‘Around the Same Hills’

Photographer Mario Mattei tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures from Turkey's Black Sea region.

By / June 2012

There are no flat surfaces in the Çamlıhemşin Valley. Life is told in slant. Houses jut off the faces of shapely hills. Paths hug and bend, rise and fall around the same hills. Trees angle their arms as if they are trying to touch the top of the mountains above.

Even the people, especially those who have lived there the longest, people like Mehmet Demirci’s aunt, can’t be easily flattened with the labels of “old fashioned” or “antique.” Sure Alfe Altay lives in a home built with grandchildren and great-grandchildren in mind. Sure she wears clothes that are traditional and conservative. Sure she keeps a steady and harmonious relationship with her surrounding environment. Yet, as my wife and I experienced during our visit in March, she is anything but straight and sentimental.

Alfe is a fun and cheerful woman in her 70s. Hers is not a tired, weak voice. It has texture and vigor, similar to the accent of a Boston native. Her smile breaks clean and bright like the virgin snow when it scatters across the mountainsides. Her cane seems but a ruse for someone who still migrates to the plateau in the summer with her livestock.

Mario Mattei, 32, runs the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers and Visual Peace Media

She is genuinely interested to know about us, even though we’re outsiders. We talk over black tea late into the afternoon as embers in the nearby wood stove try to chase the cool air out of the room.

Despite the social distance maintained between male and females in Turkey, especially in a remote village, I can tell Alfe trusts me. This opens up the opportunity for me to take her picture when she isn’t necessarily expecting it. Instead of being startled, she chuckles and asks to see the image.

She is the sort of character a director dreams of forming a connection with as he sets out to make a documentary film. Someone who is distinctive. Someone who lets you in. Someone who represents a piece of the story you intend to tell.

This summer I will be filming a documentary called Dance the Past into the Future in the Çamlıhemşin Valley. Better yet, my family and I, and two others, will be living in Alfe’s family village throughout July and August as part of the project.

The lusciously green region in northeast Turkey has become something of a hotspot. Money flows as fast as the cement poured for new developments and attractions. People come from Ankara and Istanbul to soak in the hot springs and soar in helicopters tours. And yet, there are families like Alfe’s, who still live in 80-year-old chestnut wood homes on steep slopes and who maintain the centuries-old pattern of trekking to plateau highlands during the summer to dance, socialize, and graze livestock in the cooler weather.

The tension between modern progress and Hemsin culture is the line I hope to straddle in the film. I am curious how traditions are being passed on, forgotten, or adapted in an expanding environment. Some, nostalgic for what once was, might stubbornly hold onto the post. Others, intrigued by opportunities, might embrace change.

I began my professional life as a web designer and creative director. On the side, I pursued photography, published poetry, wrote fiction, invested in real estate, and recorded an EP with a rock band. I wanted to make something of myself. I liked the paycheck, the applause, the toys.

If you follow my work now as a photographer and storyteller, what you’ll find is that who I am becoming shapes what am doing. I’m trying to get out of the way. My photography is bigger than myself. I want to illuminate stories of hope, beauty, dignity and peace among cultures and people so as to make them seem less foreign and more familiar.


— as told to Brandon Hoops