Martin Jaeggi in conversation with Linda Herzog
MARTIN JAEGGI What were the beginnings of Mihriban?
LINDA HERZOG It all began with the decision to move to Istanbul. In 1983, I went there for the first time. And then again in 2002, together with a friend who spoke Turkish. This time Istanbul really got to me. I had to find out what was behind this city. My first book, Birmingham İstanbul Zürich, was the primary expression of this fascination.
MJ What attracted you?
LH Istanbul is a very large city in a very large country. On the surface, everything seems familiar, but on the second or third level you no longer understand what is going on. Looking at Turkey´s neighbors, you begin to understand the influences that come together in this country. It is the nexus of various cultures that I am interested in. One of Turkey´s neighbors is Greece, which has been a member of the EU for quite some time now. The social developments that have occurred in Greece have not yet taken place in Turkey, not even in the western part.
There are influences from Bulgaria, Georgia and from Armenia, all former communist states. The upheavals of the past 15 years had immediate effects upon Turkey. Iran and Iraq, on the one hand, exert a politically volatile influence. Syria, on the other hand, is more focused on Israel. But all of this converges in Turkey.
Initially, I wanted to travel along the borders of Turkey and take pictures, a simple basic concept that I later had to reconsider for both practical and topical reasons. The borders of Iraq and Iran seemed too dangerous, the coast not interesting enough. I had assumed that traveling would be quite easy, just like in a Western country. But being a foreigner is never easy. It took a lot of time to learn the language. And, as a woman, it was quite difficult to travel and do necessary research on my own, although I got a lot of support from locals. When the situation required it, I stayed in one place for as long as a month.
MJ Where did you travel?
LH I went to the East, to the coast of the Black Sea and to Istanbul; to Izmir in the West, but also to Central Anatolia and to the coast of the Mediterranean. I visited Ayfon in the central western region because it is one of the most conservative cities in Turkey.
MJ How did the concept of the book evolve while you worked on it?
LH When I started, I was fascinated by Robert Frank´s The Americans, by the idea to just travel across a country and to explore and document this with the camera. Later, I noticed that there was too much that I did not understand in Turkey. When I had finally learned enough Turkish, I realized that the structures of life in Turkey were unlike those I was familiar with, to a degree that I had not expected. This forced me to reconsider my approach.
MJ Why do you have to understand something in order to photograph it? And how does understanding change the images?
LH With more knowledge and experience you begin to see differently. I became a part of everyday life. Things that used to be foreign became familiar and lost the attraction of the exotic.
MJ How did your approach to photography change during your stay?
LH The most important thing was that I overcame my fear at a certain point. Standing on the street with your camera is something you have to practice. In order to find solutions to formal problems and to take good pictures, you need to find the proper mental distance. Moreover, for a long time I was influenced by images of Turkey that I had seen in Switzerland. In the course of the two years that I spent in Turkey, these images disappeared. Once this filter was gone, I achieved a new immediacy. I no longer compared everything with images that weren´t my own. I observed, and when I noticed something interesting, I just had to find out how to condense it into an image of my own.
MJ Mihriban is not a photographic travelogue in the manner of Robert Frank as you initially intended. How would you describe your book?
LH It documents how I explored a foreign reality that became my own over time. I would describe it as a well-researched analysis of a culture that became increasingly familiar to me. I did not want to create a subjective narrative with my images. I wanted to show what Turkey is or could be. Some images pursue a rather objective approach, others are more intimate. It playfully oscillates between closeness and distance, and yet all photographs deal with the same reality. Mihriban is both documentary photography and the record of a process that I consider essentially artistic. It´s about exploring reality by means of art, it is research on the nature of both reality and of the image.
MJ What photographic influences were important to you while you worked on Mihriban?
LH An important model was Japanese photography of the 1960s - Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama - because these photographers wanted to overcome the limits of photography. They wanted to find new ways in photography during a socially and politically tense period. This was a strong influence, not on the level of surface aesthetics, but as an attitude, as a will to make statements.
MJ This leads me to the question of the possibilities and limits of photography. How did you experience them while working on Mihriban?
LH The limits of photography are set. Photography can only show surfaces. It cannot show their context, what is hidden behind the surface. Consequently, it is difficult to take photographs in complex environments. Taking photographs often means learning on the spot. Even in a very tense situation you have to understand what is actually going on. When four tanks and a group of angry men are standing in front of your camera, you have to grasp what they stand for, although you´d rather run away.
MJ This entails distancing yourself from your emotions.
LH The camera protected me from my often confused and strained emotional state. Without the camera I would have been lost during my travels. You feel very exposed, all alone with your camera on the streets. It is something completely different when a woman uses a camera, rather than a man, even in the Western world. When you have a camera, you are in a position of power. You compose images and try to transmit them. When a woman assumes this position, she is often confronted with extreme distrust. Very often though you are not taken seriously - this is actually the ideal situation, because nothing will happen to you. On the streets, I did not want to be taken seriously.
MJ But what happened when someone did take you seriously?
LH I felt a threat that didn´t actually manifest itself physically, but as a defensive attitude. You are doing something that you are not entitled to. You don´t fit into their framework. These confrontations should not be part of the images. What I experience as a female photographer behind the camera happens on a different level. Or I consciously decide I want to be part of a situation as photographer, but that is once again something else. You always have to know what you want. I worked very hard for the clarity of the images.
MJ How do you want to affect your viewers with Mihriban?
LH I would like people to examine the often perplexing variety of Turkey and to develop a calmly considered approach to it. I want to create images that allow the viewer to make discoveries.