In an exquisite volume published by Éditions André Frère, the photographer Mathias Depardon sheds light on Turkish culture and identity that extends beyond the country’s borders, evoking the hegemonic aspirations of the Ottoman Empire in a contemporary context.
Transanatolia. With its letters stretched across the cover, edge to edge, the title of Mathias Depardon’s book immediately hints at its subject: expansionism. Beneath the taut lettering, there is a map of the Ottoman Empire, red like a bleeding wound. Depicted at its height in 1683, it covered over one million square miles, compared to present-day Turkey’s surface of 300,000.
In his public appearances as well as his political actions, since 2012 the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been vocal about his desire to restore a Great Turkey. The ambition to unite all peoples of Turkic origin, fueled by the Young Turk leaders, emerged in the late nineteenth century. “Such origin myths continue to fascinate and unite: they form Turkey’s imaginary boundary,” writes journalist Guillaume Perrier in his Preface to the book.
Across space and history
Although Depardon is a regular reporter for the press, the message of the book is not journalistic. Rather, it is an invitation to discover this vast territory and its inhabitants. It takes us on a journey not just across space, but also through time, from districts so modern they resemble architectural models, to the ruins of Hasankeyf, going back twelve thousand years, and its bridge from the 12th century. This heritage has now been flooded by a dam on the Euphrates River, which has allowed Turkey to assert control over the neighboring countries dependent on the water supply. “This is a reminder of Turkey’s complex relationship with history which, at the same time, reveals its new identity,” commented Mathias Depardon.
The images are deliberately free of any captions, which makes for an uninterrupted visual journey. The passage across rocky mountain ranges to the sea takes place in pastel colors typical of this region. We encounter faces with varied features, often lost in thought, as if turned toward an uncertain future. “I wanted the reader to be able to wander within the book without knowing where they are at any given point until they reach the contextual appendix. The reader is plunged in the myth of expanded borders and given a sense of the complexity of the concept of Turkish identity,” explained Depardon.
Symbols replace words. Rather than name the pipeline that connects Turkey and Azerbaijan, an oil slick conjures up the map of a territory, an empire stretching from sea to sea and across continents. For Erdogan, “expansion is … a necessity, not as a form of empire-building, but as a form of Turkish domination,” notes the historian and political scientist Hamit Bozarslan in an interview in the final section of the book.
The opening image, showing a young archer in traditional costume intently aiming her arrow, brings to the fore the Ottoman era, along with a whiff of conquest. The photograph sets the tone and context for the book. Ditches, roads, and waterways that cut across landscapes also represent the idea of borderlines: this closing sequence of images seems to guide the trajectory of the arrow shot beyond territorial confines.
Despite Turkey’s dominant defensive (and sometimes offensive) politics stemming from the desire to avenge the past, conflicts never take center-stage in Mathias Depardon’s images. In Nagorno Karabakh, two tanks are meager intruders among green rolling mountains; elsewhere, a group of marine cadets are having a lively chat. “This distance helps me bring out the nuances,” explained the photographer. Subtly, symbolically, everything is present: the geopolitical tensions, ethnic diversity, major transformation projects, the backstage of power. Insightful texts framing the book fill in the details.
By Laurence Cornet
Laurence Cornet is the editorial manager at Dysturb, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent exhibition curator based in Paris.
Mathias Depardon, Transanatolia
Texts by Mathias Depardon, Guillaume Perrier, and Hamit Bozarslan
Éditions André Frère
208 pp, €45