The Rubbish Collectors of Istanbul

Faceless men and women, struggling up rain soaked cobbled hills clogged with traffic. Faces windswept and facing the floor. Ignored and cursed in equal measure.

These wretched images as iconic in Istanbul as the minarets and monuments, stealthy tourists will often try and snap them as they haul a burlap load past shops with shelves laden with luxury and baklava.

From dawn to dusk and through the depths of night they will delve into bins and cram cardboard into their carts, crushing plastic water bottles into manageable merchandise.

For those living life in the margins this is survival, they choose not to beg but to work, hard work, thankless work and in this age of rampant consumer waste, important work.

Istanbul is a city living in denial, a city without end, a city whose population could be fifteen million but could more than likely be twenty million, and still it grows. The traffic grinds to a halt, the electricity comes and goes and children are a blessing and the rubbish trucks work around the clock.

Gathering garbage to recycle and sell is symptom of cities around the world, Istanbul is no different in this respect, those who have, discard and those who have not recover and redistribute and its nothing to do with trash and treasure it’s all to do with survival.

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I don’t celebrate my birthday but find alternative ways to mark time, last June I traveled from Bulgaria to Turkey to start a project I had in my mind for some time, a project I doubt will find a publisher but one I felt strongly about.

The idea was a simple one, not to document the harsh lives of the Istanbul rubbish collectors, I think there is a place for such work and maybe I will rethink that approach at a later date but for now I just felt their harsh existence needed little explanation, surely we can understand poverty and the struggle to survive?  And of course, there are individual stories and they always need to be told but, in this case, I just wanted to introduce the subject and to put a name to the faceless, those anonymous shapes that merge into the urban landscape.

Unlike a Starbucks barista they do not wear name tags and yet their contribution is of meaningful value and perhaps, if we knew their names, we would look at them differently. Homeless people often say the hardest part is not that people don’t engage with them or don’t help them but people refusing to even make eye-contact, looking away and denying their very existence.

In an abandoned half-built shopping center on the Asian side of Istanbul, a few chickens pecking around the patrons portacabin office where we drink tea and talk about the idea. The patron already has a love hate relationship with the local authorities so we have to agree on a few points, mainly discretion due to those undocumented. The basement of the concrete shell also serves as dormitory, cramped but clean, well decorated with whatever has been found and recycled.

I am presenting these portraits without background details other that the subjects name, the viewer can choose to fill in the blanks, to make whatever judgement they choose. The point really is to look humanity in the face.

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Thank you all so much for supporting my work.

Your kind words of encouragement especially appreciated, taking the time and trouble to share on various social media pages is terrific-

And the generosity of treating me to COFFEE

BUY ME A COFFEE is brilliant and is absolutely fueling this blog.

Thank you.

45 thoughts on “The Rubbish Collectors of Istanbul

  1. Good job John. When you show the portraits without context, they could belong to anyone – shop keepers, teachers, doctors or rubbish collectors. They show we are all just the same when we really look.

  2. An amazing site and moving images. You talk about the homeless people not having eye contact, going unseen, and the act of photography makes them seen. Kind of obvious but being seen and the camera image facilitating that is a great insight into the connection at the point of being photographed and makes it political.

      1. Thanks
        I was reading your bit about your ‘safe house’ and about photographing ‘only for myself’. I come to the arts from the direction of the arts therapies. The witness as your audience is an idea central to the idea of ‘the artist’ and having a career. But in therapy, a client will make art (as performance, I am a dramatherapist) which has two witnesses, the client and the therapist, or, in a group, the group.
        I would be interested, as a photographer and artist, in what your take is on yourself as the sole witness. Garry Winogrand, who said he takes picture ‘to shake things up…’ makes his witnessing an active thing for his audience. But he had thousands of unseen images left on film after his death. Did he intend those images to be unseen by an audience? He saw them through his viewfinder, so the image was seen by him.
        In what ways is your personal, unseen in the public image, active witnessing, important to you?

  3. Wonderful photos. Thank you for humanizing these beautiful men and the work they do to not only survive but contribute their part to clean up the consumer mess we’ve made in this world. Even in San Diego, in an upscale neighborhood, where I stayed for awhile, bartering to “pay” my rent, there were people who came by on recycling day, pushing grocery carts, gathering cans and bottles out of the bins to sell.

    I work daily to help shift this planet to one that works for the greater good of ALL….not just a few. I appreciate the work you do!

  4. selfcareallure

    This is a great perspective on life and living, truly an interesting read and a wonderful inspiration of what humanity can and will achieve.

  5. wilko93

    Great captures! This is fantastic, long have I seen these people working hard. Perhaps we should meet for coffee if/when you are in Istanbul?

  6. The faces of the trash collectors in Istanbul. Brings me back 20 years visiting Izmir, Istanbul and Samsun. The children making a living from shoe shines, vendors, and hawkers in the bazaars. A wonderfully warm people.

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