Turkish photographers take on the world

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The entrance to their office is inauspicious, a dimly lit landing reminiscent of a New York tenement somehow misplaced halfway around the world. The greeting is anything but New York, however.

 “Welcome!” booms a voice as the door opens and I am greeted by a flash of blinding light.

As my eyes adjust, I see that this is less an office than the workshop of a mad scientist. Every inch of counter space is topped with spinning wheels and levers; the walls are plastered over with photographs. I am immediately ushered to the far corner where a white backdrop and lights are set up. Notebook still in hand, I look into the camera. Flash! I glance past the photographer to where the rest of the team relaxes, chai in hand. Flash!

Meet Yuz Bin Yuz, an artists' collective that is something of an overnight sensation in Turkey. In the five years since they began their project — with the aim of photographing 100,000 faces, as the name Yuz Bin Yuz suggests (in Turkish) — they have snapped some 3,000 portraits. Their goal: an archive of 21st-century people.

“We have forgotten how to look at each other, but photography has given us another chance,” said one of the six-person Yuz Bin Yuz team, which prefers not to publish individual members' names. “We are interested in the human, in introducing people to people.”

“This is important for us,” says another member. “We are the supporters of Goethe, we are the supporters of Borges, the supporters of Beethoven. We want to support thinking people in general, not emphasize ourselves.”

The project began in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. Armed with a white sheet and digital camera, the team spent months welcoming everyone who passed by to be photographed. Over time the collection of images grew into a portrait of the neighborhood itself, from the grocers to the street musicians, the painters and the litter collectors. Branching out into other parts of Istanbul, the Yuz Bin Yuz team began to document their city, one person at a time.

Now it is Turkey’s turn. The team plans to visit each of Turkey’s diverse regions, photographing people for months at a time in each place. When asked where they would go after Turkey, their answer was immediate: the world.

The team is in contact with 27 European capitals, where they hope to hold simultaneous street exhibitions to introduce the people of Turkey in full-length portraits. From there the rest will follow: photographing the people of the world until they hit a hundred thousand.

“We know nothing about our neighbors, even our next door neighbors,” says a member of the group. “But now it’s time to make acquaintances. This will be the biggest meeting in history.”

Holding up a life-size poster of an older, Turkish man in a flowered hat and bedazzled suit, a team member says: “When other people look at this picture it becomes more than just a picture, it becomes a man.”

There are hints of the anthropologist, or historian, in the work of Yuz Bin Buz as well.

“In 50 or 100 years people will look back and wonder who lived in this century. These photos are important for sociologists, for artists, actors, these are all characters.”

The project has evolved into more than just photos, but rather a menagerie of voice recordings, video and collected data. The newest member of the 10-person team was a successful carpenter before he joined the group. His creations for the project are as bizarre as they are beautiful: a mini television set programmed only to show a series of repeating portraits, a child’s mobile showing their global neighbors.

Then there is the audio technician of the group, who has taken voice recording of nearly everyone they have photographed and matched them to their musical equivalent.

“Everyone has a different voice frequency, the mean of which can translate as a musical note,” she explained. “By translating their voices to their musical equivalent I was able to play Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.”

“Or in this case,” she added, “Ode to Humanity.”