Theory & Practice

Exploring Istanbul Through Emin Özmen’s Lens

Ahead of an upcoming workshop in Istanbul in May, Özmen opens up on the experience of shooting in his adopted home, a city of color and contradiction

Istanbul, Turkey, 2022. © Emin Özmen / Magnum Photos

“I would call Istanbul my home,” writes Emin Özmen, who was born and grew up in the small town of Sivas, in central Turkey. “I have lived here for decades now but most of the time I could only stay for short periods between assignments.”

“In 2022, I decided to embark on a long-term project about Istanbul, focusing mostly on water and its relationship with the Stamboulian identity,” he explains. “Istanbul is the city of all colors, with all its contradictions and ironies. Carefree, cheeky, and mysterious; Istanbul is a place where everything is possible, while the city is impossible to comprehend. It can take you to a different atmosphere, another realm in the blink of an eye.” Özmen’s new series of images is currently on view at Istanbul’s new Bulgur Palace, and in it, we can see a different, much softer side to his work.

Children walk near a wall of a mosque in Istanbul's Fatih neighborhood, Istanbul, Turkey, 2022
People enjoy the nice weather near Galata Bridge in Istanbul. Turkey, 2022.
Children play on a swing in the street in Fatih. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
A cat seen in Cihangir. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.

Özmen’s first photo book, Olay, was published by MACK in 2023. The book, described as his “tribute to the people of Turkey who marched for justice,” covers ten years of tumult across his homeland.

Seagulls fly over the ferry in Istanbul. Turkey, 2022.

"Carefree, cheeky, and mysterious, Istanbul is a place where anything is possible, while the city is impossible to comprehend."

A man with the cats in Cihangir. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
A couple hugs on the ferry near Princes Islands in Istanbul. Turkey, 2017.

In May, Özmen will be hosting the third edition of a workshop in the city, titled “Exploring Istanbul,” alongside photography editor, curator, and educator Cloé Kerhoas. Over the course of six days, Özmen and Kerhoas will guide participants around the city as they shoot a new project in response to the city, with group feedback sessions taking place at the end of each day.

A girl watching the ships passing through bosphorus near Uskudar. Istanbul, Turkey, 2019.
A man smokes cigarette as people behind take the stairs on Eminonu bridge. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
A man looking for his lost vallet on the rocks near Sarayburnu. Istanbul, Turkey, 2020.
People gathered and stand for their rights moments before riot police fires tear gas, rubber bullets and detained dozens of people, during a march in support of LGBTQIA+ rights. Government hostilit (...)

“I am used to photographing emotionally difficult situations in and outside of Turkey, but photographing Istanbul is like a form of therapy for me — an attempt to escape from my own traumas maybe,” Özmen explains. In his series of images, we are struck by the omnipresence of water, and the bright, refreshing shades of blue that are captured in his lens, in stark contrast to the prevalence of black and white images in his debut photobook.

A young man jumps into the fresh waters of Bosphorus during a hot day in Istanbul. Turkey, 2022.
A man sleeps on the rocks near the sea. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.

"Photographing Istanbul is like a form of therapy for me."

Children play in the sand on the beach. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
Teenagers stand near the sea as they swim. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.

“I have always seen Istanbul as an exceptional city, and I think ‘water’ is what characterizes her best. Opening like a curtain between West and East, it connects and separates.” In one image, we see a group of boys huddled together during a swimming session in the sea. In another, a couple are huddled together, whispering to one another on a ferry as it takes them from one side of the city to another.

Colorful balloons seen on the rocks near Moda in Kadikoy. Turkey, 2022.

“There is something magical about water and the effect it has on us. It soothes, it purifies, it transports us (figuratively and literally), it invites us to contemplate, to play, to share. We can relax, fish, travel, and meet each other. Water is also mysterious, the intimate and the public sphere often intermingle. Istanbul is fortunate to be surrounded by it.

“Seas and straits cross and embrace it. People and animals revel in it, nature often flourishes, and the boats pass by, connecting the shores and the humans to each other. Everything becomes one, a whole that is alternately surprising, mystical, poetic, funny, joyful, and melancholic. It brings people together, beyond differences and cultures, water offers infinite possibilities. A rather universal and rare feeling.”

A young couple hugs near the subway construction in Eminonu neighborhood. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
A woman gives a piece of bread to the seagulls on a ferry in Istanbul. Turkey, 2022.
People wait in pier for the next ferry to cross to the asian side from Eminonu. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
Fisherman stand on a little pier located in Uskudar with a panaromic Bosphorus Bridge view. Istanbul, Turkey, 2022.
I was walking to home in my street and I saw a group of men siting inside an abandoned building where they generally gather to drink cay (Turkish traditional tea). After a little hesitation, I deci (...)

To join Özmen in Istanbul for a six-day workshop this May, register here. Only a few spots remain. 

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