Mid July of this year I had the chance to visit Istanbul for 10 days. A great opportunity for everybody who likes street photography. My initial intent was to travel light, but in the end I took two camera systems with me. One was a Phase One/Leaf combo, including tripod for some large format work. I will cover that in another blog entry. For pure documentary-style work I took my Leica M240, equipped with a 35mm Summilux FLE, a 50mm Summilux ASPH, and a Zeiss 21mm 2.8 lens.
(I wish Leica would produce a compact 21mm in the f2.0-2.8 range. Right now their offering is either to large and expensive or not open enough. So the Zeiss had to fill that gap.)
To get around I stuffed everything in to my slightly beaten up ONA Bowery canvas bag. That basically covers my ideal kit. I don’t use lens caps because the bag is nicely padded. This makes lens switches faster. But I keep B&W UV filters on them to project the front elements.To keep the system small I left the 21mm optical viewfinder at home and relied on the camera’s screen for 21mm work. I did not bring the electronic viewfinder. I hate that thing. We just don’t get along with each other and the only reason that I still own it is pure laziness in putting an Ebay add up. I went with one battery only and had no issues with that. It easily covered a day of shooting. That’s it about the equipment. Overall it was perfect. Of course there were moments that I wanted to throw the camera into the Bosporus, or into the next trash container, but I dealt with that like a grown up and will report on the camera’s shortcomings in a upcoming review of the M240. The frustration is mostly around software.
Is Istanbul save?
Two weeks ago I would have said yes. Overall the city feels very European and developed. It has a beautiful old town, modern areas, amazing parks and sights. But it has around 14-17 million habitants and at that size you will find areas that are not recommended for tourist during the day, and should be avoided at night. At he same time you should not just stay in the touristy areas. Yes, they are picturesque but in a touristy way. Istanbul has many neighborhoods that are undiscovered by mass tourism and are beautiful, original, and welcoming. Talk to a local about specific sites because it can be difficult to see the nuances between a friendly, poor neighborhood and those that may be criminal hot-spots. Take a map and let a local mark up areas to avoid and areas to see.
Now my view on safety has shifted a bit. When I left IS started to attack the southern region of Turkey. The government is fighting back against IS and areas of Kurdish settlements. The chance to see attacks in Istanbul has increased drastically within the last few days.
The food is great at restaurants. The current exchange rate makes it possible to even go to top places frequently. I had no food issues until I got a free sample from one of the street vendors. It took me a week to get it out of my system. What he gave me was super spicy and fatty, delicious actually but somehow it upset my stomach. I am clearly not an Anthony Bourdain.
Overall people are friendly. But if someone talks to you for too long without any obvious reason in any of the tourist spots, move on. They will chat with you for 10 minutes until they will try to get you to their store to sell you stuff. Be polite, but firm.
Yeah, in case a shoe-shine person walks towards you or passes you and accidentally loses a brush, just ignore it. The first time I picked it up and felt good about helping a poor man. I just didn’t understand why he got grumpy after I told him that I still don’t need clean running shoes. When I discovered the second, third, forth lost brush during that day I understood. On the last day I even went out to just photograph that. Once you know it, it is so predictable and almost fun to watch them act surprised when they turn around to pick up their ignored brush.
But the trick works, as it had worked on me the first time. So ignore it, smile and move on.
Overall Istanbul reminded me of San Francisco. It is very hilly and has water all around. Have good shoes and a detailed map. Once I got lost in a dense valley because I couldn’t see the water and the small streets blocked the view and made it impossible to catch any landmark. On my longest hike I walked 12km up and down the hills. Personally I prefer to use my legs versus bus or underground. It makes me discover sights on my way that otherwise I may have overlooked.
Visually the city has a lot to offer. It is rich in culture, people, colors, fabrics, food. Once you get out of the beaten path you may find areas that make you feel like HCB in the 40s or 50s. The city throws moments at you that make you think you took a time machine.
Once you find an interesting place, spend some time there. Often I found myself sitting down and observing before I took the camera to take some shots. Every place is different and you have to get a feel for the dynamics.
The only rule I followed; don’t take photos of women in burkas and of their families, husbands, etc. While most people in Turkey reacted friendly after being photographed, I had one encounter in which I took a photo and didn’t see that the person was followed by his Muslim family. He indicated to not take photos and so I lowered my camera, greeted and moved on. Respect goes a long way, so does body language.
I took this photo in Beyoglu/Istanbul. I went North/West of Tarlabasi Blvd, which is off the beaten path and supposedly it is not recommended to go there because of drugs, crime, etc. The once beautiful, now crumbling area is being demolished and replaced with fancy new homes. The low-income population is getting pushed out to make space for the young and rich. Metal fences block the old districts from the construction sites, making the streets look like ghettos. When I took the photo this little guy walked by, wearing a Superman shirt. I was hoping he would grab the fence and throw it off to the horizon.
Istanbul can get hot in Summer. Thankfully the temperatures were around mid 80 (28C) while I was there, which was low for that time of the year. Expect mid 90s and more when you go in July. Even with temperatures in the 80s, and a refreshing wind, it feels hot in the middle of the day and people seek the shade. I went for the last days of Ramadan and Muslims were not allowed to eat and drink from sunrise to sunset. Roughly a 16h period to think or not to think about food. Five times a day the streets would be filled with prayers bouncing back from various mosques all over the city. A beautiful experience. It is the time to slow down and reflect on the day, the things you do, yourself. I found this explanation of fasting on Wikipedia: “The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Ramadan also teaches Muslims how to better practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate; thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity.” Wikipedia
People in Istanbul love doing selfies as well. They especially seem to love selfie sticks. To me Istanbul seems to have the highest per capita saturation of selfie sticks. Every other person has one, every sales person in the city seems to sell one, in every situation you will see one. People have even figured out how to mount an SLR on a stick. I had one guy in front of me walking up a long shopping street. The whole time he filmed himself from all angles, left side, right side, top, bottom, while looking straight into the direction he was walking to. No good photo unless it has your face in it.
After 16h of fastening people gather and eat. Every night the city provides a fenced-off area at Taksim Square to host people for a public feast. It is free of charge. People arrive early to get a seat at one of the tables. Around half an hour before dusk, when all the seats are gone, the officials close off the area to the dismay of those who come late, or those who think that they deserve to be part of the ceremony. Pushing and arguing at the gate continues for a while. A few yards to the side some non-muslims are standing at the fence, eating corn while looking at the starving crowd. A group of kids, that made it into the area, takes off with a couple of boxes and escape over the fence to then secretly eat the food between some parked cars. I don’t know why they don’t stay, eat at the table and enjoy the company. Maybe that is what kids prefer. Those who got in wait for the signal to open the boxes with food. At dusk you hear the sound of a cannon filling the streets of Istanbul, indicating the start of the eating period that lasts until sunrise.
If you like cats you will like Istanbul. Cats are everywhere, so are dogs. I am not sure if they belong to someone or just live on the street.You see big ones, really small ones, healthy ones and sick ones. Supposedly you can tell if a neighborhood is wealthy by looking at the health of the street cats. People seem to love them. Stores and businesses put water and food out for them. Everywhere you see little piles of cat food in-front of business doors and restaurants. At one restaurant I had the water bowl for cats under my table and got visitors every few minutes. Some even put cat boxes outside on the street and at one park I found lovely made wooden houses just made for the cats to live in. Dogs roam freely as well. I saw this one dog sitter and I couldn’t tell if half of her dogs did belong to her or not, because they were all over the street while the other half was on on a leash. One day I had a German Shepard dog as my companion for a while. He walked with me and stopped every few minutes to see if I was still keeping up with him.
PS You may be wondering why I am not giving you a list of place to go. Actually I want you to do your homework, read the travel guides, and explore. You may find areas where I have not been yet.