DATE: 6/29/2010 | BY THOMAS EVANS
Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari's new book The State of Ata addresses the social themes that define contemporary Turkey. Specifically examining the imagery of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country's revolutionary leader after World War I, it interweaves photographs, interviews, artists' interventions and archival imagery. The result is a complex visual exploration of the uses of Atatürk's imagery and the way in which it functions in contemporary Turkish society as a perceived link to Western culture, and as a symbol in opposition to the rise of the Islamist political movement. Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari conceived the book as a collection of books within a book—a photograph album, a volume of military portraits, a diary—and the result is a unique travelogue that tackles its topic from multiple angles. Here, Mike and Chantal talk to ARTBOOK about the book's genesis, tales from their journey and the censorship issues that the book has already met with.ARTBOOK: Mike, you’re well known for your ability to detach politically or socially loaded images from their usual frames and to recast them as photographic anthropology. Evidence, your now-classic collaboration with the late Larry Sultan, was a supreme instance of that ability, and it is perhaps even more explicit in your latest project, The State of Ata, in which you dismantle the iconographic rhetoric of the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Can you explain a bit about how you arrive at your subjects?
MM: Evidence derived from a variety of sources: a recognition that modernist photography based on the signature individual was a stale model; we responded to Duchamp’s idea of how important context could be to create meaning; there were many others at that moment that were invoking found imagery in one way or another from Szarkowski’s Picture Press, to the work of one of our local Los Angeles heroes, Robert Heinecken.
So, Evidence, and its significance in contributing to the re-energizing of what photography could be, happened at a certain moment in time that was ripe for that. The State of Atta is a little more like a combo of Friedlander’s appreciation of the American monument and Frank’s curiosity about the icons that might symbolize a time in this country’s zeitgeist. In this instance, when Chantal explained to me the ubiquitous presence of the public imagery of Atatürk, the dead leader who led the revolution subsequent to the Ottoman collapse after World War 1, and how his imagery has become embroiled in the contest between secularism and political Islam in Turkey, it seemed like a natural opportunity for Chantal and I, Turk and American, to initiate a project together from the perspective of outsider/insider.
ARTBOOK: Can you explain a little more about Atatürk’s role in this contest between secularism and political Islam in Turkey?
CZ: Atatürk (Father Turk) is the last name given to Mustafa Kemal after he established the Turkish Republic and required everyone to take a last name. To briefly summarize his life, he became a popular hero during the battle of the Dardanelles in World War I in which the Ottomans stopped the British navy. Later when the Ottomans lost the war and the country was invaded by the British, French, Italians and Greeks he rallied the people and lead the War of Independence. In 1923 with the declaration of the new Republic he was elected the first president. Tolerant of minimal political opposition, and with a firm control of the military, he remained in power until his death in 1938. During the 15 years of his leadership he transformed the country into a modern and secular state modeled after European states. His reforms include the adoption of the Latin script, the Gregorian calendar, and the hat reform which banned the fez. He also banned the wearing of religious clothing by clerics in public. Perhaps the most important reform was the abolition of the Caliph, the leader of Sunni Islam.
Today in Turkey, as in many other countries around the world there is a growing political Islamist movement. Mustafa Kemal’s image is being used as a symbol of Westernization, modernity and secularism. This may be perceived as the image against the rise of Islamist power. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Islamist gains in Turkey have been through democratic means, the winning of elections. The Turkish military, a force outside of the electoral process, also uses the image of Atatürk for their own power plays, which have over the years resulted in coups that have ended democratically elected governments. In addition there is the dogmatic, fanatic “Kemalist” movement that considers Atatürk’s ideas to be eternal such that no interpretation of his principles is tolerated.
ARTBOOK: One extraordinary moment in your travelogue occurs in Ankara, where you chance across an Islamist demonstration against educational reform. Throughout your trip, you’d been installing framed photographs of Atatürk in hotel rooms, and upon encountering the demonstration, Chantal—with amazing courage and defiance—holds up a framed picture of Atatürk to the crowd, as a plea for Atatürk’s republic and secularism. (A caption in the book compares her solitary stand to the famous Tiananmen Square image.) Mike records the moment from a concrete pedestal, and the next day you’re both front-page news. And while Chantal holds up the Atatürk image, a protester is being beaten in the background—which is erased from the news coverage of Chantal’s gesture. Can you revisit this moment for us? The hostile reaction your gesture met with must have been daunting, and the support exhilarating—and the combination of the two very confusing!
ARTBOOK: One extraordinary moment in your travelogue occurs in Ankara, where you chance across an Islamist demonstration against educational reform. Throughout your trip, you’d been installing framed photographs of Atatürk in hotel rooms, and upon encountering the demonstration, Chantal—with amazing courage and defiance—holds up a framed picture of Atatürk to the crowd, as a plea for Atatürk’s republic and secularism. (A caption in the book compares her solitary stand to the famous Tiananmen Square image.) Mike records the moment from a concrete pedestal, and the next day you’re both front-page news. And while Chantal holds up the Atatürk image, a protester is being beaten in the background—which is erased from the news coverage of Chantal’s gesture. Can you revisit this moment for us? The hostile reaction your gesture met with must have been daunting, and the support exhilarating—and the combination of the two very confusing! MM: It’s a rather amazing story, but a bit different from your summary, and certainly the significance of this whole spectacle needs to be recognized for what it was: an opportunity for the secular press to exploit the image of Chantal for their own anti-Islamist agenda. Yes, we were carrying framed pictures of Atatürk to put up in the hotel rooms where we stayed along our trip, but that’s another story: it was part of a performance that questioned the sanctity of the Atatürk icon, we certainly weren’t putting up pictures of Atatürk in homage. Be that as it may, we did have these framed post cards, and we did witness the demonstration, and we did run up ahead so that I could make a photograph of Chantal holding up the picture of Atatürk in contrast to the angry protestors. I found a concrete base of a light pole to climb up and get a better angle. Some of the Islamists reacted to Chantal with gestures and shouts. But there was no altercation, there were even some protestors who said that they, too, supported Atatürk. Chantal’s gesture was, indeed, a statement in support of secularism. I made six pictures and in a few minutes it was over. Then we were gone. Little did we know that standing next to me on my light pole perch was a Reuters videographer that was keyed into Chantal’s every move.
But that was in the morning. The march lasted until the afternoon, and there were converging throngs of protesters who coalesced together and started roughing up the secular reporters. The police, who have a reputation for backing the Islamists, didn’t stop the violence. So hours after our little photo event, all hell broke loose, the protest became violent, people were hurt. We were nowhere near this madness, as we had packed up and were on our way out of Ankara by then. But when the Reuters imagery of the lone, Western-looking young woman, holding up her picture of Atatürk to the angry marching Islamists was released, it was the perfect symbol for the media to run with. Chantal was proclaimed “The Courageous Girl”, “The Girl of the Republic”, “Brave Heart.” The video was played endlessly on every TV station, all the newspapers were running with the story. When the reporters caught up with us in the little town of Goreme, all of a sudden there were dozens of reporters and photographers descending on us for more of the story of this brave Atatürk supporter. We ended up holding a press conference to try to clarify what we were doing and why. Yes, it was an image of secular support, but Chantal believed that everyone had a democratic right to speak, to protest, just not to become violent. The press edited it their own way to satisfy their agenda.
The story was front page news for the next ten days. Everywhere we went as we walked the streets of Izmir, Chantal’s home town, she was recognized almost immediately. And usually there were gestures of support: flowers, embraces from strangers on the street. We couldn’t pay for a cab ride or a meal. Chantal had overnight become the Turkish Princess Diana. We had come to Turkey to recognize the significance of Atatürk’s imagery, we hadn’t counted on Chantal becoming another symbol. What a strange twist of irony. And then, when the press found out that Chantal wasn’t a Muslim, but a member of the Levantine Christian minority it opened up all kinds of new commentaries about who has the right to call oneself a Turk. When 99% of the population is Muslim, can a Christian claim the mantle of Atatürk? The religious press analyzed the video as a conspiratorial plot. Chantal was looking back at someone before she pulled out the Atatürk picture. Was it her CIA handler who was trying to divide the Turkish people? I’m not making this up. If the religious press had only known that I was a Jew, well then they would have really had a story to tell. We were scheduled to go on a live national news commentary in Istanbul, along the lines of Charlie Rose. We thought, we had to get all this calmed down. But in the end we were convinced that we would have put ourselves in more danger than we already were if we went on TV again. Already I had been out photographing at night and someone had thrown a big liter bottle of water from a third storey window that just missed me. So not everyone was with us, and we were in danger if just someone went off. As we write in the book, “It was time to leave the symbols behind and reenter our lives.”
ARTBOOK: This episode seems to throw Chantal’s social identity into some contention, both for the media and then for herself, as she tries wearing the headscarf that she was “brought up to think of as symbols of women’s oppression”....
CZ: We started this project thinking only about the imagery of Ataturk, but as the title now suggests the project really became about the contested imagery of power in Turkey. As we became more involved in understanding those symbols we approached the headscarf with the same curiosity and sense of exploration.
I rarely saw a woman wearing a headscarf when I was growing up. It was considered to be out of fashion, not modern. I had never seen a woman wearing a black veil, the carsaf, until when my family went traveling in the East. To see a completely veiled woman was such a curiosity that my dad stopped the car to make a picture.
During the course of this project we interviewed a lawyer who cannot practice because she has chosen to wear the scarf. Turkish law does not allow her to enter the courtroom wearing a scarf. The scarf derives from a tradition of religious piety, but today, it has become a complex statement with built in contradictions on all sides. What the West sees as a symbol of paternal oppression has become the opposite: a statement against the oppression of free expression. And if that’s not enough, what once was a sign of modesty has now become a sexy, fashion statement. Women use the scarf as a colorful accessory: a silk scarf, heavy makeup, high heels and a purse to match. It’s because of these two reasons, politics and fashion, that so many young women decide to wear the scarf. When I saw all these women wearing beautifully colored silk scarves I felt envious. I was so seduced that I bought several scarves along with a traditional trench coat for the complete hicab presentation. But my costume also transformed my actions. I could not see very clearly when I was wearing the scarf so I became a more cautious driver. When we were in small towns and I had to negotiate our hotel room price I noticed that the receptionist was being more respectful to me and I would speak softer and bargain more politely. The trench coat was hot, so I walked slower and often would find myself falling behind Mike. I noticed that the clothes transformed me into a subordinate and more passive person.
ARTBOOK: Did you find that this experience altered your larger feelings towards your native land?
CZ: It’s clear to me now that in 1997 I presumed a naive dichotomy of secular vs. Islamist and I learned that it was a false dichotomy, it’s a much more complicated story. And as I experimented with my own public presentation, taking on the look and living the image of an Islamist woman, this was certainly one experience in the project that enabled me to connect to the image of a Turkish woman that was unfamiliar to me, perhaps even fearful and uncomfortable to me.
It was a natural shorthand to suggest at the outset that I was the insider and Mike the outsider. But truly we both live our lives outside of the conflict in Turkey. Because we are artists we took the position of the observer looking in rather than trying to take a side, with curiosity rather than ideological intention. The project gave us the opportunity to see through many pairs of eyes. And as a woman who still considers herself to be a Turkish woman, I became empathetic to conflicting, complicated, even opposing ideological positions. I believe I have become more tolerant. And though I don’t support the current moderate Islamist government I recognize that it has made Turkey into a country where multiple ideologies exist together in an increasingly open environment. This is a good thing.
ARTBOOK: The book is especially notable for its composition, both in terms of graphic design and its alternation through formats, from straight spread to layered imagery, from interpolated text to superimposed text, from sequence to collage. Can you tell us about how it came together? Were there important book precedents for this approach?MM: For us the book was not the container for the art, but the book was the artwork itself. We respond to artists who are open-ended and experimental in the mixing of forms that energize the book form. This comes through in Bill Burke’s Mine Fields, or in a project with overwhelming ambition such as Susan Meiselas’ Kurdistan.
CZ: We see our book very much like a movie. Of course there is a beginning and an end, but as the book unfolds we yield our voice to the voices of others, we make our own images, but open up to the image artifacts we collect along the way. The book looks like it’s a natural narrative, an inevitable travelogue. But like all documentary movies it has been edited and reconstructed in a period that spans more than a decade. And so the design keeps shifting. MM: We start with the photo book, the sequential linking of images. But when the story shifts to a chaotic political street demonstration with accompanying newspaper and TV coverage, the design of the book shifts dramatically to speak to the language of that event. Each one of our performances has its own spirit and therefore its own identity as a chapter.
We wanted to be playful with the format and true to our open ended understanding of what an artists’ book could be. But it really got interesting when we showed the work to prospective publishers. What category does this book reside within? Is it a photo book? No, the design is not consistent, and it takes five hours to read. What kind of book is this? The book industry defines specific categories and formats: If one were to be so foolish as to design a tall book it couldn’t be sold because it would not fit onto the bookstore shelf.
CZ: For us the art work includes the entire process: from the application for the Fulbright grant, the dozens of trips to Turkey, walking the streets making pictures, making the connections to visit the archives, learning what the project really meant as we were going along, networking to make the interviews. Then, the design and editing of the book, returning to Turkey many times to make the missing pictures we thought we needed, but then to have new experiences and new material. Along the way we showed what we had to people that we trusted and those interchanges enabled us to keep designing and reinventing the book. Finally, there was the pre-press crafting of the files and the printing of the book, and then on to navigating the publishing industry, to the promotion, reviews, lectures and book signings.
ARTBOOK: Your book has already met with some controversy, I gather, in its distribution?
MM: When we decided twelve years ago to center our project on the imagery of Atatürk we knew it would be a difficult piece to publish in Turkey. Here is a picture of a statue of Atatürk lying on the floor. No, that was not going to be well received.There is a law that protects the imagery of Atatürk. And anyone who might wish to make trouble for us could find something in this book to bring to court. Fortunately, within those dozen years, even though the laws are still in force, the political climate has become a bit more accommodating of controversial ideas and imagery.
In our “hotel project” we install a framed portrait of Atatürk on the wall of every hotel where we stay. And we suggest that very possibly no one would even notice because the image is so deeply embedded in every aspect of Turkish public experience. One way of understanding the motivation for this book was our desire to enable others to break free of that blindness. We hoped to enable a Turkish audience to re-experience the image of Atatürk from our peculiar and playful perspective. We thought this book could contribute to a dialogue about this image and so the final chapter of The State of Ata is a complete translation of the book into Turkish.
It was a challenge to publish this book because it didn’t fit any of the set categories but we are grateful to D.A.P. for accepting it for distribution and their commitment to books that don’t fit into established classifications.
But in order to aggressively distribute an art book throughout Europe and especially Turkey, D.A.P. needed to collaborate with another distributor, Thames and Hudson, who has sales representatives in that part of the world. Turkey has become an economic power in the Middle East. There is a significant book market, one book chain has over 80 stores throughout the country and there is money to be made. Thames and Hudson took the view that The State of Ata could very well spark a controversy that might involve censorship by the government, and therefore might affect their ability to do business in Turkey, perhaps even inviting a possible prosecution. So in effect, they censored the book themselves by refusing to distribute it, refusing to take the risk.
When Google finally had enough of the insidious censorship perpetrated by the Chinese government they left the country rather than allow this abrogation of free communication. Sadly, Google is also being censored in Turkey. YouTube has been banned by the Turkish government for two years because of the presence of videos denigrating Atatürk and courts are still handing our long jail sentences to journalists under the country’s anti-defamation laws. There is even a chapter in our book that describes some of these censorship cases. Most are so capricious, that they would be comedic if the consequences were not so dire.
So, perhaps it is not surprising that a British-based book distributor didn’t even give the Turkish government the chance to say yes, or even to simply look the other way and let the book find its widest Turkish audience. Rather than standing for the principle of freedom of expression, they censored us before we even had a chance.
As of today, through direct sales by D.A.P., The State of Ata is available in two bookstores in Istanbul: Robinson Crusoe, a well-known store with a strong foreign language department, and YEM, a bookstore specializing in architectural books. Both have an online presence. We thank both of these stores for taking a courageous stand for pushing forward the principle of freedom of expression in accepting this book for sale.
Mike Mandel & Chantal Zakari: The State of Ata
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