Françoise Caraco, Hidden Istanbul

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Art Paper Editions (here). Hardcover (17×24 cm), 404 pages, with 263 color images. Includes a text by the artist and a two-sided poster. Design and editing by Lien Van Leemput and the artist for 6m56s. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past several years, a number of excellent photobooks have explored personal family histories and archives with depth and insight, often revealing more universal dimensions and stories. In one notable example, Amani Willett used his family as a starting point for investigating the broader history of American racial violence in his book A Parallel Road (reviewed here); in another, the Brazilian photographer Leticia Valverdes traveled to Portugal to visit the birth country of her grandmother, ultimately connecting with the local community of a small village (reviewed here). 

In a similar manner, the Swiss photographer Françoise Caraco goes on a mission to find her ancestors in her recent photobook Hidden Istanbul. Taking inspiration from her family memories, she sets out to explore the culture of the Sephardic Jews, who have inhabited the Turkish metropolis for many centuries but remain largely unseen. Caraco’s great-grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to Switzerland in the early 20th century, and using documents she found in his estate, she started her artistic research tracing back into the past, but also learned about the present day life of the Sephardic community. As Caraco interviewed people from Istanbul’s Jewish community about their lives in the city, a new narrative emerged. The book is structured around these conversations, while family photographs, postcards, and contemporary shots of Istanbul provide a visual backdrop.

Hidden Istanbul is a thick book object of over four hundred pages, with a mustard yellow cover and page edges painted in dark blue. The title of the book, in a Hebrew-style English font, is placed on the cover together with the artist’s name (in a regular font). Inside, the book has a dynamic visual flow, with various placements of photographs and sizes. 

The photobook is divided into ten chapters, each centered on a specific question Caraco asked the locals. These questions circled around their origins and identity, their sense of belonging, and their traditions. She interviewed a total of 35 people, some of them relatives, aged between 19 and 96. As an example, the first chapter is titled “Karako Family Fragments” and tries to answer the following question: “Do you know anyone with the name Karako?” A helpful glossary at the end of the book lists the terms used by the people Caraco interviewed, and includes definitions of Jewish traditions, historical events, neighborhoods etc. 

To build the narrative, in addition to her own photographs, Caraco has added in photographs from her family archives, historical images, hand drawn maps, and drawings. As such, the book recalls the form of a travel diary. It begins with a letter from the artist to her grandfather, in which she tells his story and frames her intentions. Each chapter then opens with a text which brings together the voices of the people Caraco interviewed over the years, offering an oral history of the community. If the opening chapter of the book tries to find connections to the artist’s family name, the second one asks where their families come from. Some of their answers include: “We were descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in 1492.” “They considered themselves Sephardic, but were originally Ashkenazic.” “My parents are pure Sephardic because my family comes from Spain.” Many of Caraco’s photographs capture seemingly ordinary people and places, looking for hints and connections. The visual part in this chapter shows graves in a cemetery, a handwritten family tree, family photographs, as well as contemporary shots of Istanbul. One spread pairs an old poster of the famous Maiden’s Tower with a more recent shot, symbolically bringing together the past and the present. 

One of Caraco’s questions focused on languages. Preserving the Ladino language, spoken mostly by Turkey’s Jewish community, was a way to preserve a sense of shared identity. “I spoke Turkish with my parents, but I wanted my grandparents to speak Ladino with me, otherwise I would never have learnt it.” “Ladino means a lot to me: I associate my childhood, my traditions, my roots with it.” A number of the photographs document newspapers in Ladino, as well as book covers and notes, and again alongside shots of Istanbul today. The texts and images complement and echo each other well.

In the final chapter, Caraco asks a question about immigration, and it is titled “To Leave or to Remain.” The range of answers once again shows that this question is a difficult one for many people. The photographs show a bird’s eye view of the city, people strolling by the waterfront in the evening, a wall covered with framed photographs, the front of the Ashkenazi Synagogue, and a shot of an apple cake, among others. Caraco says that the lives of people she interviewed “could have been my life if my great-grandfather had not migrated to Switzerland. This is why I am asking mundane questions about their daily lives. Every personal story is a fragment of history.” 

Hidden Istanbul is a carefully considered and thoughtful photobook, beautifully designed and produced. It offers a creative approach to uncovering a personal history, employing various research processes and archival materials. Working on this book allowed Caraco to reconnect with her ancestors and bring light to their community today. It portrays a slice of the city through the voices and photographs of its people, and is a moving ode to the disappearing culture of Sephardic Jews. 

Collector’s POV: Françoise Caraco does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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