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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Black Sea

Black Sea

At that (Homeric) time, the sea was not navigable and was called Axenos (inhospitable) because of its wintery storms and the tribes that lived around it, and in particularly the Sythians in that they sacrificed strangers…

But later it was called Euxeinos (friendly to strangers) when the Ionians founded cities on the seaboard.

Strabo From his Geographica

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Copyright John Wreford 

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From my Black Sea series, a project in progress

Printed on 30×40 cm Hahnemühle Photo Rag fine art paper with a wonderfully soft feel, boasts a lightly defined felt structure, lending each artwork a three-dimensional appearance and impressive pictorial depth.

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Tarlabaşı; An Ode.

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Saying goodbye to Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi is a hive of informal commerce, the streets alive, trade and toil and the struggle to survive in a city overwhelmed, carts with squeaky wheels pushed up and down the hills, hawkers crying and calling, the rag and bone man and the Sahlep seller, in the afternoons the itinerant musicians take a final slurp of tea and trudge to the bars of Taksim to work for tips. Mothers, wives and daughters deal with the never-ending washing, scrubbing carpets with a stream of soap suds heading to the gutter, wood constantly being chopped to feed the stove, an aged grandmother wields an axe, a teenager uses a stone to smash old furniture, scavenged fuel to heat decrepit tenement rooms.

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The Salep Seller

In dingy basements illuminated by a single globe or a florescent tube, impoverished women from the parched plains of Hasakeh in Syria or the suburbs of Diyabakir, troubled places far from the sea. They scratch and clean mussels harvested from the Bosporus, squatting around colored plastic bowls they stuff them with rice and pass them on to be sold around the city, their fingers raw but their chatter bright.

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Freshly stuffed Midye

Little is legal, many undocumented, most on the margins. Cleaning the streets and oiling the wheels of the Turkish sweatshop economy, universally despised and denigrated but always defiant, challenges met with humor and humility and spirit.

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The streets are theater, social clubs and football pitches, living rooms and kitchens, wild weddings where Gypsies dance to music the bounces of the buildings and the bare-knuckle brawlers stagger shirtless and bloodied.

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On street corners dealers hang and fires burn, the air musty with menace, in the early hours the hollow sound of gunshots, running footsteps and the scurry of cats and rats. Tarlabasi never sleeps, it just revolves around erratic shifts of sleeping, eating and schooling. Before the dawn light reflects off the corrugated fences the working girls will totter home in cheap stilettos.

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At the end of the street the sound of jackhammers splitting concrete, the giant arms of cranes swing ominously to the sound of stressed metal, underpaid workmen clamber over the rubble. The army of progress is marching and the impoverished are paying.

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The curtain is about to fall and a community will disperse, the shouts of “Hakan” from the housewives to the store owner will fall silent, no longer will the tormented grocer rush to fill the baskets lowered from windows only to be called back again and again for a forgotten bottle of milk or an onion.

Neighborhoods evolve, they are organic, they are not created by city planners, only dismantled, there is no conversation when only money talks.untitled-0870

Having lived in Tarlabasi over several years and in various streets my time now has come to and end.

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Cairo, Egypt. February 10th 2009 Typical Egyptian Coffee
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The Photographers back story blog is the irreverent ramblings of Middle East based photographer John Wreford Portfolio

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Sadness in Syria, Hama.

Faisal was the first Syrian friend I made on my first ever visit, he was also the first friend I lost in the war; I made many more friends and lost more too.

My first visit to Syria must be some twenty years ago now, only my diaries lost in my Mothers cavernous loft have the details, so much of my memory is draped in the dust of time but that day is still clear to me.

I walked over the old stone bridge spanning the al Assi River, the Norias grinding on the far bank, I spotted a sandwich shop, more a kiosk really, I treated the young man behind the counter to my recently learned Arabic greeting, he smiled as he replied, he prepared my sandwich and we both sat on plastic chairs and became friends, he told me some years later the reason he had taken to me was my fumbling Arabic.

Hama had been the city that first garnered my attention in Syria, I had only recently learned of its bloody history and no sooner had I arrived in Damascus I set out to visit, qualified advice being whatever you do, don’t mention the war, but obviously I am not one for following advice as regular readers of these pages will no doubt be aware.

Hama had suffered a brutal crackdown in the political unrest in the 1980s, half the city was raised and tens of thousands were killed, the city like many in Syria is multi faith but the Muslin brotherhood and conservative Islam were synonymous, prior to the uprising in 2011 most political analysts had declared the Syrian government to have crushed the Ikwan (MB).

I asked Faisal as we sipped tea where he learned his English, he told me he had learned while in prison as a child; he showed me a crumpled photograph of his house before it was destroyed, it was a matter of fact conversation, not angry or melodramatic although he sighed somewhat tiredly as he remembered the death of his horse, even my horse he said shaking his head.

I joined him and a group of his friends again that night, in fact for the next few days I would spend the nights chatting until the early hours, walking the quiet cobbled streets, empty accept shadows, under antique arches and past the Automan Hamam, on more than one occasion getting back to find my hotel locked up, I learned a lot in those few days and acquired an affection for Hama that has never left me.

Over the years I would drop by Hama and visit my friend, when we sat together late at night our conversations were always about the injustice of political power, and not just his own, elected or not the abuse of power that punished the weak or poor, when I visited with Friends then it was just his whole hearted hospitality.

Faisal was a good friend and was always there to help when I needed it, my early days in Syria especially, on one occasion I had asked his recommendation for a restaurant to entertain a visiting friend, I took his suggestion and enjoyed a beautiful Syrian meal beside the banks of the Orontes River, when the cheque was ordered the waiter said the bill had been taken care of.

We came from very different backgrounds and lead very different lives yet became very good friends, I don’t know the exact details of his death, as was very common in the early days of the Syrian uprising his death was shared on Facebook, despite the utter sadness I felt, still feel, it did not come as a shock, he was prepared to stand up for what he believed in, and for that bravery he paid with his life.

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Syrian Tears in Istanbul

Syrian Tears in Istanbul

On my way back from applying for my Turkish residency a process that reminded me so much of being back in Damascus, not only the chaotic bureaucracy and complete lack of information but also the fact that the building was full of Syrians, a babble of various Syrian dialects grumbling at the 200 Turkish Lira fee, a small price it may seem for security but still a hefty sum nevertheless for most, handing over my privileged claret passport cost another 175 TL on top of that, I also grumbled in various dialects but mostly cockney, the air of despondency followed me into a shopping mall just down the road, sitting beside a water fountain performing to orchestral commands beyond my comprehension, I logged onto Starbucks fading wifi signal while some tourists from the far east snapped away at the aquatic display.
A more depressing globalized environment would be hard to imagine I thought as I surveyed my surroundings, once again it’s the Syrians that grab my attention, this time a young women pushing a child in a buggy, she looks upset and as though she’s about to burst into tears, she’s followed by a couple of young lads, aged about seven and eight they all sit down on the step of the plaza and no sooner sitting she does burst into tears, the boys are kicking their heals, soon they are joined by who clearly must be her husband and another son, they are well dressed, not wealthy but typical Syrian middle class, families like this I would see everyday shopping along sharia Hamra, her tears could be nothing more serious that the usual marital trauma brought on by a visit to overpriced shopping mall but I can’t help feeling it’s another sad Syrian story, he paces around the plaza trying to call on his phone, he seems agitated and looks as though he is just trying to do something, anything, he knows it’s his job to solve the situation and he is making the calls, the look in his eyes show a lack of confidence, the women is sobbing non-stop and I just want him to go and comfort her, I want to go and talk with them but I don’t, over the last almost three years I have witnessed the tears of Syrians sobbing countless times, on occasion I have tried to console but what you can you say or do, futile reassurance that everything is going to be okay, they really do seem like a nice family, they seem lost and out of their depth, I have listened to the conversations before on what to do for the best, to leave Syria or stay, to go where and do what, how much money do we have and how long will it last, what country accepts a Syrian passport, who will give me a job, what about the car and the house, what about the rest of the family, the decisions to leave are not easy, she sits there alone tears running down her face, like the nation she has left behind, alone and broken.