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When Serra Akcan and Çiğdem Ücüncü arrived in Wilson as artists in residence for the Eyes on Main Street photographic project, they wondered where all the people were.
It’s really not surprising though, as Wilson, a city of 50,000 residents, is tiny compared to Istanbul, Turkey, with its 15 million residents.
“It is exciting, I didn’t know anything about Wilson. It is our first time in North Carolina,” said Akcan. “When we came here, it was a bit shocking for us because it was about street photography, but in general there were not many people on the streets. It was kind of empty, like an abandoned town.”
In the first few days, Akcan and Ücüncü walked east and walked west from their downtown apartment on Nash Street.
“We started to meet with people, and they were very welcoming everywhere,” Akcan said.
When they encountered blinds drawn, they knocked on the doors anyway. People started recognizing them as the new Eyes on Main Street photographers.
“People started talking about their town, their lives,” Akcan said. “It welcomed us.”
Back home in Istanbul, Akcan and Ücüncü are part of a growing collective of photographers called NarPhotos. Akcan and three colleagues started the agency in 2003 with a focus on Syrian refugees, migrants, minorities, women’s rights issues, ethnic minorities and other points of interest around Istanbul and eastern Turkey. NarPhotos sells images to newspapers and magazines around the world.
One of Akcan’s images of a woman walking between two trees on a snowy mountain in Turkey was among the images selected to appear in the 2018 Eyes on Main Street photo festival. That led to the photographers coming for the month of January. They are the 20th and 21st photographers to be invited to serve as artists in residence.
In Wilson, the photographers soon decided to make the women of the community the focal point of their project.
“Since we are two women, we are sensitive to the topic of women’s issues, so we were deciding on what we could do in this short amount of time. We have one month. What is efficient for us? And what do we have right now?” Ücüncü said.
“That was the strongest thing we had in our hands, so we decided to work on that.”
Their approach was to go wherever community members gathered.
“One of the first things we did was we went to the mosque,” Ücüncü said. “The women in the mosque are very powerful and strong people and had powerful views on women’s roles in society.”
They went to churches and noticed that in some cases, there were women pastors.
“It was really new to us,” Ücüncü said. “It was nice to see women in these positions.” They went to an NAACP meeting and listened to the different issues regarding life in Wilson.
“We met many women who talk about what they want to change in society,” Ücüncü said. “These are also the people we could make strong bonds with.”
Akcan and Ücüncü made friends and they discovered that in many ways, the people in their home country were much like the people here.
“The things they said are really getting to us,” Ücüncü said.
They would sit down to dinner with the women and their families and enjoy the fellowship, sometimes going a few days without making pictures.
“It is not only photography for us.” Ücüncü said. “We try to learn something about ourselves and about the place we are in.”
Ücüncü said she makes the best pictures when she is having a good time.
“Photography is like a door that opens to the world,” Akcan said.
Akcan and Ücüncü are listening as well as seeing.
“We don’t just do photographs. We also have audio recordings of the people in which we ask them about life in Wilson and women’s roles in society,” Ücüncü said. “The women were talking to us and the things they said were very powerful, almost like they were preaching.”
The recordings are used to extract quotes that will be used alongside the women’s portraits.
“This is how we usually work in Turkey as well. If you see our website, there are long captions with quotes of the people in the pictures,” Ücüncü said. “In the first place, we are not just photographers, we are storytellers, so this is our approach. It has always been like that.”
Their past work can be found at www.NarPhotos.net. Their photos from Wilson will be displayed there as well as in this year’s Eyes on Main Street festival from April 27 through Aug. 4 in Wilson.
They said they were honored to join the growing list of photographers who have participated in the photo festival, now in its fifth year.
“Everybody is working in a different kinds of photography, and this is really exciting,” Akcan said. “It’s a small town, and it is really good to see photographers from all over the world and doing something different. It’s a challenge. I think it is really an opportunity for everyone who is working in this field going out from her or his zone — coming here, trying something new, looking from your vision and telling about the town.”
For more on Eyes on Main Street, visit www.eyesonmainstreetwilson.com.