Interview with mobile artist Elif Gulen // From the Archive: Posted December 8, 2012
The following interview with Turkish mobile street photographer Elif Gulen, IG handled @fisheyedreams, was conducted over email by Tiny Collective member Crispin D. Giles. “When I first talked with Elif about doing this interview I think I was most excited to discuss her approach to composition. For me framing is the touch, the flavour, something very defining for a photographer and Elif’s compositional instincts continually impress me. Some of her street shots of Istanbul seem as though she’s a film director; her subjects the actors hitting their marks, her shots the stills from a fictitious noir movie location. To this end I see her as an epic storyteller, her pictures a kind of ongoing documentary.” – Crispin D. Giles
I feel like I’m an outsider roaming the streets looking for moments that unfold which can become surreal.
– Elif Gulen
Tiny Collective – When you’re shooting street, are you searching for a cinematic or even surreal moment or scene? I know people have asked you about your pictures being staged.. so I’m curious. Would you describe your stuff as stylized or spontaneous? I guess strictly in the poetic sense – are you “composing” your environment or reacting as it unfolds around you?
Elif Gulen – I feel like I’m an outsider roaming the streets looking for moments that unfold which can become surreal. I observe and while observing I notice things that can evolve so I wait. Sometimes they don’t come, sometimes they do. I stage it in my mind while observing and it comes. Not always, but there are certain parameters that fit the moment and with practice, you learn them. Then you become more adept in just capturing it. I don’t know if I can say I’m composing it, but I can watch and foresee a scene to be captured. But this doesn’t work very well with places that I visit for the first time so I need to get to know the streets and places I shoot. That’s why I love my city. I feel like it’s my stage and I can use it as a backdrop for what I look for. I’m familiar with it in the sense of light, environment, culture and people. But in the end, composing and reacting as it unfolds, exist together.
TC – For me definitely one of the hallmarks of your stuff is the way you capture light. There’s such a massive drama to this play between shadow and light in your pictures. Can you talk a bit about how this search for light, or its opposite, inspires you?
ES – I think I have a war in my head between the subject of the photo and the light it’s in. Sometimes I go after the light and the subject is the graphic element. Sometimes the subject is so powerful that light becomes secondary. So to balance them, it’s not easy. I sometimes feel like I’m solving a math problem when I deal with light. It’s my drawing tool. But it’s not easy to use it. That’s why I stick to one type of film and just BW. Then I can manipulate them better. But I have to say I always feel this is the area where I need to learn a lot more. I know this is funny but I love how light changes during the day and in each season. Strong summer light brings strong shadows. Winter light greys up and creates blurry dark atmospheres. So I change my ways of looking with the seasons. That’s one fun part of street photography.
I think I have a war in my head between the subject of the photo and the light it’s in. I sometimes feel like I’m solving a math problem when I deal with light.
– Elif Gulen
TC – I see a certain solitude in your work. As though your pictures are quietly extracting the isolation of people being private in public and you are putting these reactions, interactions on display. Is this something you’re conscious of? Are you looking for something this specific when you shoot?
ES – We are all very much single beings. And we all have this feeling of not being complete. We all are in search of completing ourselves. Even though we are social creatures, we are quite single in our minds. This is more appealing to me when you live in a very crowded city. I see a lot of people standing or walking or just commuting. I love to capture the isolation. Or try to capture the isolated feeling with different moods we all get in. I love when we are in this state. We think about all sorts of things while walking or commuting. Our minds never stop. Even though I can never know what the subjects think, I try to capture the expression. So yes, I do look for it but not in a dominating sense. It’s very subtle.
Our minds never stop. Even though I can never know what the subjects think, I try to capture the expression.
– Elif Gulen
TC – For me there’s a real sense of distance/detachment to your street photography. The negative space between your subjects takes on a character all its own, it’s a connecting element yes, but for me it’s also a focal point and I’m drawn to this space as much to the subjects inhabiting it. Is this spacial awareness, this relationship, something you’re interested in trying to communicate? Because it all feels very much a part of the story..
ES – To tell you the truth, I do think the space is as important as the subject. We usually focus on the subject but then we lose the surrounding elements that influence the subject. That’s why black and white kind of suits me more because I get to see the space where I don’t get distracted by colour. It becomes more graphic for me. And graphic means manipulation. We use these elements to transfer a feeling so I use them along with the subject itself.
I do think the space is as important as the subject. We usually focus on the subject but then we lose the surrounding elements that influence the subject.
– Elif Gulen
TC – Lately I’ve been attuned to the moment we rest into a new look, new stance, point of view, body position etc. It’s in this split second, right before we become committed to the new moment, we look totally vulnerable. The shields are down. For me this is what I am looking for lately. What do you search for, what makes a “successful”shot for you? Do you have a mental check list when looking at your camera roll, or are you just looking for an emotional reaction, whatever it is? What makes makes you feel you “got it” when you take a picture?
ES – The challenge for me is to capture a moment with very good composition. The composition must flow with the subject and help transfer a strong feeling. And for me this is either there or not there in a photograph. So I sometimes end up with a great composition and it looks good, but does the subject reflect a strong feeling? Or great subject, nice feeling, but the composition is not strong enough to push it up. It has to be both for me. Feeling comes with strong composition that supports the subject. Humour is another element that I like in a photograph. There must be a sense of illusion, a trick, a play that transfers a little of the photographers vision.
The composition must flow with the subject and help transfer a strong feeling. And for me this is either there or not there in a photograph.
– Elif Gulen
TC – I often dissect the mechanics and motives of picture taking, the process of “taking a picture” vs. leaving it to simply exist for that fraction of a second and then disappear. This choice to capture or not to capture fascinates me. I wonder if this whole experience of decision making while shooting is something you find intuitive, organic, or even natural? Or do you consciously feel these choices being made as you’re making them? (As I said, this question fascinates me and is likely the same question I ask over and over in different forms…)
ES – This is not easy to answer. Even though I am not a technical person I find that digital photography vs film kind of changed this idea of capturing the moment. When I took film photos, I had to concentrate very much on what was unfolding before my eyes to decide what I would capture. But with digital, you have kind of lost that thought and leave it to chance. I like Hipstamatic. In a sense, it’s quite parallel to film. You have to wait after 9 frames to take any more photos. I think what you shoot with influences this approach slightly. Also, we learn what to shoot and what to let go by shooting a lot. I think experience is another factor for me. It’s like a warrior with his sword. You need experience to decide when to do what; even if you know all the techniques. After a lot of practice you let your intuition guide you more. Every photographer searches for something. So what you search or see in that moment is going to always be different. So to be the master of the moment, you must practice and feel your environment. Then it becomes like you don’t even think when you shoot. It becomes natural. Am I at this point? No!!!
We learn what to shoot and what to let go by shooting a lot. It’s like a warrior with his sword. You need experience to decide when to do what; even if you know all the techniques.
– Elif Gulen
If you are new to Elif’s work, we encourage you to uncover more of her fantastic documentary of Istanbul on Instagram @fisheyedreams. Seriously.