ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)–The Istanbul Modern Art Museum turns 10 this year, and makes for an impressive structure on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Its 8,000 square meters are home to a vast array of contemporary art, but the space devoted to photography is a single corridor tucked away below ground, lacking any natural light. Photos are tacked up on brown cardboard, while a security guard marches conspicuously between visitors seeking a quiet moment of contemplation.

Local gallery owners and photographers in the newly trendy neighborhood of Karakoy credit the Istanbul Modern with sparking the regeneration of the area. But they lament the marginal treatment of the photography gallery, viewing it as a microcosm of Turkish society’s failure to appreciate photography as an art form.

These days, women such as Laleper Aytek are carving out a role for themselves and their art form. As a visible minority of those actively hanging work in galleries and developing Turkey‘s appreciation of the art form, they are often spotlighting women’s issues and important social roles.

Aytek, a photographer and professor at Koc University, said the Ottoman Empire’s history of forbidding images of living beings, so-called aniconism, casts a long shadow. Even in the early days of the new republic of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which formed about 100 years after the invention of the camera and emphasized a radical push for modernism, it was still rare to find Turks taking pictures.

Through galleries, exhibitions and competitions in the mid-20th century, art — in the form of painting and sculpture — images became more pervasive in Turkish culture. But the shift was still quite slow.

Aytek said that even in the 1980s, when she was just starting out, photography was not considered a viable career path and there were only a few artistic photographers to be found in the country.

Over the last 25 years, that small cohort has slowly elevated the artistic stature of photography among Turks. “The general perception has really changed,” Aytek said. “The advent of digital technology means that people can shoot much more easily, and cheaply. More frequent exhibitions and fairs also mean more interest.”

A New Generation

Aytek works with a new generation of young photographers, many of them female students whose families support their creative interests financially.

One of them is Sinem Yoruk, credited with opening Istanbul‘s first space dedicated solely to photography seven years ago.

“I realized there were a lot of photographers who were frustrated with the fact that there was no real market here,” Yoruk said in an interview at her airy Karakoy gallery, Elipsis. “There were very few galleries, doing maybe one show a year, representing one or two photographers – that’s just not enough to expand.”

With Elipsis–one of several galleries run by women in Karakoy–Yoruk provides a beginner’s space that caters to would-be art lovers (and buyers) who might be intimidated by photography or not know where to start. She hosts exhibits, workshops, seminars and talks by artists to spread awareness and highlight emerging Turkish photographers.

Istanbul's first gallery dedicated to photography.
Istanbul's first gallery dedicated to photography.

By some estimates, women make up only 20 to 30 percent of those working as any type of photographer in the country; artistic, fashion or journalistic. Some observers of the field here say that
the small fraction of young Turkish women who contemplate this option face a number of deterrents, such as financial instability, the perception that the public exposure of the work and its occasional dangers make it unsuitable for women and doubts about women’s ability to master the technology to the same degree as men.

Those women who prevail are therefore often breaking two types of ground. First they are in a nontraditional field and second they focus their viewfinders on such under-represented topics as women’s social contributions and working lives.

Last year Aytek co-curated an international symposium dedicated to Semiha Es, Turkey‘s first female war photographer, who worked on the frontlines of the Korean War in the 1950s, later shooting in the United States, Rwanda and Vietnam, among other countries.

The Semiha Es symposium also featured a selection of contemporary female photographers who aim their cameras at such social issues as domestic violence and “honor” killings.

Universal Women’s Work

Sehlem Sebik, one of the contemporary photographers in that symposium, is pursuing her doctoral degree in photography and gender at Istanbul‘s Bilgi University. Her latest project, “One Day,” was inspired by the tenacity she witnessed in female co-workers after she took a job in a factory in Izmir to supplement her earnings. To universalize the theme, she also photographed women in Denmark, comparing their days to those of Turkish counterparts as both groups of women worked long hours and then returned home to tend to their husbands and children.

“I was just so angry after I saw the inequality in workplaces and in our private lives,” she said in an interview in a rooftop café off Taksim Square. “I wanted to show what was going on in those women’s lives and wanted to create some public awareness.” Sebik said she has received numerous comments from women who saw glimpses of themselves in her photography.

The relative obscurity of photography is prized by some photographers here for giving them more leeway than might otherwise be possible under the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a socially conservative force in the country.

Turkish authorities, for instance, jailed more journalists in 2013 than any other government, topping the list for the second year in a row, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ most recent prison census. Since last summer’s anti-government protests in Gezi Park, those in the media daring to criticize the AKP have faced harassment, intimidation and arrest.

By contrast, photography collectives such as NAR Photos, which are trying to keep the spirit of Gezi alive by showcasing the government’s brutal treatment of protestors, remain comparatively untouched.

“The government doesn’t pay attention,” said Aytek. “Especially if you are a woman and a photographer, you are not important to them. Therefore you have a really interesting weapon in your hands.”

Conservative attitudes towards sex roles in Turkey can mean that a female photographer faces particular obstacles, such as being barred from male-only events or being unable to frequent certain areas. But that table can also be turned.

While covering the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in eastern Turkey, for instance, Aytek recalled working with women who were suddenly homeless. “If I was a man, they wouldn’t be able to share details of their intimate, private lives with me so easily. But on the contrary, if I want to shoot in the back streets alone at night, even at my age and with my experience; that I cannot do.”