Taking photos of Turkey’s recent history

As always, Turkey is currently going through some really rough times. Along with the economic crisis that must not be spoken of, there’s the Russian S-400 defence system issue straining relations with the United States as well as the accompanying threat of sanctions. There are the repercussions of the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the re-do of the Istanbul mayoral elections acts as proof that the ruling Justice and Development Party will no longer accept elections if they lose. These are just a few of the problems.

In fact, none of these problems are new—they’re just a different face of the same things that have been going on for years. It’s just like Abdullah Gül’s election of President of Turkey when a boycott of opposition MPs in Parliament deadlocked the election process, or the downing of the Russian jet, or the multitude of other events in the past. The actors may change, but the circumstances are more or less the same.

What politicians doing now to prevent Ekrem İmamoğlu from taking office as Istanbul’s mayor is reminiscent of what they did to prevent Gül’s election. In the big cities, the waves of Syrian immigrants fleeing the civil war aren’t much different from the huge internal migrations in the 1990s as a result of military operations in the Southeast.

None of this is peculiar to Turkey, either. A lot of crisis-stricken countries around the world are in the same situation. One of the most stunning pieces of work on this topic is French photographer Didier Lefevre’s graphic novel, The Photographer, which covers his travels in Afghanistan alongside Doctors without Borders in 1986. Actually, this book doesn’t count as a true graphic novel—Lefevre also included some of the 4,000 photos he took in Afghanistan, so the book is really a memoir, half with illustrations and the other half with photographs.

Afghan refugees

From Paris, Lefevre goes to Pakistan, first to Karachi and then on to Peshawar, where he meets a Doctors without Borders team preparing to go into northern Afghanistan, and they want photographic documentation of their work there. Lefevre struggles to adjust to a culture that’s completely different from the West. After making all the necessary preparations, they all set off to sneak into Afghanistan, right into the middle of the war with the Soviet Union.

Everything the team does to reach their goals, their experiences on the road, and what they hear from others is enough to understand Afghanistan’s people, problems, and circumstances of that time.

After they enter Afghanistan illegally, the things that Lefevre saw and photographed are quite similar to what happened after the U.S. occupation there. It’s not just the abject poverty or the Muslims from around the world that came to fight the Soviets—the photos are just the same, of persecuted women and children, of a country that had never seen technology, and of people dying of illnesses that could easily be treated in the West.


The communities that fled Afghanistan and Nuristan to seek asylum in Pakistan are just one example of the refugees in the Middle East. If you said the photos from Afghanistan at that time were from today’s Syria, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Of the 4,000 photographs that Lefevre took of his adventures, only six of them appeared in the French newspaper Libération. Years later, at the suggestion of Lefevre’s friend Emmanuel Guibert, the photographs were compiled together with Lefevre’s memoirs and Guibert’s drawings and published as a book. It was so popular that it was soon translated into several foreign languages.


Lefevre’s story comes to mind every time Turkey’s headlines top the agenda, and I can’t help but wonder if a similar book could be written about Turkey. However, one difference is that such a book would have to be less about a long journey than about short jaunts among the headlines.

Because Turkey can’t really be compared to a normal country and because the headlines change so fast, it would also be possible to write more than one book. Nevertheless, books like these, with photographs and drawings together, can help to keep our memories fresh.


For example, in terms of the Ecevit government lifting the ban on poppy production in Afyon and the Peace Operation in Cyprus (both happened in the 1970s in defiance of U.S. pressure), U.S.–Turkey relations after the S-400 crisis look quite similar. Photographs portraying the events of the Ecevit years and the faces of people on the street could shed some light on what is happening today.

As I mentioned earlier, there are similarities between the process of Abdullah Gül rising to the presidency and the removal of Ekrem İmamoğlu as Mayor of Istanbul. Those who’ve forgotten should remember the events in Ankara—the rallies, the snap elections, and everything else that followed.

The times of economic crisis in Turkey come so regularly, they just remind us of themselves.

Nevertheless, in light of today’s suspension of the rule of law, the concentration of power in one person’s hands, and the silencing of the opposition are reminiscent of the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when the Committee of Union and Progress first began to gain traction.

Despite the dozens of calamities in Turkey, we’ve never experienced so many women and children in prison, or this amount of violence against women, or this degree if polarisation in society. No matter how many times the country has been divided, the unwritten rules were still followed, and it has never been like this, where the enmity is so fierce that one side wants to completely eliminate the other.

I don’t know if we will ever see a book from a photographer’s point of view about what’s happening in Turkey today, but I’m certain that in the future, these recent events will be the topic of a lot of social science courses, and a lot of theses are going to be written about it.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.