Oguz Ozkan is a street photographer based in Istanbul. I was introduced to him by Charlie Kirk– and I was amazed how much progress he has made in only about a year and a half of photographing on the streets. We sat down for a beer over dinner at a bar, and this is a typed transcription of my interview with him.
So Oguz can you introduce yourself to the camera?
My name is Oguz Ozkan and I have lived in Istanbul for almost 40 years. I have been shooting on the streets for a year and a half now. I’m an architect—I have a full day job. In my spare times I shoot on the streets.
You have an interesting story on how you discovered street photography. Can you share the story?
I’m not a photographer. I first started taking photos of my family and buildings during traveling. So one day I took a photo of my son eating some Turkish food—and it was an unorthodox composition. I posted it on Facebook to my family. One of my family members is a landscape photographer—who said it was like “street photography” (no rules).
So when he mentioned “no rules”—it made me interested. I searched it on the internet and I liked what I saw. I was having a midlife crisis in life then—so I decided street photography would be a hobby that could help me to get over this crisis. I then bought a compact camera, an Olympus XZ-1 and then a Ricoh GRD 4.
You also joined the street photography now community.
After researching street photography online- I dove into Flickr. I then somehow found the Street Photography Now Community. This project made me wonder- and I wanted to participate. I then did, and got great feedback from others- I met a lot of good photographers and made honest friends.
I then was invited to private groups where I learned a lot. That is how I started shooting more consciously. Having peers in photography helps a lot.
When I look at your photos, considering you’ve only shot for 1.5 years. You made a lot of progress in a short period of time. What do you think helped you get to where you are—in terms of what makes a good photo?
In the first ‘rookie year’ I looked at a lot of photos on the internet. If you look at thousands of photos, you have some understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. So I figured out that I needed some skills in photography to get better results. So I made a rough categorization and worked on it: multi-subjects (spacing), playing with lights and shadows, getting some Alex Webb’s compositions- graphically complex.
I don’t remember all the subjects but it was 5-6 at most. I looked for these types of pictures while shooting and tried to be able to capture them. So it makes me more aware of things happening around me and able to react as a photographer. That is the skill part.
And in the last 6 months I had the chance to shoot with Charlie, an enthusiastic photographer, very honest and outspoken friend. He likes to have beer and talk about photography. Thanks to these discussions I feel that I am building a more mental / intellectual base to my pictures.
Is there any specific photography books that have influenced you and your work?
After involved in the street photography now community on Flickr, I got ‘Street Photography Now’ book by Thames and Hudson. So the next thing—It isn’t easy to find photo books in turkey. Only one book store (Espas) so I got into more artistic photographs. I bought Daido Moriyama first, then Anders Petersen and Harry Gruyaert. I have “Half life” by Michael Ackerman. No need to mention Alex Webb’s “Istanbul” book.
You’re a street photographer based in Istanbul. What do you think that makes Istanbul unique for street photography- different than other cities in the world.
There a lot of things and contradictions in Istanbul. Before being a photographer, I have always been a fan of Istanbul. My wife is from Antalya who wanted us to move there, but Istanbul has always been my one and only city. I was always based in the heart of the city. So I’m curious of history and the architecture of Istanbul. When I first stated shooting on the streets, I recognized diversification of people living on the streets.
Can I say anything different than Alex Webb says in his book’s preface? No. This is really where civilizations, different cultures meet, live together and sometimes fight. So all the heritage of Byzantium, Middle East, and Islamic people- secular Western side, a lot of civilizations here, co-exist in this city. So you can always have some contradictions, conflicts in a frame.
How do you think foreign photographers vs local photographers shoot Istanbul differently?
I guess it’s about being familiar. We have Charlie Kirk as a foreign photographer who has spent a lot of time here shooting. When we walk on the streets together- our reflexes against a scene are mostly the same. -not the picture of course he is much more creative than me. Or maybe I learned a lot from him. I guess it’s different on the editing side, maybe, or he became somehow a local after spending so much time here.
Anyway, I’m always interested how people see Istanbul. I then made “Istanbul City of Hundred Names” group on Flickr and then started curating it.
Thanks to this group I saw a wide angle of how people shoot Istanbul. Some of the foreign photographers fall into the cliché traps in Istanbul – women with headscarves, street sellers, or seagulls or bridges or mosques in the background, kids on Tarlabaşı streets etc.. I recently saw some Istanbul pictures on IPA competition; forgive me to be outspoken but it’s cliché, at least for me. As a local guy I may have a wider definition of cliché.
Funny enough there aren’t that many Turkish street photographers living here to make a healthy comparison. So I just met one guy—on Flickr. Ufuk Akarı. And also Elif Suyabatmaz who is mostly active on Eyeem. And Taylan Bağcı. We are only a couple of street photographers here. So actually I don’t see a lot of Istanbul photos from locals to make that separation between a foreign and local photographer.
To talk about editing- when you are looking at your photos, how do you edit your photos? How do you decide if a photo is good or not? How do you judge it and reach out to others for advice.
In the shooting phase I don’t think too much – I just shoot when I see something interesting. Charlie says I’m very quick and sometimes lazy about shooting haha. But I guess on the editing side it is different. What is interesting for me isn’t interesting for Charlie or another photographer and vice versa.
To decide if a photo is good or not? Sometimes you just know, it’s a feeling / instinct, not science –something that I have learned recently. But I always wonder how a photo makes others feel, so I usually ask to my photographer friends mostly on Flickr.
Recently in Istanbul there have been a lot of the uprisings—and you photographed a lot of the clashes. Can you share your experiences photographing the clashes and what you’ve learned from the experience?
If you are clever enough, believe me, you don’t want to take pictures in a clash. Stay away! I’m not just a photographer- I also share most thoughts of the protestors. This makes me sometimes forget about taking photos. In such a situation, the first thing you should do is try to stay safe. So you should be aware what happens around you. You should keep one eye on the protestor, the other on the police.
In the crowd, there are lots of emotions. So I try to focus on individual’s emotions in the clashes which seems more interesting to me than PJ stuff. There is a lot of professional photographers around who try to shoot something to sell for a newspaper or a publisher. You know what I mean, so I tried to focus mostly on the individuals in the crowd.
So now you’ve been shooting for a year and half, and taking your photos seriously—what are the steps you are trying to take your photography to the next level?
That is exactly what I am trying to figure out at the moment- I don’t know what to do about my photography. I just shoot. I don’t just shoot on the street but I have some ongoing projects. One I haven’t shared online yet – I just show some close friends. I take pictures almost every night while walking my dog for a year now.
My dog is 12 years old and I will go until I lose him. Black and white, a little bit Japanese dark mood series. I have two other projects with different cameras and films.
What drives you into photographing and why do you shoot?
I guess I have several drives to take pictures. First as I said before, my midlife crisis. I just want to make something meaningful to me. And one of them is that when spending time with friends I see things or scenes unusual around me. I then ask them if they saw it- and they didn’t. I’ve had this situation several times- and after taking a photo- I can show it to them (it is easier to explain).
Another thing, my daily profession is about design. So I usually have to do something from scratch, you have to be always somehow proactive. So I like to react to what happened around me- by taking photos. I want to show that life isn’t so normal around us- you can find art or things worth seeing again. It is about making an edit from life to look at it again. I have a highlighter and I am trying to highlight some moments.
For others starting off in street photography – what is advice you would share?
I now after spending more than a year I realized that it is all about being aware. My wife is a yoga teacher. She always says that yoga, meditation, all these spiritual things are just about awareness. I think photography is about awareness too. It is so boring to just walk on the streets. You don’t need a camera to look around to select the moment you want to remember. You just look and click- and make a photo in your mind in your memory. You don’t have to make it on your memory card all the time.
Just be aware of what is happening around you – that is the way. You will learn in a way, composition, light, depth etc by repeating. The core is only about seeing.
Any last words or shout-outs?
If you come to Istanbul, just drop me a line. I will be happy to meet you, have a beer and chat about photography. You can contact me on Flickr or Facebook.