Documenting the lives and passions of Istanbul’s birdmen, entirely devoted to the care and training of their most precious companions: beautifully singing birds.
“For birds’ sake” is a photo book and exhibition by Turkish photographer and Romanian photographers Cemre Yesil and Maria Sturm. The book is intriguing: to see the pictures you first have to unzip a small piece of fabric that wraps around it. Then, you dive into an unknown, almost secret, universe: the community of men in Istanbul who catch birds and take care of them in order to compete in singing competitions during the summer.
More than a hobby, the bird lovers speak of an addiction. With an intimate touch, the book portrays the birdmen and the places where they gather, but without showing the actual object of their passion: the birds. Mashallah News asked Cemre Yesil and Maria Sturm some questions about their work.
How did you get to collaborate with each other?
We met in 2012 during a residency program and workshop with Antoine d’Agata at Atelier de visu in Marseille where we lived and worked together for a month. We have stayed in touch ever since. Then, we saw each other again in London in 2013 where Cemre showed a YouTube clip of a birdman imitating the [whistling of a] bird. As a photographer, you’re usually always on your own, so it was really nice to work together. We took the pictures in 2014 and edited the work in 2015.
Was it easy or hard to approach the bird enthusiasts and immerse yourselves into this world?
It was hard to find the birdmen in the beginning. When we asked for birdmen, people would refer us to pigeon keepers. But once we found the first cafe [where they usually meet], one thing led to another: we connected with a group of birdmen who later took us to a competition where we met others, and so on.
What do you know about the roots of this tradition in Turkey?
For hundreds of years, Istanbul has been a very important city for aviculture. The city’s geographical location as a transit point on the migratory routes between Africa and Europe led to the establishment of a huge culture dedicated to birds and their care. All kinds of social platforms exist, for example those devoted to the keeping and breeding of birds. This is a culture originally rooted in the Greek community, who lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, and was then adopted by Turkish men throughout time. Many birdmen today have been fascinated by birds since they were little boys. It was their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and so on who would take them to catch birds on the hills of Istanbul.
Why did you choose to not show birds but only portray cages in your pictures?
The birdmen hide the birds under pieces of garment covering their cages in order to make them sing more beautifully. So the secrecy was already there, as photographers we then kept it in our project. For us, photographing something hidden is very attractive and inviting. We really liked the idea that the bird instead would appear in the mind of the viewer. Of course, we had access to photograph the actual birds if we wanted to, but not showing them was a conceptual decision we made. To put it simply, we were amazed by this relationship between a man and a box in a world stuffed with representations of birds.
“If you’re a birdman, you can only come to a cafe if your bird is a good singer, otherwise it might teach the other birds a bad tune.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the birdmen community in Istanbul? Where do they meet? When and where do the contests take place?
For the birdmen, this is an escape from everyday life, which then turns into a life-long journey. They often say that the hobby is an addiction, rather than stating a specific reason for being attracted to it. It’s all about listening to the singing of the birds. It can also be considered as a way of meditating; something they need to do in order to feel good. They also socialise around this lifestyle; they meet in cafes in different neighbourhoods of Istanbul, sometimes for singing competitions; other times only to listen to each other’s birds.
All over Istanbul, there are only a few designated birdmen cafes. The men usually meet there on the weekends, and the contests take place there during summer and during the singing season of the birds. What is interesting is that the men interact through their birds. If you’re a birdman, you can only come to a cafe if your bird is a good singer, otherwise it might teach the other birds a bad tune.