“This book is dedicated to the bright people who were arbitrarily condemned and had to leave this beautiful land in the difficult times Turkey has gone through.”
An archive can contain unimaginable treasures. Browsing through it and discovering precious images almost never helps to rewrite history, but it can help to understand it and to investigate certain events.
Hayal & Hakikat – translated as Dream & Reality – collects images from the photo albums of Abdul Hamid II, 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who was known as Ulu Hakan (Divine Khan) by his supporters and as the Red Sultan by his opponents, such as the Young Turks and their foreign sympathizers. Abdul Hamid was responsible for the so-called Hamidian massacres, now considered the first phase of the Armenian genocide. For him, photography constituted a powerful means of showing the West his efforts to modernize Turkey, and beyond.
A great fan of detective novels – he invited Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, father of Sherlock Holmes, to Istanbul just to confer on him the Order of the Medjidie, usually reserved for members of the British army – and he read a pseudo-scientific information that claimed: ‘any criminal with the phalanx of the thumb longer than that of the index finger is naturally prone to murder’.
Cemre Yeşil Gönenli collects all these images and divides them into two categories: one in which we can deduce that the subjects are detained only by the fact that they appear in the album, the other in which the people photographed are constrained by metal chains. We do not see the face of any of them, which the author of the book has deliberately excluded, and therefore we cannot be conditioned by any facial expression. We see only the attitude of the hands, and from this we infer the personality of the subject.
This photographic treasure, though incapable of changing the course of history, or the fate – which we do not know – of those condemned to death, illuminates a particularly complex period for Turkey, during which ‘Dream and Reality’ often turned in upon themselves. In an era of repression and arbitrary detentions, these function as an open and free speech written through history – a silent protest.