Emin Özmen, Olay

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and Piotr Zalewski. Edited by the artist and Cloé Kerhoas. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For over fifteen years, the Turkish photographer Emin Özmen has been documenting key events unfolding in his homeland: protests, disrupted elections, natural calamities, an economic crisis, and more. His images embody the sense of constant unrest and terror his generation has endured during that time. His debut monograph titled Olay captures the country’s radical transformation from a beacon of democracy to a dystopian autocracy. 

The title of the book, Olay, means “event” or “incident” in Turkish, referencing the singular moments in this tumultuous decade in contemporary Turkish history. Olay is a medium size photobook, comfortable to hold in your hands. A photograph of a man walking through a giant hole in a wall appears on the cover, boldly rendered in black against red. The title and the artist’s name appear in all caps and are placed on the spine, and the book has red endpapers and an open spine. Inside, almost all of the photographs are printed full bleed, with the exception of various vertically-oriented color shots interspersed throughout the book. A section at the end of the book contains essays, starting with one by Piotr Zalewski, Türkiye correspondent for The Economist, and a timeline of events from 2013 through 2023, followed by an essay by the artist and thumbnails with detailed captions. The book easily lays flat making the interaction more enjoyable.

The visual flow of the book resists a straightforward linear narrative, instead focusing on the emotions and moods of the people as well as a nuanced commentary on the Turkish state. Özmen’s documentary photographs reflect urgency, empathy, and sensitivity. The book opens with a full spread black and white photograph showing protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, as thousands of people revolted over the construction of a mall on one of last stretches of available green space. In this image we see a ghostly group of people as white smoke appears around them, with empty water bottles seen on the ground. These events also mark an important turning point in Özmen’s career. After working at the heart of the protests, trying to capture both the realities of hope and violence, he witnessed information manipulation within his own newspaper, one of the biggest in the country. He soon resigned and continued working as a freelancer, and in 2017, Özmen joined Magnum Photos and became a full member five years later.

There is an undeniable sense of urgency in these photographs. Printed full bleed, they feel immersive, full of energy, packed with action and fury. As the pages turn, in one photograph a close up of a Turkish soldier takes most of the frame as he stands in line with his battalion gathered for a funeral ceremony. Just a couple of pages later another picture captures protesters covering their heads as police disperse them with water cannons. 

Color photographs, all of them in vertical orientation, one per spread and in sequences of two, are sprinkled through the book, offering a visual pause and adding another layer of interaction. In one image, a damaged car is seen on the highway, and the asphalt is roughly torn and cracked too, a devastating scene after an earthquake in February of 2023. The photograph right after it shows the minaret of a mosque emerging from the body of water; located in the small town of Halfeti, it was partially flooded in 1999 to create the Birecik Dam. Another color picture captures coffins in a slaughterhouse, as local officials had to use that unlikely location after all other hospital morgues were filled with the bodies of people killed in Cizre and Silopi during the curfews. In these and other photographs, destruction is ever-present, both from military conflict and natural disasters.

Nearly every photograph in the book marks a violent or devastating event of the past decade. Even the photographs that at first might look rather ordinary represent more dramatic events. A photograph showing goats walking down the stairs of a house was shot in a village that was abandoned as a result of Ilisu government dam project. And a man walking on a road looking straight into the camera as snow falls down represents a neighborhood where heavy fighting took place between the Turkish army and the PKK.

The very last image in Olay takes us back to 2013, showing people looking out from building windows watching protesters clashing with Turkish police during the Gezi Park protests. In conversation with the opening image, it puts the focus on people, as these events and human tragedies impact everyone. 

This book brings to mind the work of the Archive of Public Protests (A-P-P) in Poland which was established in 2019 by Rafał Milach (together with photographers, activists, writers and academics) to document and collect raw footage from the ongoing protests in their homeland. In addition to its extensive online archive, the A-P-P also publishes Gazeta Strajkowa (Strike Newspaper, reviewed here).

Özmen writes in his essay, “Never a week without a drama, never a month without a major event. Here, nothing is simple, everything intermingles and clashes, the beautiful as well as the ugly, sadness as well as joy. Our hearts are heavy, tired, but the resistance prevents us from falling into total despair. We have not forgotten that not only torment but grace wanders around us.” As a photobook, Olay is an intelligent and thoughtfully produced photojournalistic object, and stands out as a well-conceived contemporary protest photobook.

Collector’s POV: Emin Özmen is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a nominee in 2017 and an associate in 2022. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Emin Özmen, MACK Books

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Tom de Peyret, 1 New York Times Plaza, NY 11356

Tom de Peyret, 1 New York Times Plaza, NY 11356

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter