Working for two years with a Syrian refugee community in Istanbul, the young Finnish photographer has created an ongoing series that recently scooped the Gomma Grant
“Photographers have a responsibility to tell these stories,” says Esa Ylijaasko of his project, November is a beginning, which shows a community of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul.
Forced out by the civil war some 2.9 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, of whom about 800,000 have settled in the capital city, many in the formerly abandoned Süleymaniye neighbourhood. Knowing little Turkish and lacking the right documentation, they are left in a kind of limbo – unable to work legally, they rely on their meagre savings, cash-in-hand jobs and charity.
“If they’re are caught by the police, they are sent to refugee camps,” explains Ylijaasko. “But as illegal workers, they earn below the minimum wage – around $250 to $300 USD monthly, which is just enough to cover their living expenses. Kind-hearted locals bring food and clothes, helping them to survive. But life stands still.”
Originally from Finland, Ylijaasko started shooting the series back in 2013, after moving to Istanbul and hearing about the community. “I decided I’d try at least,” he says. “More people can help if they know.
“I came for two days and didn’t see anyone, then on the third day, I found a family standing around a campfire. It was pretty cold so I went over to warm up, and met a guy who became one of the main characters.
“I didn’t want to start with refugees – people probably think it’s just another Western photographer who’s privileged enough to do it,” he adds. “But I felt that maybe if I could tell their story, I could change something.”
Born in 1989, Ylijaasko originally got into photography by shooting his friends snowboarding; going to the Jyväskylä College of Arts, he took a course in the history of photography and “it changed my life”. After graduating he found work on newspapers in Chile and Finland, but soon decided photojournalism wasn’t for him.
“Working on a newspaper you have to please someone, you don’t have your own voice,” he says. “How you feel about your work and how you see don’t come into it, and that really kills your creativity.”
When the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park broke out in May 2013, he decided to move to the city and ended up staying for two years, funding himself via seasonal building work back home. Ignoring the headline news, and working without a commission or grant, he sometimes took along a translator, but mostly worked alone in the community.
“The language barrier was the number one problem, but I didn’t have enough money to employ a translator 24/7,” he says. “Sometimes I used Google Translate, and I tried to learn to speak Arabic. But you know sometimes you don’t need language to be understood.”
Photographing in monochrome from the outset, he started out shooting digital then discovered Polaroid film, and fell in love with the “flaws” it picked up while he was shooting. Stained, grubby and damaged, his images bear the marks of their making, he says.
“When the pictures were developing in my pocket they got scratched and dirty, and all the rain and weather is there,” he says. “The people who I photographed would always want to see them, so their fingerprints are on the prints too, all their DNA. But I started to think that was better, because I had captured something from the environment.”
“I never think of myself as a photojournalist, I keep myself more like a photographer,” he adds. “There are so many ways to tell a story – as many ways as there are photographers in the world. There’s no simple one right way to do it. But the subject is as important as the pictures.”
Picturing a familiar news story in a distinctive way, November is a beginning has already attracted attention – it was exhibited at the Gazebook Sicily Photobook Festival in 2016 and recently won the Gomma Grant; Ylijaasko was admitted onto the VII Mentor programme at the start of 2016.
But, after taking a year to reflect on it and work on his picture edit, Ylijaasko has decided it’s not finished, and is heading back out to Istanbul to shoot more. “After a year away I want to go back and see what everyone in the neighbourhood is doing,” he says.
“Some things have changed but some have not – the war is ongoing, families are still struggling to find work and just to survive. The story is still the same, so I don’t think I need to have finished.”
Esa Ylijaasko is a VII mentor viiphoto.com For more information about the 2017 Gomma Grant visit gommagrant.com NB this story was updated on 02 March to change the figure of Syrian refugees fleeing the country from 2.7m to 2.9m, at the photographer’s request