In photos: Istanbul’s African sex workers
Table of wolves
This Turkish expression refers to a dog-eat-dog world. In this regard, Aksaray and Kumkapı are the table of wolves in Istanbul. Kumkapı is a neighborhood that is home to many African immigrants who are trying to survive in a foreign country after they fled their homeland.
Neon lights, police sirens
Boasting a constant cacophony from peddlers and police sirens, Aksaray is also home to neon-lit bars that double as venues for prostitution. The neighborhood is within walking distance to Kumkapı, meaning African sex workers are frequently seen in the bars.
A street to nowhere
These are the views that I got used to. Exactly a year ago, I missed my bus in Aksaray. While searching for an alternative way to return home, I found myself on a side street. In the middle of the chaos of Aksaray, the street had an authentic atmosphere. The sex workers, all of whom were Africans, were waiting for customers on the street, but seemed shy and fearful.
Never trust a white man
They were just 30 meters away from me. But it took me three months to cover that distance to photograph their lives. At first, I was only observing the street, looking for a door that may open to their closed, troubled worlds. Sometimes I just wandered in the street. Because – after everything they experienced here – they had learned something: Never trust a white man.
When I started this project, there were 15 African sex workers on the street. After more than a year, their number increased by four or five times. During all this time, I lived a double life – one as a friend, the other as a photojournalist. In the end, I finally managed to enter their world.
How do they come?
Most African sex workers in Istanbul actually come to the city to work in ordinary jobs, seeking to earn money to send to their families in Africa. Their ultimate goal, though, is to go to Europe or America. They enter Turkey with regular visas, but must stay clear of the police after their visas expire.
Living a lie
As such, they find themselves in a position in which they can barely survive, let alone send money to their families. At some point, some start collecting money to send back home. Many of them find that prostitution is the last resort. They eventually become sex workers, even while telling their families at home that they work in factories or stores.
Learning the life
Layla, a 24-year-old Zambian, has four brothers. Her mother lives in Hungary, having married a Hungarian man. Layla came to Istanbul disguised as a tourist but in the care of another African sex worker. The woman paid for her trip, but asked for double the amount after she arrived. The other woman seized her passport until she paid the amount, recommending to her that she become a sex worker so as to pay off the debt more quickly. Layla’s mother in Hungary thinks that she works at a factory.
Like a slave
When I met Layla, she had 1,000 dollars remaining on her debt. It was not easy to arrange meetings with her. She was not allowed to leave her house during the day. Her “boss” insists that she accompany her wherever she goes or forces her to return back home with more money. She finally paid back her entire debt and moved out of the place to live together with another African woman who was brought to Istanbul by the same “boss.” Now she has a Turkish boyfriend.
If they notice that you are stranger in the street, you’ll find pimps and pickpockets around you. And if you are drunk, pickpockets try to make you talk longer so as to rob you more easily. “Watch out, the guy that you’re talking is a thief,” an African woman warns me. Pimps, on the other hand, try to start conversations with the same phrase: “You want a lady, brother?” They always add an extra 50 or 100 Turkish Liras for themselves in addition to the sex worker’s fee. If you don’t know her house, a “specialized” taxi driver takes you there for a fixed price, regardless of the distance.
Economics of prostitution
The “supply” provided by African sex workers has cut the price of white sex workers in Istanbul. Africans charge 100 to 150 Turkish Liras from their customers, who include people from all economic classes. I learned from “the guy talk” in the street that “demand” for African sex workers was higher as a result of sexual fantasies involving well-rounded hips.
Served for ‘US Army in Iraq’
Kedreth (L), 24, is a Kenyan citizen that has three children whom she left in her homeland. “I’m working for them,” she says, stating that she sometimes sends them gifts. She claims to have served for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Coming back home together
The boyfriend of 26-year-old Jessica is a worker at a factory. Every night, they return home from work together. Like other African sex workers, she pays a rent higher than the normal value despite the terrible condition of the house. This is why almost all sex workers stay in groups of three to four people in houses.
Same tongue, different prayers
One sex worker has read fashion magazines, finished the day, picked her night shoes and is ready to go out. The lingua franca of the street is Swahili. Their biggest fear is the possibility that the mafia might meddle with their business. Some sex workers recite Muslim prayers and others Christian ones to stay safe. They also use old, cheap phones as a precaution against being robbed.
What if they are nabbed?
When police launch a crackdown in the street, detainees are sent to a state “guesthouse” for several weeks, sometimes months. The procedure to deport them is prolonged if their country has no diplomatic mission in Turkey. Sex workers do not even hire a lawyer, as they openly voice their distrust of “white men.”
Enduring the worst
Their response is impulsive, not racist. They endure the worst in the streets, even worse than white sex workers. I managed to photograph a guy who slapped an African sex worker merely for asking for a high price. Another time, I saw a man trying to tear off the underwear of an African sex worker as she was walking by in jeans. Another one jumped in the middle of them, swinging a knife. Another guy released violent dogs to attack the women.
Similar tragedies rarely told
During the project, my camera was always with me. But sometimes I witnessed such moments that I was forced to observe instead of capturing an incredible photo.
And we cannot publish a particularly extraordinary series of photographs because its subject did not issue permission, unlike others. But perhaps, seeing even one house in Aksaray might be enough to understand the burden of African sex workers in Istanbul.
After all, this is where the dreams of women from Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria have turned into a nightmare. All the other places like this house look and feel similar to many personal tragedies that are frequently experienced, but rarely told.