams, Weston or Bresson, it is still good photography. But what are we talking about today when we are talking about a good photograph? Proper composition, good lighting, a photograph taken at the right moment? For example, in 1960's if you have 40-50 photographs with a good composition, good lighting, a right moment, you got accepted into Magnum. Today, a single photograph being good or bad doesn't mean anything. If you randomly press the button 1000 times on a digital camera, you have 1-2 good photos in terms of form and light. So, we are through with this notion of a good photograph. It doesn't mean anything to claim a photograph being good, we are more into this notion of good/bad work now. A good work should be coherent. Not like a single image, more like in an artist's book...When I look at my photobook library, the books I am fond of are very eclectic.

Serkan: Well then, we have this notion of photobook, along with all those discussions on avant-garde discourse/medium/context etc. We had this before surely, but it is becoming more popular. What do you think of it? It also follows these discussions, like image, context, medium, the way you present a photograph...How do all these notions come together in terms of a photobook? Or do they come together, is photobook a new field to experiment on or not?

Yusuf: Photobook is a good field, personally I like it. Books are good, in general terms they are our friends. To me, in terms of photography, books are also good. I like them. You should ask more specifically, what shall I talk about books? I can say loads of things. I think the photobook is a good field, for it makes room for free production and authorship. It allows for an unlimited voice and control. It has this virtue. You can just start and complete it on your own from a to z. You can practice your art without needing anybody - surely, I am not talking about publishing and distribution industry here, I am talking about artists' books. What I like about photobooks is the fact that an artist, a writer can do everything on their own from the beginning to the end. Today, photobooks have opened up a space for self-production and publishing in the world of photography, and this is good. The idea itself, the photos that are taken, the design, merging/not merging them with a text, with all these notions, it is a contextual whole. 100% artist's work it is, not even 99%. That's what attracts me. This is something harder and more restricted to do in other fields.

Özlem Yazgan: Maybe the internet also allows for it. But the book being objectified means much more.

Yusuf: The rise of the digital world, internet and digital photography and the rise of a weighty, physical and expensive object like a photobook coincide, around the beginning of the 2000s. And surely, this is not a coincidence. With the digitalization of photography, rise of the internet and loss of significance of photograph as a physical object, photobooks became popular, gained importance. Still, from the 19th century onwards some artists used the book as an object. Like a final format through which the work is presented. But recently, for the last 15-20 years, it has come into prominence, which is good. I think it to be a good thing in terms of democratization and distribution.

Serkan: I also find digital technology important in creating an opportunity for a do-it-yourself attitude. In the past, we didn't have the means for a digital design. You had to find a graphic designer etc, but now you can just prepare your own model in your own computer, you can just say "Yes that's what I want." In fact, it became possible through the advance of digital technology.

Yusuf: Yes, that's right. Photobooks are good, but like everything we have this over-appreciation. We shouldn't take it to the extremes. Surely, it also created its own industry. There are lots of people making money from it, earning their bread. It was integrated into the mainstream market. There is no escape from the system, yes. I don't find it to be a specifically bad thing, but I also think that if you are making a book everything should be at its best. You have a good book and then a bad one as well. I am against fetishization. I also buy lots of books but I am not a collector, and personally I think one should abstain from being one.

Serkan: What I want to tell about photobooks is this: In the past, small amount of "photographs produced for creative purposes" had the chance to be displayed in print media, more through magazines. This era has come to a close thanks to the internet. Due to the excess of this production which has been growing exponentially through digital means and because no one knows exactly where to place it, it has become harder for the works to find themselves a gallery or an exhibition medium etc. So, I believe, it is for this very reason that photobooks came into the picture as a savior.

What attracts me to this particular medium is this: It seems to me that discussions in the field of photography is indifferent to the history of art, it is us who assume photobooks as an avant-garde field, us the "photographers." But in the history of art you also see these practices being recurrently experimented on, that corresponded to a lot of things. Come to think about it, after you create the main narrative of the book with photographs, replacing this with that, doing those graphic tricks all correspond to lots of things in the history of visual experimentation. I find the practice of photobooks a bit deceptive. I respect them surely, but I also think they are exaggerated. And I also think that photography in its own closed world, has become a medium in itself in photobooks. It doesn't communicate with the outside world really. Those who keep track of photobooks are also the ones who make them. Like those who keep track of photography is photographers themselves.

Yusuf: The problem with the world of photography is its limitedness. It can be limited to a small group of people, that's not the problem. The problem is its limitedness to the point of becoming a problem.

Serkan: I think it's quite the opposite. The world of photography is too big. It is so big that it can maintain itself on its own. That's the problem. It has the capacity to resume in its autonomous world with all its festivals, books, exhibitions, buried in its own discussions, like an autonomous structure independent from the outside world. It is something that doesn't have the need to communicate with the outside, off its own bat. But this alters the discussion itself. I am against photography festivals as well as the notion of a photo gallery.

Yusuf: The problem with the photo festivals is that they organize them badly. I don't see any other problem than that. And this problem is not only limited to Turkey, I have seen all the versions around the world, they do it badly throughout the whole world. That's why it's a problem, but the photo festival is not a problem in itself. Why shouldn't we think of photography as an independent discipline, not being any part of visual and plastic arts, an art just like music, literature or cinema?