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The Turkish Uprising: First-hand Experiences from an American Photographer

The Turkish Uprising: First-hand Experiences from an American Photographer
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Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at Jenna Pope’s blog.

I recently returned to the US after spending about two weeks in Istanbul, Turkey, photographing the uprising and resistance of the citizens there. What began with about 20 activists occupying Gezi Park in an attempt to stop the demolition of the park in order to replace it with a shopping mall turned into a countrywide uprising against the oppressive, authoritarian government after police attacked the peaceful protesters with tear gas and water cannons. Below you can find my first-hand experiences and photographs from my time on the ground:

After making a last-second decision to travel to Turkey in order to photograph and report on what is happening there, I arrived in Istanbul on the morning of June 5th, camera in-hand. I had been following what had happened in Istanbul up until I arrived there, and had seen the situation change significantly, so I was unsure of what to expect. The police had viciously attacked the protesters in Gezi Park and Taksim Square the first few days of resistance, but had since pulled out of the area, leaving the protesters to govern themselves.

After arriving at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, I caught a cab and told the driver to drop me off as close to Taksim Square as possible, as I was aware the protesters had built make-shift barricades on the streets leading towards the square. He ended up dropping me off directly in front of one of the barricades, telling me I would have to walk the rest of the way. So, I grabbed my gear, and headed towards the square. Below is a photo of where the cab driver dropped me off:

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The first few days I spent in Istanbul, there were no police officers to be seen near Taksim Square. It was quite amazing to see how well people behaved themselves without law enforcement in the area. During this time, the mood in Gezi Park and Taksim Square felt extremely free and festive. People were playing instruments, lighting off fireworks, sending Chinese lanterns into the sky, waving flags, and singing songs. Below are several photos that were taken between June 5th and June 10th:

Thousands of protestors fill Taksim Square.

Thousands of protestors fill Taksim Square.

Drummers in Taksim Square.

Drummers in Taksim Square.

Protestors holding up a flare while standing on a destroyed car in Taksim Square.

Protestors holding up a flare while standing on a destroyed car in Taksim Square.

Protestors carry a large Turkish flag through Taksim Square.

Protestors carry a large Turkish flag through Taksim Square.

Sports fans, who played a large role in the protests in Istanbul, march through Taksim Square.

Sports fans, who played a large role in the protests in Istanbul, march through Taksim Square.

Tents set up in Gezi Park, where thousands of people camped out every night.

Tents set up in Gezi Park, where thousands of people camped out every night.

Protestors dancing around a destroyed police car at the entrance to Gezi Park.

Protestors dancing around a destroyed police car at the entrance to Gezi Park.

Flowers planted into a peace sign at the location in Gezi Park where the first few trees were cut down before the occupation and resistance in the park forced construction to end.

Flowers planted into a peace sign at the location in Gezi Park where the first few trees were cut down before the occupation and resistance in the park forced construction to end.

Fireworks going off above Gezi Park.

Fireworks going off above Gezi Park.

Protestors marching through Taksim Square.

Protestors marching through Taksim Square.

Thousands of people fill Taksim Square.

Thousands of people fill Taksim Square.

While Taksim Square was void of a police presence, protesters used that time to build make-shift barricades on the streets leading into the square in hopes of making it more difficult for police to enter the area when they came back. Some barricades were made with city buses, while others were made with police barricades and other materials that the protesters found:

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On June 8th, I traveled to Gazi Mahallesi, Istanbul, which was about a 30 minute cab ride from Taksim Square. People there had been taking to the streets for several nights (as well as in many other cities and neighborhoods around Turkey), and police were responding to the protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Local activists said it was unsafe for me to go by myself, so they ended up connecting me to an activist who had been on the ground in Gazi for the past few nights. He didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Turkish, so communication was a bit difficult. But, he watched my back, and helped keep me safe the entire night.

It was almost midnight by the time I arrived in Gazi that night, and many of the thousands of people who had been in the streets earlier had already gone home. A few hundred remained, and continued to face down water cannon trucks, tear gas, and flash bangs that were being used in an attempt to disperse them:

Protestors stand at the bottom of a hill, as water cannon trucks sit at the top of the hill before approaching the protestors to disperse them.

Protestors stand at the bottom of a hill, as water cannon trucks sit at the top of the hill before approaching the protestors to disperse them.

Protestors hold up peace signs as the headlights from two water cannon trucks shine on them.

Protestors hold up peace signs as the headlights from two water cannon trucks shine on them.

A water cannon truck attempts to disperse protestors.

A water cannon truck attempts to disperse protestors.

Protestors sit down to rest for awhile.

Protestors sit down to rest for awhile.

A protestor walks down the middle of the street as two water cannon trucks approach from behind.

A protestor walks down the middle of the street as two water cannon trucks approach from behind.

Three days after my trip to Gazi, on the morning of June 11th, police broke through the barricades that protesters had made and entered Taksim Square. As I had been awake all night, I was about to go to bed when I got word of what was happening. I quickly packed up my gear and headed towards the square. On my way, I passed many people who were frantically fleeing the area, coughing as their eyes watered from tear gas that had been deployed as the police entered the area. Many people were yelling at me in Turkish, clearly telling me to go back, but they didn’t realize that I had traveled many miles just to photograph this.

As I entered the square, my eyes stung from lingering tear gas. The police were announcing over loudspeakers that they only planned to remove banners and tents from the square, but did not plan to enter Gezi Park. Not long after, a small group of people began throwing molotov cocktails and rocks at police vehicles from behind a set of barricades. I spoke to many Turkish activists who said they believed this was staged in order to “justify” the actions of the police that day. The protesters found it odd that the police responded with less use of force on this small group of people than they had used during earlier protests. The police ended up using tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets on thousands of protesters in both Taksim Square and Gezi Park during clashes that went all day and into the night, lasting for over 20 hours:

Hundreds of police officers, along with water cannon trucks, sitting in Taksim Square.

Hundreds of police officers, along with water cannon trucks, sitting in Taksim Square.

Police officers stand behind two water cannon trucks in Taksim Square.

Police officers stand behind two water cannon trucks in Taksim Square.

Protestors stand on the edge of Gezi Park, watching as hundreds of police officers entered Taksim Square with multiple water cannon trucks and other armored vehicles.

Protestors stand on the edge of Gezi Park, watching as hundreds of police officers entered Taksim Square with multiple water cannon trucks and other armored vehicles.

Protestors stand in front of a water cannon truck before cops began attacking protestors with tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

Protestors stand in front of a water cannon truck before cops began attacking protestors with tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

A protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards police.

A protestor throws a tear gas canister back towards police.

Tear gas filling Taksim Square.

Tear gas filling Taksim Square.

Protestors standing behind make-shift barricades as they are sprayed with a water cannon.

Protestors standing behind make-shift barricades as they are sprayed with a water cannon.

My view from inside the tear gas.

My view from inside the tear gas.

Several hours after the attack on Taksim Square began, I was hit with a water cannon and was completely engulfed in tear gas so thick that I was unable to see. After making my way into Gezi Park to receive help from the medics for the effects from the tear gas, I decided it was best for me to head back to the apartment I was staying at in order to change into dry clothes and get a few photos posted. On my way back, I was hassled by a group of police officers who were several blocks away from the clashes. They saw my cameras and stopped me, then started grabbing at my arm as if they were trying to detain me. After I told them several times that I was leaving the area, they finally allowed me to walk down the closest street that led away from Taksim Square.

Later that night, I went back out with a couple of friends and we tried to get back to Taksim Square. We soon realized that police officers were keeping others from getting near the square, and were pushing protesters further and further down the streets away from the area. We ended up joining thousands of others on Istiklal Street, several blocks from the square where the police were launching tear gas into the crowd.

A protestor throwing a tear gas canister back towards the police.

A protestor throwing a tear gas canister back towards the police.

Tear gas hanging in the air above protestors as they are pushed further from Taksim Square.

Tear gas hanging in the air above protestors as they are pushed further from Taksim Square.

Tear gas floating down the street towards protestors as they are pushed further from the square.

Tear gas floating down the street towards protestors as they are pushed further from the square.

Once the situation calmed down, police remained in Taksim Square, along with several water cannon trucks and other armored vehicles. The next few days were filled with tension as protesters expected an attack on Gezi Park at any point. Make-shift barricades were erected at the entrance to the park:

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In an attempt to ease the tension, Davide Martello, a pianist who was on an international tour at the time, decided to stop by Taksim Square. He set up his piano in the square two days in a row, and played for the large crowds that gathered, creating a calming effect on anybody who listened. Even the police officers seemed to become more calm while listening to his music. On his second night in the square, Davide played for 12 hours straight:

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The calm didn’t last long, though, and on the night of June 15th, police attacked Gezi Park. They used tear gas and water cannons to clear protesters out of the park, and then continued to push them further away from the area. I had been taking a nap when the police first entered the park, but soon woke up and headed directly to the park. As I walked along the street next to the park with two other photographers from the US, police inside the park began yelling at us. Although we were the only three people in the area, they then shot tear gas directly at us:

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As we walked towards Taksim Square, I saw the tents and other items that had been in the park being thrown into large trucks. Police guarded the entrances to the park, keeping protesters from re-entering it:

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We then headed towards a large group of protesters who had been pushed onto one of the streets leading away from Gezi Park, and were waiting for police to advance with a water cannon truck. The clashes continued late into the night, with police officers pushing protesters further and further away from the park:

Protestors standing in front of a water cannon truck just moments before it began spraying them.

Protestors standing in front of a water cannon truck just moments before it began spraying them.

Protestors being sprayed with a water cannon.

Protestors being sprayed with a water cannon.

Police advancing towards protestors while shooting tear gas into the crowd on the street.

Police advancing towards protestors while shooting tear gas into the crowd on the street.

Workers at a restaurant near Taksim Square wearing gas masks.

Workers at a restaurant near Taksim Square wearing gas masks.

Thousands of protestors standing behind make-shift barricades on Istiklal Street as tear gas lingers overhead.

Thousands of protestors standing behind make-shift barricades on Istiklal Street as tear gas lingers overhead.

Protestors shooting fireworks at the police as the police shoot tear gas and water cannons at protestors.

Protestors shooting fireworks at the police as the police shoot tear gas and water cannons at protestors.

A man lying on the ground, disabled from tear gas inhalation. I ended up helping him get to his feet and get out of the tear gas, and a videographer also came over to help. Once we got him to safety, the injured protestors offered us both cigarettes as thanks for helping him.

A man lying on the ground, disabled from tear gas inhalation. I ended up helping him get to his feet and get out of the tear gas, and a videographer also came over to help. Once we got him to safety, the injured protestors offered us both cigarettes as thanks for helping him.

A police officer firing tear down the street towards protestors.

A police officer firing tear down the street towards protestors.

Thousand of protestors gathered on Istiklal Street.

Thousand of protestors gathered on Istiklal Street.

The following morning, police blocked the entrances to Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Turkey’s European Union minister, Egemen Bağış, had said that anybody who tried to enter the square would be treated as a terrorist.

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At this point, I had been in Istanbul for almost two weeks, and my flight back to the US was scheduled for the following afternoon. Although a part of me wanted to stay and continue documenting, another part of me realized I had already documented a lot, and I felt that I needed to go home so I could reflect on my experiences and share them with others through speaking and writing about it.

As I sit here now, writing this blog post from the safety of a coffee shop in my neighborhood in New York City, even through the images of tear gas, water cannons, and riot police that threaten to cloud up my memory, I am clearly remembering the faces of the courageous, inspiring citizens of Istanbul that I met and photographed while I was there. I will soon recover from the physical and emotional effects of what I witnessed and experienced, but the people I met, and the positive experiences I had, will forever remain with me.

Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş.
Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.

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-Jenna Pope-

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