Turkey has been utterly transformed since World War II, when 75 percent of the population lived in the countryside, and just 25 percent occupied its cities. Today, those figures have been reversed. The latest wave of urbanization, over just the past decade, has been accompanied by the rapid construction of roads, mass housing projects, and shopping malls – a building boom that helped propel Turkey's ruling party to another victory in nationwide local elections Sunday.
Though many have hailed Turkey's recent economic progress, frustration with the pace and nature of the changes, especially in Istanbul, also helped fuel last summer’s dramatic street protests. And many people have been left behind, from residents of poor and otherwise marginalized urban neighborhoods slated for renewal to those who remain in largely abandoned rural communities. Take, for example, the empty schools captured around Kastamonu by photographer Melih Cevdet Tekşen, whose work recently won an honorable mention in the American Turkish Society's Young Photographers Award competition.
"This year's submissions were striking in their melancholy air, and the focus on abandoned spaces, overcrowded cities, and the everyday difficulties – particularly for children and young people," competition jurors Karen Haas and Anne E. Havinga, both photography curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said in a joint response to emailed interview questions.
"Istanbul changes every day, but it’s not just Istanbul, it’s just about every Turkish city," says Young Photographers Award founder Haluk Soykan. "None of these are the cities they were 10, 20, 30 years ago."
Prize winner Osman Demir captured portraits of impoverished young Roma in a shantytown on the fringes of Istanbul, where residents make their living by collecting and selling used paper for recycling. Demir says he chose to focus on portraits of single members of this rootless community "living at the bottom of the system" because "a face explains a life, both its goodness and its troubles."
Rural schools have been closing rapidly since 2000 around Melih Cevdet Tekşen’s Black Sea hometown of Kastamonu. "In my mother’s day, the village school had 20 students; now the population of the whole village is not even 20," he says. As the rural population declines due to a lack of jobs, the children of those who remain “must go to boarding school in the cities because the village schools are closed,” Tekşen says. “The only thing I can do [about it] is document [the old schools] with my camera."
Children in Antalya's historic Balbey area play with a toy dump truck, foreshadowing the impending razing of their neighborhood, in Çağın Coşkunırmak's "Yıkım Oyunu" (Destruction Game):
Coşkunırmak also shot the image "Küçük Adam" (Little Man) in Balbey, where, the photographer says, the young children of poor families "also take part in working" at jobs such as shoe shiner or mechanic's apprentice:
Burçin Ayebe’s series "The Urban Ruins" depicts abandoned interiors in the Istanbul neighborhood of Fikirtepe, the one-time homes of former residents now left derelict and empty by the urban transformation process:
The "European" heart of the young Turkish Republic, Istanbul’s ever-bustling İstiklal Caddesi has a rich, if sorrowful past, as the area’s historic Greek and Armenian communities were driven away after World War II. Berkay Tezcan’s series "People of İstiklal" depicts the mix of upper-class Istanbulites, new migrants, and tourists who rub shoulders there today:
"Hometown associations scattered around Istanbul’s suburbs serve as a place for low-income migrants to gather, play cards, support each other, and remember their hometowns," says Emel Bayat, who photographed these humble spaces, invariably decorated with pictures of the villages that members have had to leave behind:
Elements of rural life persist in Bedrettin, a crowded Istanbul district dating back to early Ottoman times and populated largely by members of the Roma community. It too is targeted for renewal, though photographer Rafet Diker says residents know little about the plans: “They are continuing their lives in the places from which they’ll be evicted very soon."