An encyclopedia entry led Cemre Yeşil Gönenli to a series of photographs of prisoners, commissioned by the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Her latest book appropriates these images, questioning the power of authority
Abdul Hamid II, the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was obsessed with crime-fiction. He was particularly fond of the Sherlock Holmes series, and personally invited Arthur Conan Doyle to his palace, just to give him a present. Hamid reigned from 1876 to 1909. He rarely left Istanbul, and instead commissioned photographers to report on the progression of his empire. One day, the sultan was reading a pseudo-scientific novel, which stated that any criminal with a thumb longer than the joint of their index finger was likely to murder. Approaching the 25th year of his reign, Hamid decided to celebrate with an amnesty. He demanded all murder convicts to be photographed with their hands on show, as a way to identify whether they should be freed.
“This really excited me, but I didn’t know whether these photographs still existed,” says Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, who first read about Hamid’s penchant for photography in the work of Reşad Ekrem Koçu, a Turkish writer and historian. In the mid-20th century, Koçu began compiling the Istanbul Encyclopedia: a dictionary of tales from the Ottoman Empire. Last year, to celebrate the digitisation of this work, Turkish contemporary art institution SALT invited three artists to interpret his work.
Gönenli was one of them, and went straight for the letter F, searching for an entry about photography (fotoğrafçılık in Turkish). There, she found a mention of Hamid’s photographs, which eventually led her to the rare items library at the University of Istanbul. Within his archive, she came across hundreds of photographs of prisoners, all posing identically. “I was stunned. Someone must have asked them to be photographed like this,” says Gönenli. She took copies of the images, and showed them to an expert in Hamid’s life, who revealed their true purpose.
“It would be crazy to be given this brief as a photographer,” says Gönenli. “The funny thing is that you can’t even judge the length of their fingers in the images.” Along with these portraits, Gönenli also found a series that depicted prisoners in heavy chains. Unlike those who were photographed for the possibility of freedom, these prisoners were chained for life. “This clash resonated with me,” says Gönenli.
The photographer’s latest photobook, Hayal & Hakikat – translating to ‘dream & reality’ — presents these portraits side-by-side, except in this reproduction, the prisoner’s heads are cropped out. The act of defacing a portrait can feel brutal, but for Gönenli, it was an act of protection. “I was literally slicing their heads off, like a guillotine. It felt like I was killing them, but I was killing them to protect them, to give them some sort of dignity,” she says. “I see this work as a way of rewriting history, and I didn’t want to re-record them as criminals.”
This act of protection has an important personal and political motivation. Turkey leads the world in imprisoned journalists, and continues to arrest anyone who voices opposition to the Erdogan government. Around the time Gönenli began making this body of work, one of her friends was imprisoned, “but I know he is not a criminal,” she says. “I didn’t want to label these prisoners, because they may not have been criminals either.” In doing so, Gönenli’s book questions the role and validity of an authority that is able to dictate the freedom of its citizens. “We as a generation in Turkey have been silenced, but it hasn’t made us change our minds,“ she says, “In a way, this book is a silent protest”.