A grey and grumpy Vitosha mountain stared down at me as I made my way along the wide scruffy boulevards of downtown Sofia, cobbled streets and tram lines glistening with a smattering of winter rain, the commies had gone but their heritage remains, a snub-nosed ageing tram proof of Sofia’s charming Soviet past, eager to explore a new city and a new country I set off with expectant stride, what had the Russians done for us I thought as I set out to discover.
I found myself strolling through a pretty park and through the naked trees I spotted the golden balls of the Russian church, its steeple thrusting into the moist evening sky, officially named after the patron saint of the last ruling Russian Czar, who by all accounts was a complete asshole, not though Saint Nicolas the Miracle Maker who, needless to say was a thoroughly nice chap-as Saints have a habit of being.
I didn’t have a guide book but if I did am sure it would say it was a pretty little church well worth a visit, as I pondered the pious the quiet evening air was punctuated by a high pitched scream, I glanced in the direction of the pained outburst; and there, just in front of the back entrance of the church, so to speak, were two Dachshunds coitally engaged, their owners, one on her knees and the other stooping to the level of the dogs were seemingly orchestrating a less than romantic union, another couple sat sucking enthusiastically on cigarettes on a park bench, voyeurs to a public display of canine copulation, I, on the other hand tried not to stare but out of the corner my eye watched stooping owner maneuver the horny hound much like a quarterback with a football, another screech and shuffling of paws, the voyeurs puffed in silent boredom. This I thought, was a curious affair.
Another screech, unable to resist one last glance I stumbled over the curb of the pathway and headed towards the Alexandra Nevsky cathedral in search of some neo-Byzantine sanity.
What was happening in the corner of a Bulgarian park is something of a mystery to me, perhaps the proximity of the church was relevant, a blessing from the Miracle Maker perhaps? Could it have just been everyday animal husbandry occurring in a pretty little park in Sofia.
The art and joy of street photography allows me to slowly absorb the environment I am exploring, to pause and observe, to question, often voyeuristic and always fascinating.
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2003-2013 Living in Syria
2013-2018 Living Turkey
2018- I have now relocated to Sofia in Bulgaria for a new chapter and Balkan adventure.
Here are a few of the first street images I have made while exploring my new home-with lots more to follow along with my usual off-beat observations.
Do sign up for Email updates in the box to the bottom right of the page and connect on all the usual channels @JohnWreford
It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.
I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.
I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.
He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.
The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?
Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.
For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;
Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.
Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.
Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.
I think we all know what a toe-rag is.
For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.
John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration
Syria, a country torn apart by a relentless war, five years of disturbing headlines, dreadful imagery, chemical weapons and a refugee crisis not seen since the Second World War: this is what we know of Syria.
Brutal media headlines reducing innocent people seeking peace and security to mere statistics and derogatory adjectives.
Individual stories and histories are removed as the media simplifies, homogenizes and represents people through stereotypes: often the sole source of information for the wider general public. After years of conflict, what does the public know about Syria and its now tormented people?
Turkey is currently hosting around three million Syrian refugees. Whilst the most vulnerable are living in camps, the majority are determined to continue their lives, not only to survive but flourish and follow dreams, overcoming adversity and the constant hurdles that the stigma of simply being Syrian brings
The reality of strong personalities, creative and inspirational people who in many cases prefer not to be labeled refugees, some are heroes and deserve the praise and attention but most are ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things to survive, wanting only to be judged on their own merits not as refugees or even Syrians.
War is dramatic and the media needs exciting images but for the most part the people caught in the middle are not exciting or dramatic they are normal people with normal backgrounds.
As a photographer who lived for so long in Syria it has been very hard for me to engage with the media narrative, not wanting to take sides despite my own feelings and not wanting to be part of the misrepresentation of the crisis, painfully aware of how little any contribution I make will effect change, yet as my many Syrian friends struggle and fight to survive I feel an obligation, as futile as it maybe.
The project Syrians Unknown had been in my mind for the last four years and I pitched the idea to several media outlets but without success before finally being accepted as an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the images will also importantly go into the museum archive alongside those of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, arguably one of the greatest travelers of the twentieth century and a personal source of my early inspiration.
I chose to shoot the images at night in black and white, in the shadows and simply strip away distracting context, I want the viewer to look these people in the eye and connect on a human level, I have also included snippets of the long conversations we had over often several meetings and countless cups of tea and coffee.
The exhibition will run until the 30th September Details below:
Erol and Erdem Kalaycioglu work in a tiny split level workshop in the impoverished Tarlabasi neighborhood, the gentrification process of the city is now at their doorstep, the building next door now disappeared and the ugly sounds of construction drowning out the genteel sounds of craftsmen at work, Erol hobbles around making tea while Erdem works a lathe, they specialize in the baglama and Mardin kemence, with three strings and distinctive round bowl known in the Arab world as the rehbab, the neighborhood is home to many musicians that ply their trade around the mayhanes and bars of Takism and the brothers do a good trade in repairs.
A customer enquires after a baglama, the price is accepted without negotiation and a credit card is produced, unable to deal with the transaction themselves they rely on a neighbor who can but sadly the card is declined and the customer leaves empty handed, Erol slurps his tea clearly disappointed.
As the urban regeneration inches closer the brothers Atelier is facing an uncertain future, almost half a century of artistry and tradition will no doubt be pushed into the suburbs and slip by wayside, in a world of shopping malls and hipster coffee joints it’s a battle few are left to fight.
So it seems street photography is a thing now, I guess the advent of social media and digital technology has thrust the genre tagged, tweeted and trending onto our flickering screens. So that’s nice.
The emails generated from my last blog post showing more than a passing interest it seems and obviously I am very happy about this, questions that I am continuously asked are about my favorite locations and favorite images along with the usual which kind of camera is best for street photography kind of thing, also the nice people at Light kindly asked me to share some of my thoughts for their #VantagePoint project.
I think most photographers will say pretty much the same thing when it comes to their favorite photograph, that it’s a hard question to answer, I have many images that I love for various reasons but love can often be fleeting and what can start out as infatuation can soon change to something mundane.
Some images though do just continue to tickle my fancy and this image of the young Turkish lad, bored and arrogant, legs splayed wide, a typical teenage tear-away still makes me smile, not just his cocky pose but the little details, another lad was clambering through the window of the tram, a police water cannon can be seen just in the background, it’s an Istanbul image in so many ways.
Over the last few years living in Istanbul Istiklal Street has become one of my favorite locations to shoot; it’s a huge city with some wonderful neighborhoods of myriad personalities but living where I do Istiklal Street is always on my way, tourists and terrorists, shoppers and buskers, protestors and police, it has it all and never fails to deliver interesting images.
I am not a snob when it comes to the equipment I use, as a professional photographer I use whatever I need to use for whatever specific job I am doing and my street images are usually shot on whatever DSLR I am using at the time, probably this post would be way cooler if I hung sleek rangefinder or two over my shoulder, having a camera ready to hand is the important thing, I spotted the boy through the crowd of pedestrians, I wasted not a second in striding purposefully towards him, his pose and gaze could not be shot at a distance nor from the side, it had to be face to face, my mind was focused on one thing, simply the composition, having a camera to hand and not having to feck about with settings and zooms, the art is in the composition, the vantage point, I used what was in my pocket; an iPhone 4 and framed 30cm square print now hangs on my wall.
The photographer is always searching for the best vantage point, jostling for position, clambering cliff tops, being the right place at the right time is rarely an accident, as the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams says “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”
The new compact camera technology under development at Light does look very interesting and I am more than happy to give them a plug so check out what appears to be game changing camera technology here: New Light Camera Technology
Now having said that; camera manufactures, I am more than happy to shoot with whatever latest technology you throw this way so let’s work together.
If you are feeling social please drop by and say hello on Facebook where I also post more Street Photography images.
“Sometimes I felt that my happiness issued not from the possibility that Füsun was near, but from something less tangible. I felt as if I could see the very essence of life in these poor neighborhoods, with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bin, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps”
The pathetic protagonist, actually he does not deserve the title protagonist since clearly the city is the hero, Kemal is the love sick overtly obsessed character from The Museum of Innocence beautifully crafted by Orhan Pamuk, like so much else of Istanbul Kemal is of the past, pathetic he may have been but at least he pounded the pavement in pursuit of Füsun, Facebook and Chatroulette has confined the modern stalker to malodorous bedrooms filled with tobacco smoke and crumpled tissues.
Kemal my friend if only you had carried a camera instead of pilfering underwear or whatever it was you filled your grubby little pockets with, then we too could see the essence of life in those poor neighborhoods.
Street photography is somehow the vehicle and the destination, with a Nikon slung over my shoulder I set off on a journey of no particular route or terminus, exploring a city in transition, in constant flux, and often my happiness is not in the image I have digitized or burned on film but that understanding that comes from a curious eye.
For those that missed it here is a previous post on Street Photography in Istanbul;
I have been in Istanbul four years now and high time I organized my Street Photography archive, anyone interested in seeing more images or perhaps the stories behind the images, or should you want to learn more about technique and the fiddly bits do please feel free to get in touch.
If you are feeling social please drop by and say hello Facebook
You can follow my blog by dropping your email into the box on the bottom right hand side of the page, I don’t spam.
It was one of those balmy Beirut summer evenings, the smell of Nargila smoke mingling intoxicatingly with the car fumes along the corniche, I had strolled alone as I almost always do when visiting the dysfunctional Lebanese capital.
My evening amble had started in romantic enough fashion around the spot that, on Valentine’s Day 2007 the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was blown to kingdom come in a truck bomb explosion that had left little to chance.Rafic had been known as Mr. Lebanon and not because he had won a pageant like beauty contest wearing skinny gold shorts, alas, but because he pretty much owned Lebanon, and, as is very well known, Lebanon cannot be owned by a Lebanese.
As is my good fortune I had also walked this very same route that year only a couple of weeks prior to the assassination and again shortly after, debris and blast damage not looking nearly as out of place in the scarred urban landscape as it should.
This walk is always one of pondering my past visits and while I have never lived in the city I have been a frequent visitor since the early nineties, so much has changed and yet so much never seems to in Beirut. I pass the military beach club where a few hours after arriving on my first ever visit soldiers surrounded me screaming, I carefully made it clear they really needn’t get so excited I was only pointing my camera through the broken chain link fence at the privileged surrounded by the poverty, a Syrian tank barrel poked ominously from between billboards advertising Cross Fire walking boots on the other side of the street, my art and irony lost on these guys but they cleverly figured I was not much of a threat and let me go and I mosey along past the Luna tic Park where the fabulous Ferris wheel has defied all logic and survived, no doubt those rusting bucket seats can tell some stories.
As I cast a flirtatious glance at Dalieh, Beirut’s last remaining virgin, a slab of rock anxiously waiting to be violated by the money hungry property developers, a softly spoken man with neatly trimmed beard sidles up beside me and says hello, you know how much they cost he said without waiting for me to reply to his friendliness, pointing across the traffic clogged street at the empty apartment block, nope I said and so he told me, we walked and talked, chit chat as is not entirely uncommon in the Middle East, we soon tired of the Beirut property scene and seamlessly segwayed into the Beirut cruising scene.
I am Arab, Muslim and gay he announced, you cannot believe how complicated my life is. I said I can almost imagine, he lived a lie needless to say and shared some of his frustrations, we took a seat on a park bench and drank tea from disposable plastic cups, there was some pinkness now creeping into the sky above the filthy Mediterranean seascape, you’re not gay are you he said, nope I said, hmm he replied and perhaps a little disappointed I would like to believe, the trouble with you British he said, now the trouble with the British is a conversation I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine, (or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.
Hmm now this was not exactly what I expected but it did give me pause for thought, and no, not really about the gender and sexuality roles gently forced upon me by my conservative British upbringing but about a previous encounter some years earlier the sordid details of which I will go into with another post in the future.
I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.
I never bought vegetables from his shop, I’d pass by several times a day and would always say hello, always promising myself to buy something from him one day, I never did, there were lots of similar shops and some even closer to my house. Did he mind I often wondered?
Those first days of the war in Damascus were the scariest, we knew it was coming, sometimes we were anxious, other times it seemed it could never happen on such a beautiful day, then almost overnight it arrived, all the shops closed and the streets emptied, gunfire filled the night sky and small mortar bombs landed in the narrow streets around my house, nobody came to collect the rubbish.
The shock and adjustment took a few days to sink in, the kids came out and collected the rubbish, shops were re-stocked and open again, life slowly emerged from behind the gated houses, the war continued but we adjusted, money had to be earned and food had to be put on the table.
The little vegetable shop though stayed shuttered, I walked past often expecting to see him sitting in the patch of sun on the other side of the alley, his pot of tea and cigarettes on a little wooden table.
The old man died under the first bombs, I never knew his name and never bought vegetables from his shop.
I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.
God spoke to Noah commanding him to save his family, build an Ark and take the animals – the flood was coming, Earth needed to be cleansed. The well-known story is related in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and finding the Ark and proving the story true an eternal quest.
Noah reputedly hailed from Mesopotamia, and the last resting place of the Ark is still thought to be in the region of Ararat in Turkish Anatolia, so it’s with some irony that a few hundred kilometers to the south all the talk is of impending flood waters that will drown towns and villages along the Tigris basin, the ancient town of Hasankeyf being the most prominent.
This time the Turkish government is the one preparing to open the floodgates; the southeast Anatolian project (GAP) is an ambitious plan to develop the infrastructure of the impoverished region utilizing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers via a series of dams and hydroelectric plants. Needless to say there has to be casualties and it looks like Hasankeyf is going down with all its treasure, a chest that includes the partially standing remains of a 12th century bridge, a 15th century cylindrical mausoleum, several Mosques, hundreds of cave dwellings and the opportunity to unearth clearly much more, to say nothing of the fate of the local population who are unhappy about being re-housed.
The Silk Road and all those that traded along it kept Hasankeyf alive, the high limestone cliffs providing strategic protection. But the city the Assyrians named Castrum Kefa – the Castle of The Rock – is now facing an ignominious end, the Turkish government is moving ahead and new homes for the local inhabitants are being built. There is still a glimmer of hope in that previous protests have halted the damn and plans are also being made to save and relocate some of the antiquity, but so far it is only a glimmer.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Nabatean Place of High Sacrifice, stop me if you’ve heard this one, it’s a delicate tale and one I can’t help but share.
My journey to the beautiful caravan city of Petra sandwiched between the seas Red and Dead had started in the other great caravan city of Damascus, much of this excursion has already been related in the pages:
So here I am, slurping tea with a Bedouin women named Basma, she offered me another but I respectfully declined, it was already my third, I need to get up to the place of high sacrifice before closing time I explained, she looked disappointed, an excuse she had clearly heard before, what I mean before closing time it was my last day and the sun was going down, am pretty sure the business of sacrifice is quite flexible but the golden glow of the suns dying rays would not wait, and, as is always the case with places of high sacrifice it was located on the top of a mountain, I thanked Basma as she stoked her fire and strode off along the Wadi.
I followed the rock cut sandstone steps along an escarpment as it weaved around the base of the mountain, I picked up the pace taking long strides, every so often looking over my shoulder at the view and diminishing sun, it wasn’t steep and had I not been racing would have made a pleasant walk, I passed a few people heading down but pretty much it seemed the mountain was mine.
Hot and sweaty I reached the summit; a pair of pert obelisks were perched on the plateau a testament to long past craftsmanship and worship, curiously it would be much later I would learn of the deities being tributes to the Gods of both strength but also water and fertility, how one may go about paying tribute to those Gods I was soon to learn.
I pranced around the ancient alter for a while enjoying the solitude, then just as I was scrambling down from another somewhat perilous vantage point an old Bedouin woman appeared and offered me tea, as interesting as sacrificial ceremony maybe I much prefer a cuppa and a chat.
A blackened pot was sitting on a pile of flaming kindling, the tea was rancid and I drank while keeping an eye out for chance to tip it away, my host was perhaps not as old as I first thought, her face weather worn, she was a widow she told me and lived in a village the other side of the wadi, she rolled a cigarette and puffed happily, I asked what it was she was smoking but my Arabic was not efficient enough to identify the herbs which she told me she picked on the mountain, I took some pictures and she played me a tune on a metal flute, so far, in my world that is, all quite normal.
The sun was almost finished for the day and my genial host suggested she show me the quick way down the mountain, we kicked dust over the embers of the fire and set off, after no more than a few meters she told me to wait, she stressed I should wait where I was and she dashed behind some bushes, Juniper probably, she reappeared seconds later smoothing down her dress, no explanations necessary I thought and we moved on.
Wait, wait she said again, we had only been walking a few minutes, she ducked behind a bush but hardly out of my peripheral vision, I looked skyward to be sure as she dealt with the clearly urgent need, we continued, the route now becoming trickier, clambering over rocks and sliding down clefts in the mountainside, nimble as a goat she hopped and danced from rock to rock, I fumbled and dithered and did my best to keep up, once again she pulled up sharply and this time didn’t bother with modesty and just dropped to her haunches and peed freely, And I do mean freely, not since a mad Friday night in Piccadilly had I seen such wantonness, this is the Middle East and whilst many are hardly religious issues of modesty are rigorous, I was both bemused and amused, we continued, our pace was almost frantic, she deftly dealing with the terrain but me struggling to keep up, she had edged away from me and as I cupped my camera and slid down a gulley she was waiting for me, squatting, dress hitched up and in full flow, how, I marveled, could she produce such quantity, and, I admit, for a few brief seconds I couldn’t help myself but marvel, I mean, what the… she shot me a look, this time I had not looked away and felt for a moment as though I had been caught red handed, she just said yallah and we carried on our way, as if nothing had happened, this was the last time she performed, since that what it seemed to be, the image though is hard to shake off and one that no doubt al-Uzza, Nabatean God of water and fertility would approve, she did though have one more thing to show me.
She took my hand and lead me then into a cave hidden behind some overhanging greenery, I felt pretty sure that if things turned nasty I could handle the old girl, inside the cave she stepped away from me, she looked directly into my eyes, oh God I thought, how is my British politeness going to get me out of this, after an uncomfortable pause that may have lasted several seconds she pointed to the paintings etched into the wall, faded pastel shades of prehistoric art, was there an image of a snake, I wasn’t paying attention, lovely I declared and we exited the cave.
Not enough is written of the risks to white men traveling alone in the Middle East and I have enough stories to fill a book, My Gay Adventures in the Middle East has long been a working title, do feel free to encourage me.
Back in Wadi Farasa we said our goodbyes, just a few words and formal as you’d expect, I really do not know what just happened are probably the only words going through my mind, I slipped her a few diners for the tea anyway.
Please do visit my website, most of the images are available to purchase as prints: