Currently reading : Istanbul’s transexual prostitutes
Ali Kepenek is the photographer who created a series of portraits of transsexual prostitutes in Istanbul eight years ago. These images are startling on various levels, the power of the material that Kepenek has captured is so raw and unforgiving. There is a reality to the lives of these women which can’t be ignored in how stoic but simultaneously glamourous they appear. This is of course scattered with a kind of unavoidable fragility but Kepenek has so successfully captured moments of a rejected community who have everything going against them in such a conservative country. What is so important about these images is that Kepenek has shown us that issues of gender are universal and how we should approach them should be relentlessly challenged, anyone wanting to question their gender or sexuality should always be supported. Ignorant ideals never disappear but simply evolve but through creating culture around these issues we can all learn how to integrate others into society in the way that they deserve.
We spoke to Ali about how this series of photographs were created and what life was like for these women.
How did this project start?
My family are Turkish but I was brought up in Germany, so every few years I’d visit Istanbul with my parents. One year when I was about twelve years old I experienced this overwhelmingly strong image, I saw a transsexual prostitute on the street who I assumed at the time to be a woman. When I first saw this woman, I felt amazing. I couldn’t really understand what I was seeing. I saw this incredibly strong woman, fighting against a Turkish guy.
You saw a transsexual prostitute fighting a man on the street?
Yeah, that was the thing. For me, it was a girl ”” a strange looking girl, very tall ”” fighting with a guy. I couldn’t really understand it, I’d never seen behavior like this from a woman before. The guy was throwing vague abuse at her for working on the street and she retaliated by taking the hat off his head and smashing his head against the wheel of his car.
What a strong image.
Yes! For me, I was like “Oh my God, A woman in this country acting this way…?!” It was and still is so unusual for a woman to act like that. This image is still so ingrained in my head.
What year do you think that was?
Oh God, I was 12, and now I’m 45. Roughly 30 years ago. The early 1980s
A transsexual existing in Turkey 30 years ago, must’ve been a tough place?
It is still a tough place, to be gay or transsexual.
Or even a woman?
Or a woman! Or even a heterosexual man who thinks differently. I think in a country like Turkey that used to be liberal for a long time, and now goes the opposite way. I think it must be difficult for these people. Whatever you are, if you think differently or are different, you have a problem in that country.
How did you start this project? You always had this image in the back of your mind, which is very strong. But you never lived in Turkey, it was only somewhere you visited, even though it exists as your heritage.
One day I got this ”” from Martin-Gropius-Bau which is a museum in Berlin. They had been organising a show about Turkish artists. I can’t remember the title, I have to find that. It was about Turkey, and they asked me to collaborate. They commissioned me to go to Turkey. And I told them I really liked this topic, my whole life, since I was 12 I wanted to explore this area and photograph the women. Later I realised they were transsexual prostitutes and they have been inspiring me my whole life: To be strong and different. If you are different then fight for it. Never give up your ideals.
And then I went to Turkey and I felt it would be very easy to go to Turkey and find these women. I know all the transsexuals and transvestites in London or Berlin, they go out, they go clubbing. I though that in Istanbul it would be the same, but I realised it’s completely different.
There isn’t that culture where it is tolerant, or acceptable?
No, they don’t trust any foreigners. For them, I am just a man coming from Germany, from Berlin. They think I will use them, as usual. What always happen to them. To gain their trust, without paying, was a big journey.
How did you go about going to Turkey and finding these prostitutes?
It was quite difficult, because at first I wasn’t able to go to Turkey for a long time because I refused to partake in my military service. In that time the museum had to help me, to get a proper time frame. I had two weeks. I went to Istanbul without knowing anybody, because obviously I had grown up in Berlin. I went back to the area around Taksim, which was the area I remember from being there when I was a kid.
So you went back there?
Yes, to exactly the same spot, which was the starting point of these images. I went back to the exact location thirty years later and saw the exact same girls ”” not the same, but the same thing happening. And I started talking to them. But they were either afraid of me, or wanted money.
Do you speak Turkish?
I do speak Turkish, but it wasn’t that good at the time. Now, I speak fluently, since I came to London a lot of my friends are Turkish. Anyway, it took me ten or eleven days to get in contact with the women while I was there and once I met them it took time to get their proper trust to photograph them.
And how many do you think you met?
Oh God, I asked hundreds. Some were angry, some were throwing stones after me. Or sometimes they would pour water out the windows as I went to the brothels. I knew the streets where the transsexual prostitutes worked ”” I went there, on my own. I was looking for something but I didn’t know exactly what that was. And at some point I lost spirit, and I called the museum for some help. They told me to talk to this girl at the culture center. They made some arrangements with some artists that live in Istanbul who they thought could be helpful. I got in contact with this one guy, an artist who had been trying for two years.
This guy had been trying, for years, and you only had two weeks to accomplish the whole project?
Exactly, after I heard that I though “Oh my God, I have a week left!” I started going out day and night, on location.
What happened? How did you start photographing?
I met a pimp ”” it’s a funny thing actually ”” I went out to one of the brothels. But I’m not a client, I don’t pay money. If I was to pay money it would be a lot easier, yet difficult. With my projects I don’t pay people money, it’s not about money. It’s not because I’m stingy. It’s about the realness of the people.
You don’t want that compromise?
Yeah, if it meant I would go back to Berlin with no photos I still wouldn’t do it. I believe the moment you give them money, they lose their soul. And you’re like the other people giving them money, using the prostitutes.
I met this guy, the pimp, a fat gay guy. Really crazy, full of jewellery and used to pimp up all the girls.
Did you photograph him?
No I didn’t, he was not a part of my concept. I spoke to him all night and he gave me the [phone] numbers of some girls. He asked me which girls I would like to shoot. He understood that I’m not a bad guy to them
That you weren’t going to exploit them?
I explained that I didn’t want to pay, because I would be like the other guys [clients]. I wanted them to do it out of free will. If I’d paid them, I would be done in one day, but they won’t be close enough to me. This was around day seven, it took me another three days to meet them.
How did they feel about having their portraits taken?
In the beginning it was really strange for them. Having someone who’s not a part of them, staying with them. I spent the whole day with them, only going to my hotel room just for a couple of hours. I lived their lives, by their side, got up really early, went to the bars where they go. I did the whole life style, without prostituting myself. It was really interesting, I was eating with them at their homes. I was waiting when they had clients in the next room.
And they were comfortable with you?
Yes, because I explained my participation to them. I explained why I didn’t pay them, when they commented about me being from Germany and claiming I had lots of money. They were fine with it, they trusted me in a way.
Could you explain to me what the attitude towards the transgender community in Turkey is like?
When I was doing the project, there was this girl whose family put her in a mental institution against her will when they found out that she was having her first surgery. She was electro shocked and treated terribly, until she ran away. But they caught her again, put her in a mental hospital ”” again with the electro shock therapy. It was horrible, I couldn’t believe it!
Were all the prostitutes that you met disowned by their families?
Yes, they had no outside contact. One of the prostitutes was a doctor, with a proper job ”” he was a proper person, as a man. Upon deciding to change his gender, he lost his job, family and friends and ended up working as a prostitute.
Did you feel like these prostitutes would come from all types of backgrounds, all sorts of lives, in Turkey?
Yes, definitely. They had one thing in common, being used by heterosexual men. They were used sexually, and abused mentally. The same thing with the society. I think they have a much harder life than anybody else in Turkey.
The type of operations these girls were getting, were they legal?
Most of the treatments were illegal, they do it somehow. But they would never cut off their dick. I asked them “Why don’t you get the full operation?” They said they won’t make any money if they don’t keep it. They would loose their jobs.
So it’s this horrible, viscous circle?
Society is not accepting them, they have to work as prostitutes. Or they have a rich heterosexual lover, who support them financially. Should they break up, they risk being killed.
Because of the secrets they know of the mens lives?
Or they die of an overdose.
What is the drug addiction problem like for this community?
There’s a lot of cocaine. I think they use all types of drugs.
Do a lot of them live together as well?
They live in these complexes, gated and secure. When I was there, at the different houses, there were mostly transsexuals there.
Is there any rights for these women?
None, they don’t have any rights. How can they have any rights? The police, the society, nobody is treating them any good. There are some organisations for transsexuals, who try to fight for their rights. But in a country where human rights are worth nothing, what are rights for transsexuals going to be like?
Do you think most of this community end up becoming prostitutes? Did you see any evidence of women being able to function in a society without having any drug addiction or working as a sex worker?
This is just my experience, but all the women I have photographed, all of them were prostitutes. No exceptions.
What was the age span of these girls?
It was between 18 and 65.
And they all look after each other?
They do, they even looked after me. I became part of their community somehow. I was not using them, nor being a transsexual. But I was still a part of them. They really protect one another. Once when we were going to this dodgy part of the city, one of the girls was protecting me and my bag, making sure my equipment wasn’t stolen. Making sure that I was unharmed. She didn’t want me to get stabbed, saying that I could be easily stabbed while being robbed of my camera.
There’s a really strong sense of community, people protecting each other?
When you’re a minority you always try to create a new family, wherever you are. You’ve lost your regular family, your mum, your dad, everyone. They have all one thing in common, having lost everything in life, to achieve what they want.
They have nothing else to loose? So they care for each other?
Caring about each other and protecting each other, which is amazing in the face of having nothing. I’ve not seen the likes in London nor Berlin. I’ve never experienced a group of people who have so much compassion in the face of so much hatred, it was incredibly beautiful and inspiring.