Istanbul's homeless people

Istanbul's homeless people

Wilco Van Herpen
Istanbuls homeless people

‘A lot of people have relatives somewhere and the homeless people do not want their relatives to know what kind of situation they had ended up in.’

A while ago, while reading a newspaper, a small article about a photographer caught my eye. This photographer, Şevket Şahinbaş, actually was no photographer, but a taxi driver who took up photography. During a very cold winter night, he saw something that made him very upset and he started thinking. Someone should do something about her situation he thought and a week later, he knew what to do. 

Şevket bought a small photo camera and started to take pictures of homeless people he saw in Istanbul while driving his customers to their destinations. He wanted to show a different face of Istanbul, give the faceless people a “face”… Soon, he found himself in a completely different Istanbul; an Istanbul he had never seen before. 

Three months later, he had quite a lot of pictures. One night, he showed his pictures to a friend to see what he thought about his pictures. While doing this, his friend made a mistake and deleted all the pictures Şevket had taken before. Disappointed by what happened, he left the camera at home. A month later, his son, at the time six years of age, asked his father about what he was doing before and why he did not see his father with the camera anymore. Totally surprised, Şevket realized he should continue with the project and from that moment on, whenever you see Şevket in his Taxi, you will see a camera next to him. It was not long before he had his first exhibition and from that moment on, he appeared in many interviews and even some documentaries.

Istanbuls homeless peopleAn Istanbul tour 

I went on an Istanbul tour with Şevket for a couple of days and what I saw did not make me very happy. So far, this winter has not been a very harsh winter, but still, living on the streets is hard. As a homeless person, you have several “enemies.” The biggest “enemy” for a person living on the streets is the weather. During wintertime, it can be freezing cold, it rains and on top of it there is an icy wind. Where can you go to as a homeless person? For days, they walk around with the same wet cloths; there is no place to dry them or to change clothes. Then, there are people who make their lives difficult. They chase the homeless people away or beat them up and there is no place for them to go. 

During the nights, we went around in Istanbul; it was raining a bit and there was a very cold wind. While driving, Şevket suddenly pulled his car over. In a small park, he had seen some people sleeping on benches, something I definitely did not see. His eyes are trained to see people sleeping on the street or in parks in Istanbul and while working on his project, he learned most homeless people try to stay in the same neighborhood. When Şevket sees a homeless person sitting in a bus shelter, he approaches him with respect and care. When the person is sleeping he tries to take pictures of them without showing their face. For Şevket, the message behind the picture is important; many times there is a bitter irony between the situation of the homeless people and the advertisements in the bus shelter or on the walls. Advertisements or billboards showing the perfect, happy and tasteful (family) life, while the person sleeping there has nothing more than his (dirty) clothes… 

Şevket grabbed his camera and jumped out of the car. From a distance, he started taking pictures and while photographing, he slowly approached the men. While working for a couple of minutes, suddenly, I saw one of the blankets moving. One of the guys who were sleeping here woke up and stared at us. Once he understood what was happening he raised his hand and in a friendly manner, asked us to stop taking pictures. Şevket directly put away his camera, looked at me, what I was doing and apologized to the man. I tried to explain to the man what we were doing there, but the only thing that was important for him was for us to stop taking pictures; it seemed as if the rest was not important for him.

Istanbuls homeless peoplePrivacy important 

Şevket told me the privacy of those people was very important for him. A lot of people have relatives somewhere and the homeless people do not want their relatives to know what kind of situation they had ended up in. As far as those people were concerned, they were “dead” to all their old friends and relatives and that way might be better for all of them. Many times, Şevket took pictures of people who were not asleep, like transsexuals, street children or garbage collectors. In such a case, Şevket first tries to have a chat with the people; make contact with them. He offers them a cigarette, explains to them what he is doing and asks for permission to take pictures. 

Before I met Şevket, I had already looked at his website ( and was impressed with the connection between the photographer and the person he was photographing (when they were not sleeping...). One of them openly poses with his wounded face from a fight that had just happened before. Transsexuals, relaxed posing, and one of them even “breastfeeding” a doll, do not feel threatened by his appearance. 

On the contrary, it is as if they are really aware of his involvement and sincerity about them. This together with the respect he approaches all of the people he has portrayed so far makes his photography touch you in the deepest corners of your soul.

For me, the couple of days that I travelled together with Şevki showed me there is still hope; hope for all the people that we prefer not to see, but are made visual by some unique people like Şevket.