Istanbul at Dawn
“A city does not mean a couple of windows and a door frame. A city means a place where people love to live, where people get a certain flavor out of living. Those are the places I love to photograph.” Ara Güler, Turkish photojournalist
Istanbul has a wondrous flavour to it. Even if you’ve never been to the city, I am certain you will hold a picture in your mind of what it looks like. The idea of the city has a magical reputation.
Standing on the Galata Bridge, surrounded by the dark strong seas, the city rising up over the densely packed hills and with the awe-inspiring mosques and ancient buildings, you hear the call to prayer echoing out over the waters, and you think: here people have lived and loved and worked for two thousand years. It makes your spine tingle.
The idea of this physical link between my European world and the mystical East has made it a city I’ve wanted to photograph for so long. And last spring I started my photo journey there.
I love to enter into these pockets of the world that feel so completely unknown to me, peering in to see how people live, how they have built their city, what they have chosen to keep, to treasure, to glorify in the places that are theirs.
So I obviously get up very early to start shooting. I am out the door a couple of hours before dawn, and that can be 2am sometimes. I don’t do it because I love getting up – I’m really a night owl and this totally goes against my nature – but because wandering empty streets and watching the beauty of a new day beginning is one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth.
There are always surprises in the cities I visit, something unexpected that I don’t know about. In Istanbul it was the vibrant nightlife of the dogs of Istanbul. Lots and lots of dogs.
I have always been a dog lover. Cats for that matter too, but if I had to choose I’d rather hang around dogs. Better companions, full stop.
This to me is the nature of the cat, the lone predator, needing no-one. The streets, this life, that’s enough.
I arrived in Istanbul one night last April. I hadn’t seen the city by any light other than the arc sodium of the freeway. And so by morning I was ready to explode with anticipation!
Leaving my hotel I was immediately swallowed up by the cold, black thick air. As I walked the silent streets I quickly realized that I would not be alone this morning; outside my hotel I saw a huge dog lift her raggy head, stare up at me, get up, stretch and start walking alongside me.
This dog followed me all morning, a good 3 hours. When I stopped to put down my tripod, she would halt to smell the flowers, take a leak or just lie down while I shot. I was smitten.
We picked up a few of her friends along the way and by the time the city finally woke I had a posse of four legged companions. Then as the streets started to fill they started to wander off, no goodbyes.
After I finish my early morning shooting I usually return to sleep for few hours. It’s a lovely time to sleep because I am shattered, and my body takes over and just turns off the lights to my brain. On waking I was ready to go scouting the city, looking for new spots to shoot in the coming days and, of course, find some tasty lunch.
I came out of my hotel, this time to a vibrant bustling city and once again my friend was in her spot. I went over and said hello. She partially opened the one eye she was not lying on, then immediately closed it. So much for an afternoon walk together, I thought. As I walked further on, I spotted her doggy friends – and they were all sleeping, like big lumps of unmotivated fur. Not a twitch. Not a glance.
And there the pattern was set – every morning she would wake as I came out and walk with me for the morning hours and her friends (mine now too) would join us. And in the afternoons she would ignore my solicitations and just sleep.
It’s estimated that there are over a hundred thousand stray dogs in the city. Over the centuries they haven’t always been welcome by the rulers of the city, sometimes being subjected to sweeps of capture and expulsion. But now, the government round them up, vaccinate and fix them, before releasing them back onto the streets.
It’s highly unusual to have a dog as a pet in Istanbul, but in most neighbourhoods the doors are looked after by people who almost ‘adopt’ the stray dogs, leaving them food and water, and sometimes making beds or their sleeping areas more cosy. There are also legions of stray cats too and we often passed what looked like little cat hotels, little structures with lots of little cosy holes for the cats to sleep in.
So these friendly dogs get to rule the streets at night and roam – full of energy, playing, chasing, with much licking of body parts.
A few months later I was in Istanbul teaching a photo workshop at dawn, and again we attracted a group of doggy friends.
One dog, though, stayed very close, watching me with big sad hazel eyes. I thought she might be hungry, so I offered some snacks. She wasn’t interested. After an hour of shooting the dog pack moved on, but not her. She followed us from the old city of Sultanahmet, all the way to Kadikoy across the Galata Bridge, about 4 kilometres.
We stopped for some breakfast and she waited patiently while we feasted on tea and baklava. Outside the café it started to rain but she just waited, getting wet, until we were finished. We were tired and ready for rest, but it was a long way back to Sultanahmet so myself and a few others decided to take the tram back.
Others in the group wished to walk back and a conversation started about how to get our furry friend back to her home. “She is not lost”, I claimed. “Of course not,” they said. “But she looks so sad, she can tell we are done.”
Those big hazel eyes were pleading for friendship, to continue our exploration – how could we let it end!
The group split into those walking and those taking the tram. We were all in suspense about her reaction. She glanced back and forth between those heading to the bridge and those going to the tram stop. With one last glance at the tram takers she padded over to those going over the bridge back to Sultanahmet and stood by them. Obvious choice really for a dog. She didn’t have a tram ticket!
I was told when they got back she met some friends from the morning and ran off to do dog stuff.
It wasn’t until I got back to London and started editing my pictures that I realized I had met her before. She was the same dog from my first trip! Same sad eyes. I do hope I find her again or she finds me. This time I will remember her.
“Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.” Orhan Pamuk
Thank you for reading the first of my newsletter sharing stories and photos from my travels.
Next week I’ll be bringing you photos and stories on the dramatic weather and the odd people I meet in my dawn travels in Istanbul.