Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Away from Home by Kürsat Bayhan

My review of Away from Home (Self, 2013) by Kürsat Bayhan is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.


Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. —Edward Said, Reflections on Exile

It is customary to think about exile as being a separation from one’s homeland or place of birth, but exile can also occur much closer to home. Although still within one’s native land, distance from your home, town or city can have an equally alienating effect and the social rifts can be just as difficult to surmount. As Said posits, exile may have poetic possibilities, its reality is altogether different and unbearable. Kursat Bayhan’s Away from Home looks at the communities of migrant works who have travelled from Turkey’s countryside to Istanbul. Seeking greater fortune in the city, the stories told by these images are familiar and echoed in the lives of migrant workers throughout the world. While it may be a familiar story, it’s one that needs to be told often, and Bayhan reveals the lives of the largely male workers with tenderness and respect.

All images © Kürsat Bayhan

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film Distant (Uzak) tells the story of a young Turkish man who loses his factory job. Traveling to Istanbul, he stays with a relative while trying to find work in the ship docks. While the two men are positioned as seeming opposites, the posturing intellectual photographer and the illiterate naïve factory worker, both men are frustrated and alienated by their limited circumstances. The factory worker can’t find work and is bewildered by the inscrutable hurdles to employment in the city, while the self-important photographer scrapes by taking menial product shots and nurturing vague artistic visions. Although the titular distance of the film points to the fragmentation of modern Turkish society, for both the displaced workers and the educated middle-class, it also speaks to the country’s indifference to these intractable societal problems. Like the unemployed factory worker in Distant, the men in Away from Home exist on the fringes of society — mildly tolerated, but largely ignored, like an imposing relative who’s overstayed his welcome.

All images © Kürsat Bayhan
All images © Kürsat Bayhan

The young men featured in the 2 ¼ and 35mm black and white images of Away from Home live a precarious hand to mouth existence. Pressured by the limited opportunities available and the struggle to provide for themselves, they sell electronics on the street, salvage scrap metal and take whatever jobs they can. When they are not working, they are often biding their time in cafes and seek shelter from the cold. If they are lucky, they can make enough to send something home to their families. The short captions that accompany some of the images tell us a little about the subjects and give them a voice, but also hint at the quiet desperation that pervades the book. Nevertheless, one is struck by the subject’s strength and moments of happiness shine through — even if it is just a smile. Towards the end of the book there is an especially touching picture of two young girls showing off new white dresses. Worn over their clothes, the dresses were gifts sent by their father — a proof and reminder of love from afar.

All images © Kürsat Bayhan

Small in size and measuring approximately 6”x8”, the book has a rough elegance. The book’s exposed spine is covered by a belly-band dust jacket and the images are printed on a simple uncoated matte paper. The slightly coarse printing perfectly matches the book’s subject — unassuming, proud and elegant. The book also contains two brief texts by Bayhan and Mark Ellen Mark that describe the work and give the images further social and historical context.

Although exile and migration are perennial themes, each instance bears its own scars and tragic costs. Away from Home offers a nuanced and tragically poetic look at the forgotten and invisible marks of this all too common phenomena in modern Turkey. Distant ends with the young worker leaving his relative without saying goodbye to seek his fortune elsewhere. Left alone, the photographer stands on the docks unsure of where his life will take him. The ending and future for both men is unclear. A book is no solace for the life of hardship the men in Away from Home endure, but it does get us to look longer and recognize the humanity, courage and perseverance of those that struggle around us, often invisible, but in mostly in plain sight.

Please note: This review originally appeared on March 13th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.