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Monday, 11 October 2010

Chantal Zakari and Ataturk

Leaving behind the Turkish Meditteranean holiday snaps, but continuing on the Turkey theme, PhotoEye has an interesting inteview with Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari who have self-published The State of Ata, a "fascinating new self-published book from Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari exploring modern Turkey by following the pervasive imagery of the revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In this 250+ page book, Mandel and Zakari weave interviews, found images, documentary-style photographs, comics, and more to tell a complicated story about a diverse country still in transition."

Anyway, it's the latest in a new line in books examining the visual and political iconography of a national leader. The most interesting thing is the piece of theatre that developed when Zakari held up a picture of Ataturk during a demonstration and the subsequent fallout from that.

I am not sure what Ataturk really means in Turkey, or the convoluted significances he has that combine from  the past and present - but I am guessing that if anyone ever attempted to unravel the reality from the mythology, they would not be getting a warm welcome in Turkey anytime soon. This is from the interview and is an example of contested meanings at every stage.

PE:    This project got a lot of media attention inside of Turkey because of one action by Zakari and the media's reaction to it. Will you describe this event and tell how this affected the documentary project and book?

MM:    It's a rather amazing story, and certainly the significance of this whole spectacle needs to be recognized for what it was: an opportunity for the secular press to exploit the image of Chantal for their own anti-Islamist agenda. We were carrying framed pictures of Atatürk to put up in the hotel rooms where we staying along our trip, but that's another story: it was part of a performance that questioned the sanctity of the Atatürk icon, we certainly weren't putting up pictures of Atatürk in homage. Be that as it may, we did have these framed post cards, and while we were in Ankara on a Sunday morning we witnessed a street demonstration of Islamists who were protesting the government's new law for increased secular education. We quickly decided to make a picture of Chantal holding up one of the framed post cards of Atatürk. I found a concrete base of a light pole to climb up and get a better angle. Some of the Islamists reacted to Chantal with gestures and shouts. But there was no altercation, there were even some protesters who said that they, too, supported Atatürk. Chantal's gesture was, indeed, a statement in support of secularism. I made six pictures and in a few minutes it was over. Then we were gone. Little did we know that standing next to me on my light pole perch was a Reuters videographer that was keyed into Chantal's every move.

But that was in the morning. The march lasted until the afternoon, and there were converging throngs of protesters who coalesced and started roughing up the secular reporters. The police, who have a reputation for backing the Islamists, didn't stop the violence. So hours after our little photo event, all hell broke loose, the protest became violent, people were hurt. We were nowhere near this madness, as we had packed up and were on our way out of Ankara by then. But when the Reuters imagery of the lone, Western-looking young woman, holding up her picture of Atatürk to the angry marching Islamists was released, it was the perfect symbol for the media to run with. Chantal was proclaimed "The Courageous Girl," "The Girl of the Republic," "Brave Heart." The video was played endlessly on every TV station, all the newspapers were running with the story. When the reporters caught up with us in the little town of Goreme, all of a sudden there were dozens of reporters and photographers descending on us for more of the story of this brave Atatürk supporter. We ended up holding a press conference to try to clarify what we were doing and why. Yes, it was an image of secular support, but Chantal believed that everyone had a democratic right to speak, to protest, just not to become violent. The press edited it their own way to satisfy their agenda.

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