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Thursday, 25 June 2015


Turkish snapshots of death. 
“As nothing in this life that I’ve been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying
Do you believe me?”
George Harrison: The Art of Dying

 One afternoon I was being driven in a taxi along the highway to a job in one of the industrial zones that ring Istanbul. Whenever someone says,  “I was in a taxi in Istanbul” assume that unless it was stuck in a kilometres long traffic jam it was moving at breakneck speed. A hearse was parked on the shoulder ahead. Turkish hearses are not elaborately converted Oldsmobiles or Cadillacs. They look more like green farmer’s trucks with open beds at the back and, like the one ahead, are often dilapidated. A pine coffin was jutting out the back. As we drew level I caught a glimpse of the driver puffing on a cigarette before the scene swiftly fell away into the distance.  No doubt this was a situation with a plausible explanation but it’s the case that in every other country I’ve lived in, a driver pulling his hearse over for a fag on the highway wouldn’t be tolerated if he had a coffin in the back. That said, when we see something strange in other countries it is easy to think that it’s part of the culture. Who knows what the other drivers zipping past thought of it. One thing I’m sure of: in an age of increasing cultural homogeneity, we can eat Turkish food, wear Turkish clothes, use Turkish phrases, have Turkish style weddings and give our offspring Turkish names and we don’t even need to visit the country. We cannot however have Turkish funerals. The rituals and customs surrounding death remain inviolate. To suggest a Turkish style funeral for a non-Turkish person would be in bad taste, not to mention disorientating to mourners. This is why snapshots about death can tell us things about a culture others can’t. Anglo-Saxon funerals are solemn affairs. Grief is personal and expressed discreetly. Not so in Turkey where they can be noisy and public.

 Another story: I was sitting in the shop going through a box of photos when the owner leaned across, asked, “do you like Rembrandt?” and passed this one over.  He was thinking of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp (1631). Google it and you can see why. One difference is that in Rembrandt’s painting only two of the observers are looking towards the camera, so to speak, whereas in this photo they all are. I found several snapshots taken at dissections or autopsies at Turkish student hospitals. It’s something you think would have been disapproved of in Anglo-Saxon hospitals, if not actually forbidden. We still think that it is disrespectful to the deceased, even when logic tells us the person on the operating table is beyond caring what we think, and it isn’t as though these students are behaving offensively. 

 Another thing that bothers us, and more so now than when these were taken, is the danger that the photographer is going to profit from the image. Financial gain is bad enough but worse would be the kind of voyeuristic pleasure achieved by sharing them. We live in contradictory times. We’re told that in the age of the smart phone news isn’t news without images and it’s up to us the citizens to take them and put share them online. We are also told that if we do that we are contributing to the decline of western civilization. When this photo was taken (circa 1940s) press photographers in the U.S tabloids were taking far more graphic images of murder and suicide victims than we see in the mainstream press. If this photo bothers us it could be because images of death have actually become unfamiliar to us as we forget how common they once were.

 Not that Turkey’s second-hand stores were overflowing with images of the dead but there were what statisticians call a significant factor, and most had something to do with the military. This is not surprising when you think that Turkey has always had a large army of conscripts and that soldiers of all ranks who die while on military service receive some kind of official ceremony (unless they were spies or deserters). This coffin has a flag draped over it, which means something.  Either the deceased had a high rank or died on active service. The second doesn’t seem likely as Turkey’s conflicts 1930s to 1950s were internal and the military would not have been considered to be on a war footing. Though a snapshot in size, this has the look of a press photo. 

 Another military funeral, notable for the presence of the imam. In recent years any association between the armed forces and religious organizations has been seen as provocative, controversial or scandalous, depending what paper you were reading. Technically the military upheld Ataturk’s secularist principles but you can of course be secular and believe in an afterlife, or be religious and not wear the fact on your sleeve. Only in recent years has secularism been equated with atheism in Turkey. Even when Kemalism was at its strongest in the 1940s it would have been strange to send a soldier off without some religious element in the service. Even the most hard-bitten generals wonder what lies on the other side. 

 Story number three: A Sunday afternoon in Tarlabașı and the body of a man from across the road from the apartment is lying in the street. He is in his mid-thirties and his body does not look particularly diseased so it is likely that he suffered a heart attack or an overdose. Most of the inhabitants of this part of Tarlabașı are Kurds and Rum, what other Turkish people call marjinals, which means what it sounds like. The street is narrow and potholed. There is no pavement. Because it is Sunday a market is at the bottom of the street and so there is a steady line of people coming back and carrying bags of fruit and vegetables. No one stops to gawk at the body. There is a small group of women who perform histrionic displays of grief. One throws herself at the body and others pull her back. Someone else tosses her head back and emits a long wail that sounds like a small engine motorbike leaving a paddock. Eventually a doctor arrives to file a report. An ambulance turns up but apparently it’s a bit late so after a discussion it drives off. Perhaps an hour later four men arrive with a carpet. They put the dead man’s body in it and carry it down the hill. Did I photograph any of this? Of course not. I come from a culture where grief is expected to be private, and if it must be public then at least restrained. To have photographed the scene without anyone’s permission would have been in bad taste and an invasion of the family’s privacy, and yet the man’s death, or the initial mourning procedure, was absolutely public. They had no qualms about placing his body out where everyone could see it, so why should they be upset if strangers photographed it?

 It used to be normal to photograph a funeral in Turkey. They were events, like weddings and birthdays and they were public. They are still that. It isn’t unusual to find a street blocked by a crowd with a coffin surfing above it, but there’s no longer one man with a camera; there are dozens. An imperative has become an option.   

 In Anglo Saxon countries we can spend a week organizing the funeral but in Muslim cultures the body must be buried as soon as possible, ideally the next day. This leaves no time for family members from out of town to get to the funeral, let alone if they have to drop everything and fly in from abroad. In that situation photographs of funerals can give absent mourners some kind of contact. Notice the ripped and stained coat of the man in the foreground. Most of the people in this photo look dirt poor. In the way that post mortem photos of children from the previous century were often the only images the family would have of them, maybe it was the case with this funeral. People wanted to remember the deceased but also the event of his passing. If you couldn’t make it maybe you’d want to know who did. Note the jacket draped over the headstone? Try getting away with that in Australia.

 One other thing you’ll notice about the three photos of funerals above: there are no women. This brings me to story number four. When the father of someone at a religiously minded institution died the men were talking about going to Izmir for the funeral, which would leave me and the female staff to take care of things. When I wanted to know why the women weren’t going, one of the men explained that women aren’t wanted at funerals because they get emotional. I’ve always assumed that a funeral was one situation you were entitled to get emotional but I guess the men-folk figured that would kind of spoil it for everyone else. Women have to do their grieving elsewhere, or turn up to the grave later. She has her hands out, palms facing upwards in the manner of Muslim prayer. Was this a case of someone being asked to come along and take a photo or did they just happen to have a camera with them? Is this evidence of something we understand a bit or not at all?

 If you are visiting Istanbul, you might take a look at the Orientalist galleries at the Pera Museum and see a world as depicted by Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It seems life for the Franco/Italian crowd amounted to lying around in billowing gowns listening to flutes and zithers. Around that time a cemetery occupied the slopes between Taksim and the Bosphorus. It was demolished – I don’t know when – and later some of the monuments were moved to Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. They became part of a frieze running along a back wall. Here you can encounter seventeenth and eighteenth century Western European merchants and diplomats brought down by outbreaks of the plague or cholera. Clearly Constantinople was a lot of fun until the fleet from India dropped anchor. We share with Turkish people an approval of photographing the headstones of our deceased family members. At least we must assume that is why this headstone was photographed. Traditionally Turkish headstones were taller and narrower, had prayers in Ottoman script inscribed and were never as elaborately carved or surmounted with saints and angels as western European one were. Nevertheless, for the mid-twentieth century this is a very European monument. Sipahioǧlu means son of a cavalry officer. It tells the family was well off and like a lot of affluent Turkish families secularized early on.

 Sion, which is French for Zion, means the Promised Land, the sweet hereafter, and in this case is also the family name. How apt all round. These days Turkey’s government is keen to show off its credentials as an enemy of Zionism, blithely forgetting to mention its ongoing arms trade with the Great Enemy or the detail that for all its bluster it has been quick to promise and slow in paying aid to Gaza. This tomb reminds us of another age. Not necessarily a better age; despite commonly read claims that Istanbul’s Jewish community lived in harmony with everyone else during the last century there were frequent reports from the 1930s and ‘40s of persecutions and pogroms, and we shouldn’t forget Elza Niego, the Jewish typist whose murder by a jealous Turkish official in 1927 sparked riots against Jewish citizens. It was more acceptable for a Turkish man to kill a Jewish citizen of Istanbul than it was for her family to complain at the way they had been treated. This tomb would be in one of several Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul. Today there are very few Jewish people living in Istanbul compared to the old days and today most of the protestants and Catholics are likely to be ex-pats, so one way to read the history of the city when its citizenry (as distinct from its inhabitants) was more cosmopolitan and multicultural is to count the number of old cemeteries catering to the non-Muslim communities. Visit some if you can. It’s like getting a history lesson from someone who was there.

 Story number five: more than twenty years ago I was travelling through the far east of the country, around the Iranian border, and in villages I kept seeing gravestones out the back of houses. If I asked anyone about them I can’t remember their answer but I thought then and still do that the backyard is a perfectly respectable place to bury our loved ones. We read that in prehistoric societies around the world it was common to have a room in the house or underneath it for the ancestors. Unfortunately we in the west live with the expectation that we will own and live in at least a couple of houses (one for the family, one for when they move out) so the idea won’t catch on again too soon. This man probably isn’t sitting is by a family plot in his backyard but the photo asks a related question. Is he asking the photographer to take a snap of him, or is he asking the photographer to take a snap of him together with his wife?



  1. I'd far rather peruse this sort of thing than skip through the endless and pointless debates about post mortem photos in the various FB groups. Your photographs are intriguing, but I really enjoyed the stories and reflections too.

    Time and place ... I have driven a coffin to a funeral on the back of a pick-up truck, and it felt very strange, but it was in the days before we worried about things like smoking in cars, so I just opened the window and blew the smoke out instead of stopping for a fag.

    Your photo of students examining a corpse brought to mind a very vivid image from from my own student days, when medical student friends who boarded at the same digs as me brought back a heart from his anatomy lesson, supposedly for homework study. I was a little disturbed by the callousness, but of course pretended to be appalled, which increased their enjoyment of the incident immensely.

    1. Yes I know about medical students reportedly doing some gross things in Australian universities. I don't know whether they would have photographed each other at an autopsy or whether the professor would let them.

  2. My comment disappeared when I signed in to my account! Argh! So the short version is Great Love it! Sigh, technology gets me down sometimes!

  3. Hi Monty Dog, it may not be your technology but mine. It has happened to others but thank you.

  4. Your story about the hearse driver pulling over to the side of the road for a smoke reminds me of a story in the U.S. a few months back about a hearse driver with a dead soldier in the back stopping at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee and a donut. Maybe it would still have his job if he worked at the same job in Turkey. Here is the link to the story:
    I really enjoy reading your anecdotes

  5. Thanks Norbert, and yes, it's a matter of style as well as standards.


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