A Decade Under Erdogan’s Shadow
The photographer Emin Özmen has spent his career watching his country transform from an aspiring democracy to a dystopian autocracy.
The Magnum photographer Emin Özmen remembers the day in 1993 when radical Islamists set fire to the Madımak Hotel in his hometown of Sivas, Turkey, killing 37 people. Intellectuals and artists had gathered there for a festival honoring a 16th-century Alevi poet.
Many of those who died were themselves Alevis, members of a Muslim sect that is a minority in Turkey. During the 1970s, right-wing Sunni groups often fought Alevi leftist groups in the streets. The violence eventually subsided, but tensions remained—the horror at Madımak, when Özmen was 8 years old, was the result. It made Özmen want to become a witness.
On Sunday, May 14, Turkey’s first Alevi candidate for president, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, faced off against Turkey’s longtime autocrat, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a Sunni Muslim who rose to power in 2003, five years before Özmen became a working photojournalist. Over the course of Özmen’s career, he has watched and documented as Erdoğan has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into a polarized autocracy with a failing economy.
Those Turks who have suffered from repression, violence, and hunger these past 20 years believed Kılıçdaroğlu might have a chance at winning this week, despite the vociferous opposition to him from Turkey’s right-wing populace, which disdains him because he is an Alevi liberal and because he is not Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But neither candidate gained the required 50 percent of the vote. The election will go to a runoff on May 28, and Erdoğan still has a chance—many Turks see it as a foregone conclusion—to prevail as president for another five years.
“A whole generation and I were only going to know this shadow,” Özmen writes in his beautiful new book, Olay. “To grow up despite this shadow, to try to build ourselves despite this shadow. This shadow is still there, twenty years later.”
Özmen sought to capture in his photographs the sense of constant terror his generation and his people have endured, particularly in the past 10 years. As he writes, many Turks have been silenced under Erdoğan, and his photos, even those of active violence, have an eerie quietness to them, as if the volume has been turned off on a TV. (His work recalls Gilles Peress’s influential Telex Iran.) Özmen uses this quality to evoke what he describes as a sense of “powerlessness in the face of so much injustice and violence.”
The events (olay can mean “event” or “incident” in Turkish) he depicts are famous ones: the 2013 Gezi Park protests, in which thousands of people revolted over the construction of a mall on one of Istanbul’s last stretches of green space; the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast in 2015; the attempted military coup against Erdoğan in 2016; the continuing Syrian-refugee crisis.
Most of the photos are black-and-white and without captions, choices that foster the strange effect of universality—documenting the tragedies as ones the Turkish people experienced collectively, even if they themselves never marched in the streets, or ran from bombs, or attempted to sneak illegally across the Greek border. The events are what Turks carry inside them; they are what their country has become. Özmen calls his own mind “the victim of a violent wind.”
Over the course of the decade that Özmen recorded, Turkey endured several natural catastrophes: earthquakes in Van, Elazığ, and Düzce, as well as raging wildfires in the Aegean region. The government’s responses to these events struck many Turks as a surprising failure. They were a harbinger of the country’s future.
In February, two devastating earthquakes struck southern Turkey in 24 hours, killing at least 50,000 and as many as hundreds of thousands, while making millions homeless. By now much has been written about why the earthquakes were so deadly. Erdogan had built his authoritarian system on a corrupt construction economy and centralized the state so much around himself that many of its institutions failed to respond to the disaster. In many ways, the weeks after the earthquakes felt like the culmination of the Turkish people’s psychological experience of the past 20 years.
Turks were not only grieving or terrorized in February. Many knew that the 21st-century dystopian future that haunts our collective dreams, whether because of climate change or war or authoritarianism, had come for them. Thousands of people, rich and poor, lay crushed under their own possessions, and as day turned to night, in rain and snow, dead bodies lay in the street with no one to bury them; men, women, and children cried out from the rubble with no one to save them.
Those left alive were forced to witness this new world: Their families were gone, their houses were gone, food and water were gone, the roads were gone, the airports and ports were gone, the police were gone, the fire department was gone. They now lived in a wasteland, the kind we often say only nature is powerful enough to create. But only man could have created such a magnificently rigged apocalypse, and in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, this act of creation was the work of one.
Turks always remind me that their country has been around for a long time. The Erdoğan era has lasted only 20 years, and even this strongman couldn’t crush the Turkish people’s history—that enduring, democratic desire to live and love that Özmen portrays so heartbreakingly in his photos.
One month after the earthquake, I was eating dinner on the terrace of my hotel in İskenderun, where a group of men and women sat at a nearby table drinking and smoking. A car pulled up and a woman got out, screaming, and a blond woman from the table ran to help her sit down.
“How could I not have known they were dead!” she cried. “I just saw on Facebook … How could I not have known!”
They consoled her. She kept crying. They tried sterner words.
“Sister, calm down,” one man said. “We have to be strong. Look, I have buried 40 friends.”
They were stealing sips from a bottle of spirits under the table, ordering more wine. The woman was still weeping. The blond woman spoke to her again with a clear voice.
“Sister, God is testing us,” she said. “Look at her.” She nodded at another woman across the table, who bowed her head. “Her friend is in the hospital. When they found her children in the rubble, they were hugging.”