When I was a child, I once heard someone ask, “what exists in the space between?”
They meant, of course, that infinitesimally narrow space someplace between the sea and the sky.
I’m no physicist, but I’ve been told that the closer we get to something, the more impossible it becomes to actually pin down its location. And that’s exactly how the late Turkish photographer Cem Ersavci’s work makes me feel.
Cem Ersavci lived and worked as an artist and documentary photographer in Istanbul, a city of superlatives. One of the oldest, largest. Exclusive in its pan-continental status.
It’s here that the edges of two vast continents gracefully meet and fuse beneath soaring-minaret, Bospherous-sapphire skies. On one side of any street, men of faith gather around low tables over tea and backgammon; on the the other, young urbanites sip their cold Efes to Submotion Orchestra dub-jazz.
What, in Istanbul, is in the spaces between? Those enigmatic spaces in which the daily experiences, hardships and joys are lived out between edges?
As Cem Ersavci probed the city’s surface in search of such things, his 2013 photo series, The Edge, emerged in a bubble of dreamy brilliance. Horizons tinged purple-grey like oysters. Skies tumbling through milky shades of blue and white. Tiny little people floating in amber worlds made of more grains of sand than stars in the galaxy. The clouds. The footprints. The cold hands in pockets. The wind whipping hair in rough tangles across watering, squinting eyes.
From the centre of The Edge, a bundle of physical sensations gently unfurls, opening up to reveal shadowy glimpses of all the passing thoughts and feelings and sights that are noticed and forgotten, remembered and transformed in any lived moment. It seeks, joyfully, to seize what it is that’s happening, as it happens. To capture a moment’s essence in an immediate, phenomenological sense. Before language and symbols and signs take over in their paranoia to make sense of it all and pin something, anything, down.
It is, irrevocably, human.
These aren’t “daily events,” as Ersvaci himself clarified. They’re the rush of feelings, sensations, visions that take place before the boundaries between self and other can even be perceived.
They’re everything that happens in the blink of every eye.
What’s interesting is that, among Edeveci’s hazy notes from The Edge, a concrete artefact from the past bubbles to the surface. In his 2014 Northern Forest series a year later, Ersavci seems to switch gears entirely, adding an, unavoidably political, commentary to the physical surroundings of his home city.
This later series addresses the controversial, and much contested, construction project taking place across the forests north of Istanbul to make way for a new bridge, third airport and pockets of new villas. Dwindling strips of coast pines, old oaks and heavy chestnuts are shown gradually disappearing into monochrome memories from an idyllic past.
One image from the series stands out to me in particular. In an area subjected to the most intense of the government’s forest clearing we see a scattering of tumbled rocks and tree stumps. Captured against the crescent of the hills, it immediately evokes one of the earliest and most famous images of war – Roger Fenton’s photograph of cannonballs scattered across a Crimean battlefield. (See The Valley of Shadow of Death, 1855)
The likeness, even if unintentional, infuses the series with violence, with a warlike nature. Yet Fenton’s image has long been subjected to critical scrutiny, most famously by Susan Sontag. In Regarding The Pains Of Others, Sontag asserts that Fenton in fact staged the image through his own artful scattering of cannonballs.
Ersavci himself draws upon Sontag’s critique of documentary photography in his Master’s Thesis, Personal Narratives as a Sub-Genre in the Aesthetics of Documentary Photography. There, in line with Sontag’s assessment, he refers to the medium’s narrow perspective, its creation of an insincere and fabricated visuality, its tendency to aestheticise violence.
Surely Ersavci would have been familiar too with Sontag’s analysis of Fenton’s shady war photograph. It’s an allusion that emerges, to me, as a powerful moment of reflexivity; a flagrant self-awareness in which Ersavci calls attention to his chosen medium’s inherent and problematic limitations.
For Ersavci perhaps, the politicised issue of Istanbul’s northern forests could not be justly captured through the lens without conceding to these limitations. He appears to embrace, playfully, the complete absurdity of ever even attempting to capture it without the lived tinges of an onlooker. The forest’s very edges fusing with the boundaries of perception itself – inseparable, like an entwined mass of fibres sharing a single bloodline. For, of course, if a tree falls without anyone watching, does it even make a sound?
But, without sinking into solipsistic marshlands, this mindful acceptance of the world’s forms bounded up so tightly with its lived experience seems to serve as justification for the tone his works so naturally gravitates towards. A tone much closer to heedless rushes of sensations, which finds its pinnacle in The Edge. His images are doused in it even in his 2013 series on the anti-government protests in Gezi Park, which seems to move closest to documentary photography in its traditional form.
In 2013, what began as demonstrations against the proposed urban redevelopment of a central park quickly escalated into a wider expression of anger against the policies of the Erdogan’s government. Ersavci shows us not just a conflict between police and protesters but also a violent, warlike clash between the internal world of The Edge and the “daily events” speeding along beyond our peripheries. Indeed, in the middle of his Gezi series, two images placed side-by-side declare this conflict, out of which all other images seem to grow.
Such sentiments are taken further still in his Outside series, where Ersavci invites us to view an urban world in which the rampant consumption of land as a commodity is underway, booming real estate markets giving birth to sprawling highways and shopping malls. It’s an “amorphous urban landscape which insatiably devours its own surroundings,” as Ersavci concludes.
But it’s comment on Outside and the “urban planning” it depicts as a way of “planning how life is to be lived in these places” that takes the series to its dramatic climax. An endeavour, by political figures and commercial organisations, to gnaw away at forestland and seek to pin millions of lived moments down in ways out of which they can eek the most profit. Such an act is to strip The Edge of all its subjective musings – brutally, concretely.
When I view Ersavci’s body of work, I see a struggle that I am familiar with. A realisation that edges are not, cannot, in fact be attached to any one place. They move with us. We are forever on the precipice of edges.
And what exists in that mysterious space between? Where the inner meets the outer, the Self meets Other, perception meets existence. Such things cannot be pinned down. (Is this what T.S.Eliot meant when he wrote, “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow?”)
Ersavci does not try to pin it down. He celebrates the ambiguity, the limitations, the futility, the absurdness of photography’s futile and endless endeavour to do so. It’s an act he himself describes as, “a journey, drawing inside and the outside close to a circle.”