‘My Excitable Eyes’

Photographer Pamela Ross tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of her favorite pictures from Istanbul

By / June 2012

Let’s go here. Let’s go there. More instinct than design. This was the mantra that my friend Adde sounded from the moment we took to the streets with our cameras around seven in the morning. The sun tracked our every movement that day as we hunted for pictures and met locals. It was new. It was beautiful. But it was tiring. My feet didn’t have the stamina of my excitable eyes, and a little after seven that night I was ready to call it a day.

The challenge was that we had wandered ourselves a little dizzy and stumbled into a neighborhood with a lot of trash-covered streets and crumbling houses. We didn’t know where we were. At first we were a little afraid because people came to us and told us this place can be dangerous at night. But since a little daylight remained, we took it as an opportunity to push through our tiredness and fears to experience a part of Turkey not many people get to know.

The buildings here had age. Some had been removed, others seemed to be awaiting a similar fate, wearing their pinks, greens, and blues like cracked and faded mascara. What signs of life remained were carried in the music that echoed through the cavernous streets and in the jeans, t-shirts, and sheets that hung from a web of clotheslines that spanned the divide between many windows above our heads.

Pamela Ross, 30, was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, where she works as a project manger for an online business.

Eventually, we turned a corner and saw a father holding his son’s hand. The scene made me stop. Here in the midst of a broken neighborhood was a family sticking together. I made eye contact and smiled. The father smiled back and waited as I got down on a knee to take their picture. I had a 50mm lens and was standing a bit far away, but that allowed me to get the background into the frame. After I took the picture, I gave another appreciative smile and we all walked our separate ways.

Adde and I later learned that this area is known as Tarlabasi, and, in the eyes of many Istanbullus, it’s nothing but a shantytown that sours the look and feel of city life near Taksim Square. Hence, there is a large effort by the government to transform it into something nicer.

The travel guidebook didn’t tell us anything good about Istanbul. It talked about this mosque and that mosque, a third mosque, and a fourth mosque. I remember thinking, “This city has a lot of mosques.” The book was sterile. It didn’t humanize the city.

Tarlabasi has since become a special place to me. Adde and I returned several times during this weekend trip and a more recent one in April. The funny thing is that we almost never got there. Istanbul was something of a backup plan. Initially we had planned to go to Iceland. We had second thoughts when we found out that it was winter and that a lot of places were closed. Someone suggested Istanbul, and, since it’s only a three-hour flight from Hamburg, we just booked a flight and went there for the weekend.

You have to look for Istanbul. You have to discover it. You can’t be content to dogear glossy pages or blend in with tourists. You have to feel for the pulse, even if it’s a little offbeat or fading; it will bring you to life.


–as told to Brandon Hoops