Photo-artist helps create bridges in İzmir’s poor district

Photo-artist helps create bridges in İzmir’s poor district

Nazlan Ertan - İZMİR
Photo-artist helps create bridges in İzmir’s poor district A dozen children between the ages 10 and 12 sit in the small meeting room of a renovated building that houses the Panagia Galatousa Chapel, at the heart of İzmir’s Agora, the ancient city center.

The children who look like they could jump out of the room and run through the sunlit street are residents of the multi-ethnic impoverished neighborhood. Four of them are of Syrian origin and two need the help of a “classmate” to follow their course. The course is photography – in a few minutes, they will each be given a camera and be sent off to photograph the city they live in. But before that, their instructor asks them what they would like to photograph, and the replies are both simple and touching: “Stray animals,” “The historical things,” “our house that is collapsing” and “roses in the park.”

Their teacher, Serra Akcan, is an Istanbul-based photographer whose eye has brought new light on a number of controversial issues such as the Turkish-Armenian relations, the few remaining Armenians in Diyarbakır, Kurdish prisoners in hunger strikes, Gezi Park protests and numerous women’s demonstrations. Akcan utilizes photography as a medium for dialogue between reluctant parties. In 2006, she was part of a Turkish and Armenian photographers group who launched the project named “Merhabarev,” “Merhaba” meaning Hello in Turkish and “Barev” meaning “Hello” in Armenian, so that both sides could get to know each other through images of daily lives in Istanbul and Yerevan. “We have placed the first stone and are continuing to build the bridge for the following decade,” she told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview. 

Akcan’s class will snap photos for a week and the team will later be brought together for an exhibition. “Once you give the kids a camera, they change. The photos they snap will be an important testimony of the life here, through their eyes,” Akcan added. 

Akcan spent October and will also spend part of November in İzmir’s “Tarık Dursun K Artists’ Residence” – a small townhouse which offers residencies for one month to various artists. The house was opened last year, and has in the past hosted poet Cahit Duman and writer Yavuz Ekinci. The municipality asks – but does not oblige – the resident artists to work with the community through a writing-workshop or giving conferences.
Ahmet Büke, himself a writer and the coordinator for the residence of the Konak municipality, also plans to bring international writers and artists. “We aim to host a large spectrum of artists here, in memory of Tarık Dursun Kakınç, known as Tarık Dursun K, who himself was not only a writer but poet, journalist, scenario writer, literary critic, translator and publisher,” he said.

Overcoming prejudice

Akcan’s work with the kids will help bridge differences for groups that at times dislike each other. But the different ethnic groups will come together united by their poverty in the back streets of the city. “Different groups living in these houses sometimes look at each other with distrust,” Büke added.  “The families, themselves victims of discrimination, pass on their own prejudices to their kids, but we have many projects that will bring them together.”

The neighborhood with its two-story houses falling apart is part of the renewal plans of the city. At present, many of the recent arrivals to the city settle in the partly destroyed houses. The most recent of the groups who arrived are Syrian refugees, most of whom are unwelcome by those who arrived earlier.
 Teodora Hacudi, also a member of the Konak municipality, said: “One day, a Roma child approached me and said she did not want to be in the same class with Syrian children because the Syrians were bad people who killed Turkish soldiers. We took the boy aside and explained to him that his friend was not a murderer and that there were good and bad people and how it was wrong to think of entire nations or groups as good or bad.”

Panagia Galatousa Chapel

Panagia Galatousa Chapel, also known as the Chapel of the Breastfeeding Virgin, is situated in the ancient town center. It takes its name from a fountain in the chapel, where the water is believed to increase women’s fertility and nurture breast milk. A rectangular room is used to carry an icon of the Virgin and the chapel is connected to a water channel that extends between Kadifekale and Kemeraltı. Today, the building belongs to the Konak Municipality and is often used for community and training events. In 2015, a religious ceremony was held by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew at the chapel.