Eylül Aslan’s work is the perfect mix of charged spontaneity and unapologetic boldness. Her images are unusual in composition. She values genuine self-expression, regardless of societal norms. The Berlin-based Turkish photographer seems to find comfort in the absurd, and it shows in her work. She speaks of her craft, and what it stands for, in this interview.
How did your upbringing affect your views on women and, later on, your photographic work?
My parents divorced when I was around three years old and I lived with my mother, who is a politician. She has spent all her life fighting for the women’s rights in Turkey, which is a very difficult thing to achieve in such a patriarchal society in which women are constantly treated as second class citizens, not allowed to go to school or to have a job or even to speak her mind. I grew up in a liberal household but I was surrounded by the inequalities women had to face every day. I know a lot of girls who are living prison lives. And they are forced to fit in boxes given by the society. I hardly know people who are truly themselves, it is almost as though everybody has a mask of their own. I hated that and I always yearned to be free and to be able to freely express myself. So I found that through photography. I guess I started taking photos in a way to have a second secret life. In my self portraits I could be who I really am inside and my relatives or our neighbors would not know about it because they could not see the photos. My extended family does not even know that I am a photographer, they think I am a house wife. Because my father does not really approve of what I do as a photographer. He does not even try and understand it. Which makes me want to do it even more, I guess as an act of rebellion against all the norms that are forced upon us, the Turkish girls.
All of your pictures tell some kind of story, yet not in an obvious way. Do you take this into consideration when taking a shot? Is it important that the viewer understands your photography from their own perspective?
Yes, sometimes I do and sometimes I do not. But of course very often the viewer understands a completely different thing than I had expected and that is the best part about it. It is great that anyone could interpret it in different ways. My photography is (as I always say) all about me, my stories, experiences, feelings, dreams, fantasies. It is purely selfish. But when people find things for themselves in them, that just makes me happy.
What is it about the female body that makes it both beautiful and intriguing to you?
I guess purely because I come from a culture where the female (not only the body but also as an entity) is such taboo that I got curious and interested in it. Anything forbidden or secret is just automatically interesting (at least for me). It is probably also because I first started with self portraits and I was my own first muse and I happened to be a woman too so I continued from there and ended up where I am now.
Your photographs seem to appear as a constant game between strong sexuality and pure playfulness. Is this a hard balance to attain?
No, it feels very natural to me.
Do you believe there is a thin line between oversexualizing and empowering the female body, or not so much?
Yes, of course there is a thin line. But then again it is subjective and depends solely on the perspective of the viewer. I am overall against the idea that people should be scared of being seen naked. I still do not understand why it is always a big scandal if some celebrity has naked photos online or that a politician had a sex affair etc. We are so afraid of having our privacy exposed. Personally I think everyone would relax a bit more and have better lives if nobody gave a damn. It is a shame that we are so ashamed of the most natural things in life.
What are you particularly careful of when taking a photograph?
Not pushing the button until I am sure it is the right photo.
You have photographed in many different locations and various countries. How do the different cities inspire your work?
I often hear that people cannot really differentiate which photo was taken where. They say the photos look like they could all be from the same location. Which is a very nice compliment because then it means I do have a language that belongs to my photography and that people can recognize my work. So maybe my answer is that it does not really matter where I go, as long as I can stay true to myself I will make good photos. And it is always inspiring to travel because it gives me new sensations and I feel differently than I normally do at home and then I get different, new ideas.
In this era in which digital photography is used by the vast majority of photographers, what is it that makes you stick with film photography?
Actually I do not only work with film. I also love digital and sometimes prefer digital photography for different reasons. It is faster, less risky ( you are always able to tell what the result will be and you can always Photoshop though I am not good at it- yet), you can also show the client during the photo shoot what has been happening so far. They are just different experiences, so it is about a choice, a decision. I am more connected to film photography emotionally. Because when I first started, I started with my mother’s old camera. And I also enjoy the excitement of waiting to see the result. But in the end it is about taking photos and I do not really care if it is with a digital camera or a phone or whatever.
You have two works of yours published. What is the biggest difference between the first Trauerweide and this most recent one, Dear Slut?
Trauerweide was published in 2013 by Editions du LIC and it is my first book. The title, Trauerweide (Weeping Willow) serves as an oblique and coded reference to traditional Islamic dress. The veiled form of the tree serves as a symbol for the fragility and sadness of women whilst simultaneously presenting hope through its traditional associations with flexibility, freedom and endurance. This duality mirrors the conflict at the heart of my work; an intriguing dichotomy caused by the need to appear behind a mask or veil (without the freedom of self-expression) but the desire to use art as a creative vehicle for advocacy. And Dear Slut was published in 2015 by Editions Bessard and it is the number 25 of a zine collection. The title is the opening of my letter written to all the women who are criticized by others because they lead independent and free lives, therefore being labelled by them. They are both about women but in different forms. I decided on the layout of the photos of Dear Slut and the text was written by me as well, so I would say I was more involved in the process of the making of the book. I would like to self publish my third book and this time I would like to work on some different ideas.
What are you most proud of when looking at your work?
That my photos make me so happy and that people love my photos as much as I love them.
Do you believe in the power of photography to change the society?
Yes, because seeing is stronger than any other sense. Somehow words are not always enough but when you show someone a photo, they can understand better.
What is, in general, the message that you would like to get across through your photography?
That is always up to the viewer!