Maria Sturm and Cemre Yesil, For Birds’ Sake

JTF (just the facts): Published by La Fabrica in 2015 (here). Hardcover in a fabric zip cover (available in various patterns), 88 pages, with 56 color photographs. Includes text by the artists. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context:  There is a group of men in Istanbul, most well past their retirement age, that has an obsession with songbirds; to locals, they are called the birdmen. In some fifteen hidden cafes across the city, a community of around 300 birdmen meets every weekend during the summer, drinking tea and organizing singing competitions for their prized birds. Their passion is called kusculuk, the keeping and breeding songbirds.

The practice of bird breeding is believed to go back to the Greek and Armenian communities that lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire; eventually these people left the city, but the tradition was passed on down though the generations. Between the geographical location and the rich natural setting, the region is a busy transit point for bird migration, and as result, a serious subculture of connoisseurs dedicated to birds has developed.

The birdmen of Istanbul capture male birds and keep them in special boxes – concealed from the females, the males start singing during the mating season. The cages are typically covered with fabric, provoking birds to sing their beautiful and sad songs.

The photographers Maria Sturm and Cemre Yesil met during an artistic residency in France, and together became fascinated with this disappearing ritual. But gaining access to this male dominated community was no easy task. With patience and persistence, Sturm and Yesil gained the trust of the birdmen and were invited to join them for bird catching missions and singing competitions. Their collaborative book, entitled For Birds’ Sake, documents their journey and provides us with a unique look into this special world.

The book opens with nighttime images of meadows. We are slowly introduced to the men, as they are getting ready to start their ritual of catching the birds – occupied and focused, they have boxes and nests ready before sunrise. We learn that birds caught in the wild are treasured more, as their songs are believed to be more unique and beautiful when the birds are raised in nature.

For Birds’ Sake is a rather calm and deliberate book. Images of nature and bird boxes are mixed with portraits of the birdkeepers, often captured as they quietly wait or listen. In one image, a man is seated at a living room table, meditatively looking through the window. This mood of tranquility makes us sense the real devotion and love these men have for their birds.

In a clever inversion, we don’t encounter actual songbirds even once in this photobook, yet the signs of their presence are everywhere – through drawings, tattoos, hooks, and cages. Birdmen seem to pay special attention to the presentation of their cages, and there are numerous images depicting these objects: there are various ways to cover the boxes with cloth, and the fabric varies from monotone colors to more unique patterns. The cages are then carefully hung on trees and on the hooks in apartments, placed on tables, or gently held by the bird keepers. Yet the inside is never revealed.

Later in the book, we’re given a glimpse into the culminating moment of the birdmen’s passion – the bird singing competition. One image shows four men sitting in a garden, the containers with the birds hanging on the trees and walls, the men deep in their own thoughts. While waiting for their turn, the birdmen gently whisper to the birds, or even play quiet music on their phones. Trained birdmen have learned to distinguish more melodies in the birdsongs (many not noticeable by newcomers), in theory, helping them to identify the most beautiful song. Other criteria include the duration of the melody and the strength of bird’s voice, and the final award of the competition is the pride of owning the bird with the best song.

The design and construction of this photobook elegantly incorporate several distinct elements of the bird boxes. The book itself is covered with a zippered fabric sleeve, and the holes on the cover mimic the ones in the cages. The layout mixes images of various sizes with full bleeds, and a number of pages in the book are three-fourths cut, creating unexpected overlaps and interventions. In one tragic and powerful contradiction, a trimmed portrait of man with a tattoo “Don’t touch my freedom” lays over what looks like a colorful bird’s feather, now in captivity. The last image shows hands opening a double zipped cover on a bird cage, and the book ends with a short poem by the well known Turkish poet Cemal Süreya “Life is Short, Birds are Flying”.

This book is a solid example of a small, self contained project that led to a well-executed body of work and an original photobook. For Birds’ Sake takes us inside the unknown world of birdmen and their quietly odd addiction, and does so in a way that highlights both its love and its contradictions. Like other projects documenting hobbies and subcultures, it reveals the real human quirks of our pastimes, where we transfer our fragile hopes and dreams to things beyond ourselves.

Collector’s POV: Cemre Yesil is represented by Daire Sanat in Istanbul (here) and Maria Sturm does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Their works have yet to reach the secondary markets, so gallery retail or direct connection to the photographers via their websites remain the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, Maria Sturm, La Fábrica

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