Tarlabaşı: the dusk

Visual Sunday

Tarlabaşı has long been a neighbourhood where Turkey’s most marginalised communities live. Close to the prosperous heart of the city, the busy Istiklal Avenue, the area represents a different world, the world of ‘the other’. Since 1988, the traffic-heavy Tarlabaşı Boulevard has further divided these two worlds.

Over the last 10 years, the gap between Tarlabaşı and the center of Beyoğlu has increased, as Istiklal and the surrounding streets underwent steady gentrification. Most of the people who head to Istiklal for shopping, eating, drinking and clubbing would never cross the line and enter Tarlabaşı, which has come to be associated with prostitution, illegal immigrants, crime and drugs.

As a photographer, I was interested in portraying Tarlabaşı and its inhabitants. All my previous projects have dealt with the lives of people at the bottom of the social ladder. I try to shed light on the lives these people lead as society in general seems reluctant to even admit that they exist, let alone that they need help. With this project, I attempted to photograph the simple, day-to-day routines of those who live there.

Working and living conditions in Tarlabaşı are hard. The area’s once-elegant buildings are now in a state of decay, and the houses look abandoned with their broken windows and cracked staircases. Although the government’s plan was to renovate these historical buildings, most are now in a deplorable condition.

The residents have become victims not only of segregation and stigmatisation, but also of a radical, state-driven, gentrification. Under law 5366 (see more here), Istanbul’s municipality decided in 2007 to launch the “Tarlabaşı Renewal Project”, which was met with strong local opposition. Since then, many historical buildings have been destroyed.

Tarlabaşı is also a place where many different cultures and religions coexist. Kurds, Turks, Greeks and Roma people live side by side, as well as migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In addition, representatives of different sexual minorities, mainly transsexuals, have found a home in the neighbourhood.

I met a woman from Azerbaijan called Aigul. She came to Istanbul a few years ago to work, washing dishes in a cafe. She got married to a Turk and gave birth to two children. Because of the low rent, the family took a room in Tarlabaşı. In 2011, Aigul’s husband lost his job. The family did not have money to pay the rent, so they had to move to a room on the first floor of the a house that was not fit for living in. The family does not pay for the room, but it has neither light nor water. The compulsory eviction regulation is mostly affecting needy people with very low incomes; those who need social protection the most.


Tarlabaşı has come to be commonly associated with petty crime, prostitution and drug dealing. But, despite its bad reputation, the area is occupied mainly by working class people.

Life in this street seems to go on as usual. However, in accordance with the plans of the Tarlabaşı Renewal Project, these buildings will soon be demolished and the inhabitants will have to leave their homes.

Once, as I was walking in Tarlabaşı, I heard these young Kurdish musicians singing the well-known Kurdish song “Hey Dilbere”. The lyrics go like this: “It turned winter in my garden / Hey Dilbere / In this time there should be flowers instead / All my flowers and the garden vanished / My home is ruined”. In today’s Tarlabaşı, these words take on a very specific meaning.

The basic income for many residents in Tarlabaşı is collecting and sorting rubbish for further recycling. From this they earn small amounts of money, enough only for their basic needs and to sustain their families. They look for anything: paper and packaging thrown away by shop keepers, metal cans or plastic from bins and containers.

According to the government, Tarlabaşı’s reconstruction is to happen gradually, street by street. By now, those residents whose streets have already started being “renewed” have been evicted, while others remain, still living in their ruined houses and apartments. This is a woman baking bread for her family using traditional methods.

Only about one hundred metres from Tarlabaşı is Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue with its expensive shops and restaurants. Tarlabaşı’s residents often cross the virtual border between the two worlds. Many of them will never tell you that they live in Tarlabaşı, because they are ashamed of their social status. That is why the young man in the picture covers the lens with his hand.

Up to 278 buildings will be demolished to make way for a high-end construction project which will include residential houses, offices, hotels and a shopping mall. Property owners are enforced to sell their apartments for very little and move to distant suburbs. Some tenants are trying to stay on until the very end, regardless of the fact that the properties have already been sold to private interests. Many of them cannot afford to rent places in other areas, and some are concerned about losing their jobs near Tarlabaşı. A young woman who preferred to stay anonymous said: “I have been living in this house for almost 20 years. When the reconstruction project begins, I will have to move somewhere else. Why? Why do I have to leave my home?”

Tarlabaşı is one of few places in Istanbul where transsexuals have found a safe haven. Turkish society is in many ways socially conservative, and transsexuals are met with discrimination, mockery and attacks. But in Tarlabaşı – often the only place in the city where they can find apartments to rent – the community feels relatively safe.

Chaila (Çağla), a transsexual, has lived in Tarlabaşı for many years. Until 2012, she was working in a venue called “Mini bar”, standing everyday at the entrance attracting passersby to come inside and have a drink. Sometimes she entertained the audience by singing songs. The money she earned covered her rent in an apartment she was sharing with a friend, also transsexual. But, soon after the reconstruction began, the bar was closed and then demolished, and Chaila was forced to work on the street. “What can I do? I don’t have a choice,” she says.

Many men in Tarlabaşı find it difficult, even impossible, to have a family because the money they earn is not enough to provide for a household. There are also those who have wives and children back in their villages, whom they can only afford to visit a few times every year. This man lives on his own in a small room decorated with Hollywood movie posters and a portrait of Che Guevara.

After the reconstruction started, crime in Tarlabasi increased. Street lighting was reduced, and many people who still live in the area say that this caused the crime rate to rise.

The fate of Angela, the Russian woman in this photo, is tragic. She arrived in Istanbul a few years ago to try and make a living in the city. At first she worked in a night club, but after sustaining a serious trauma and health problems, she had to quit that job. After that she worked in a cafe, washing the dishes, but now she earns her living by collecting rubbish in the streets. Her boyfriend, also an immigrant, used to be her sole support. Sadly, he died as a result of an accident in prison after being arrested. Angela now lives on her own, in a small, dirty room. To pay for it, her friends help her out. She dreams of returning to Russia, but she does not have enough money for the ticket.

In 2014, when the reconstruction is scheduled to be finished, Tarlabaşı will be “The Champs Elysée of Istanbul”, an expression often used by Beyoğlu mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan. 

These photos were taken in 2012 across Tarlabaşı; the text was edited by Adam McMahon. 


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