President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan's regime is "the most conservative government Turkey has ever had" says the young photographer, who was freed in February after spending six months in prison
“I was not surprised at all at being arrested,” Çağdaş Erdoğan tells BJP. “It’s enough to say that as we speak there are still 170 reporters in prison in Turkey.”
The 26-year-old only recently regained his freedom, after being arrested on 02 September 2017 for taking photographs in Yoğurtçu Park. Officially he was taken into custody for photographing the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MİT) building, the home of Turkey’s answer to MI5, the National Intelligence Organisation. “But it is entirely fictitious,” he tells BJP, “because the place where I photographed is just a park and there isn’t any building, or even signs that show the presence of a restricted area where you cannot take pictures.
“Shortly after, the main reason of my arrest became the fact that I didn’t share any information about the contacts I used for some of my reportage as a journalist.”
Erdoğan is a well-established photojournalist, who has published work in New York Times, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, and the BBC, and who is a member of the 140journos, an independent photography agency based in Istanbul. He has also successfully published his personal work, Akina Books releasing his book Control – a look at sex workers, dog fights, gun violence and armed conflict in Istanbul – in 2017. Even so, he was held in Istanbul’s Silivri prison on a pretrial detention charge for six months, until his trial on 13 February.
At the trial he was accused of membership and support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a separatist group classified as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government. Erdoğan is of Kurdish descent, grew up in the region and, as an adult, embedded with affiliates of the PKK during the complex, multi-factional conflict that has crossed the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. But he did so, he says, purely as a journalist.
“It was claimed that I am a PKK supporter or even a member of the PKK organisation, just because I took some pictures of them,” he tells BJP. “It’s such a ridiculous reason! I am a journalist and photographer, this is my work.
“For years I have been taking photos in war zones in the East of Turkey and in the main cities. My work is always been about Turkish and Middle East topics: political protests, conflicts, minorities issues, ecological problems, LGBT movement, Turkey’s underground world, and secretly-organised sex parties. However, state officials claimed that I was a member of the PKK without any proof or even reason. I am wondering what they think: what kind of terrorist organisation’s member would take pictures of sex parties.
“As a matter of fact, as a photographer I am working around the topics that the current conservative and nationalist government doesn’t want to accept, and they get disturbed by it,” he adds. “My book Control was also presented as a criminal evidence. They indicated some pictures that refer to the political conflict as propaganda.”
Erdoğan says the length of time he was held for was “unfair”, and that it “could have been much shorter if they had set an earlier date for the first hearing”. “They already knew I was going to be released after the first hearing in court, they just extended my detention to punish me,” he says.
And he adds that freedom of speech is limited in Turkey – which, at the time of writing, had been in a state of emergency for 18 months, a state which was imposed in 2016 after the attempted coup, and which critics claim the government is using to go after all opponents, including politicians, journalists and activists.
“Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic all the governments have been generally against minorities and freedom of speech, as well as against journalists and artists,” says Erdoğan. “In the past 20 years the pressure has increased to the point of having the most conservative government Turkey has ever had.”
Çağdaş Erdoğan’s work is on show in the Circulation(s) – European Young Photography Festival until 06 May, at Centquatre-Paris, 5 rue Curial, 75019 Paris festival-circulations.com