Polat's exhibition titled 'Who Are You?' is the first individual exhibition of a young photographer to be opened in the İstanbul Modern. The exhibition shows what he has been working on for the past 10 years in a very personal context. Ahmet Polat's selection of 82 photographs blends diverse topics, ranging from immigrants in Transvaal to the homeless in Tilburg, from the 1999 Marmara earthquake to high-society. The exhibition will run until Aug. 26.
The name of the exhibition is 'Who Are You?' Is it the most important question of your life?
It was. It can be a rude question depending on the nation. It can reflect an interest or it can be a judgment. It all depends on how you ask it. This question has been asked of me in many different ways. And when I was working on this exhibition, when I photographed people, when I worked on certain topics, it was all about who are they really and who I am in this context. In Turkey this is a question of interest. In Holland [the question] is more like "What are you?" More rude. But yes it is an important question.
Do you have an answer to that? Or how many answers do you have?
I believe as a human being we find ourselves in our actions. In what we do, in how we interact. And I believe with this work I gave a certain answer. My answer is I am not one thing, I am several different things. I am not only Dutch. I am still developing as a person, as a photographer. In Holland when people hear my name they put me in one box: "He is a Turkish migrant's son." But I don't want to be only that. There is much more than that. And I had to fight to get out of the box. In Turkey it is the other way around. They say, "You are one of us." But I am also an outsider to Turkish society in a way.
You have been working in Turkey for some time now. How has your perception changed over the years?
It took me a lot to understand human relations in Turkey. To photograph the people on the street you have to understand what kind of people they are. It took me a lot of time to learn the language, to learn the relationships and how I would integrate in the society. Now it's easier for me to work in Turkey. I went to Brazil for six months recently. They have a totally different culture. So I started all over again. But as a photographer you learn to understand body language and to be sensitive about people. Empathy is very important. If you don't have knowledge about the culture, you don't have a context. To feel the moment you have to feel the people. It's all about finding a moment in life. I demand a lot from the viewer. I demand them to be sensitive, to have empathy. They have to feel that they are the people that they looking at. In my work, the lighting, the composition is important but the most important thing is the emotion.
Your photographs are like moments with a story...
I like to use one frame to refer to something outside the frame. There is a past, there is a future, there is a movement. The work wants you to engage in it. It's very personal. It isn't a distant work. So people can be engaged in a story, in somebody else's life. I am not creating any images to shock nor to dominate. I am creating images to engage.
What are your influences in photography?
Not so much his photography but what Henri Cartier Bresson said about photography inspired me a lot: "Photography is about life." Before photography I used drawing to express myself. I think photography made me get out there in the world. It pushed me to communicate, look and see what was going around me. At the same time the medium was confrontational in a reflective way. Showing what was happening when I was out there photographing. And seeing what I was doing through my work. Josef Koudelka, Larry Towell, Eugene Smith and also Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, Jeff Mermelstein and Lee Friedlander are just few photographers whose work has influenced mine. But even more than their photography, it is the psychology behind it that attracts me.
Through the images you captured in Fener, Balat and Transvaal, which have all undergone similar transformations, you emphasized the interaction between architecture and the daily lives of the inhabitants. What was your motive in photographing these areas?
I became aware of the pressures on social groups in the city, the transformation of the environment when I was living in Holland. All the migrants are pushed into the same areas in a kind of ghetto. And lately they demolished the ghettos and pushed people outside. The life of these people totally changed. I like to work with the more abstract elements of life. That's why I chose these areas.
You photographed the ghettos and after that you photographed high society in Turkey. Why?
I always choose a topic of personal interest. I was photographing the same things, like poor areas, people in ghettos. That wasn't fair. Because it's not all that. There is a high society which is very important in Turkey. It's in our daily life. On television, in newspapers. I felt that if I am honest with myself I have to admit that I am also curious about them. I have to push myself to something new.
What do you think about the future of photography?
It becomes even more important. We live in a visual society. So communication through images becomes important. Everybody has a camera now. That means professionals are more responsible to show how to create images, how to communicate through images. Photographs are not two dimensional. You have a story in your mind. Photography is a language. You have to learn to use this language.
Who is Ahmet Polat?
Ahmet Polat was born in 1978 in Rosendaal, a small town in the Netherlands, and was raised there as the child of a Dutch and Turkish family. Studying for a degree in photography at St. Joost Academy in Breda, he came to Turkey in order to photograph his family on his mission to identify himself and his roots. As he was looking for answers to questions, Polat witnessed the aftermath of the 1999 Gölcük and Yalova earthquakes. In August 2001, he organized an exhibition titled, "Reflections on an Earthquake," bringing the devastation of the disaster into focus. He later focused on the living conditions of the Turks in the Netherlands. The fruit of this endeavor was a book titled "Gurbetçi" (gastarbeiter). Polat conveyed life in the Dutch ghettos in 2002, through "Home is where I Left My Dreams." He photographed the effects of a restoration project on the lives of foreign inhabitants in the Transvaal district of The Hague. Polat photographed the habitants of Balat and Haliç as part of a rehabilitation program supported by UNESCO and the EU. Titled "En Route to Change," this work reflected the change of human texture in contrast to the change of urban composition in a cosmopolitan area of the city. In 2000, Polat decided to continue his work in a different context and began photographing Turkish high society. This production resulted in an exhibition titled, "Invitation Only."