Engaging strangers on the street has always intimidated me. In this rare instance, photographing strangers in Istanbul turned into something much more than overcoming my fears.

lifestyle travel istanbul taksim square family

While standing on the Metropolitan Avenue platform waiting for the G train to arrive, I reached inside my purse for my wallet only to discover it was gone. A few moments earlier, on a very crowded L train, a stranger’s hand had been creepily close to my waist and bag, but I foolishly chose to ignore it, hoping that this deranged man’s groping was relatively harmless. I feared that confronting him would only escalate this situation.

Now, standing on the train platform, I realized that my wallet had been stolen and what a mistake it was to not acknowledge the discomfort I was facing on the train. I was devastated despite the fact that there was hardly any cash in my wallet. Actually there was quite a bit of cash in my wallet, but it came in the form of euros, Turkish Lira and Croatian Kuna. More important than my collection of international currencies was an email address of a girl I met in Istanbul a few weeks prior. She wanted me to send her all the pictures I had taken of her family and neighbors outside their homes in the quiet streets nearby Taksim Square. Though she and her family knew no English and I had mistakenly left my Turkish phrase book back in my hostel, we still were able to communicate for well over an hour and I made a promise to send them all these images as soon as I returned to the States.

lifestyle travel istanbul street kids

I arrived in Istanbul alone. I had already been traveling by myself for about three weeks and every country I arrived in provided its own set of challenges and adventures for a solo female traveler. On one of my first days in the city, I decided to walk out the hostel door with no direction in mind and just photograph whatever I happen to stumble upon. In many ways, Taksim Square is Istanbul’s equivalent to Times Square, however just outside of its glitzy shopping streets, buildings with crumbling facades and piles of rubble dominate the view. Camera in hand, I decided to wander into this territory to see what I might find.

lifestyle travel istanbul taksim square street

Initially I was nervous walking through such an area with an expensive piece of equipment out in the open, but my worries were quickly dissolved. Pretty early into my meandering, a group of three men enthusiastically asked me in Turkish and hand gestures to take their photo. One of the three wasn’t too into the idea of having his portrait taken and hid behind a newspaper. Still, the playful teasing of his friends yielded for a fun snapshot of our whole exchange. Their apparent pleasure gave me the courage to begin asking other people if I could take their portrait, though courage wasn’t a necessary ingredient. Everywhere I turned smiling faces and beckoning hands motioned for photographs. With little linguistic commonalities, I found that my camera enabled me to engage with these strangers, getting to know them all the same despite our inability to speak to one another. We were able to joke, to relate, to convey key elements of our cultural backgrounds all through poses and gesticulation.

lifestyle travel istanbul street photography

In between avenues of fallen buildings were vibrant streets filled with kids playing while their parents sat on the stoops watching and making crafts. Many old men would gather together in chairs in the middle of the street, gossiping and smoking. More and more people would ask me to take their picture, and I got a lot of amazing shots of families hanging out, posing together, interacting and goofing off.

lifestyle travel istabul taksim square

I came to a less populated street where I eventually stumbled across a group of a few families with about a dozen kids younger than twelve. The kids saw me down the street  photographing buildings and a large group rushed up to me posing without introduction, running around, grabbing each other, and leading me further down the road to where their parents were sitting. The kids were incredibly interactive with the photo shoot, as they kept striking poses, asking to look at my pictures and trying to talk to me in Turkish.

lifestyle travel istanbul girl

In the middle of this terrific chaos, the parents invited me to come sit down with them, pulling out an extra chair for me among their group. We were sitting in front of their homes, which was hard for me to believe as the buildings looked like the remnants of a war zone, gray, precariously balanced slabs of concrete, dust, rubble, garbage all defining the neighborhood as hedges and picket fences define the suburbs.

One woman entered her home and gave me a small blanket to cover my knees and thighs revealed by my sundress, and a glass bottle of Coca Cola with a straw. For the next hour, the families and I had a ton of fun trying to speak to one another in Turkish and English since they knew about as much of my language as I did theirs. One older man, a grandfather of many of the children, was utterly confused as to why I did not have a husband and children of my own. This question and answer process took at least twenty minutes. It’s a complex question to answer with hand gestures, but I tried to convey that 21 was not a common age for such things in the United States, at least not anymore.

lifestyle travel istanbul children

Before I got ready to leave, they took pictures of me with the kids, one of the fathers was goofing off pretending a nearby parked Ford sedan was his, and the mothers and grandparents all were trying to communicate with me while all the kids kept posing and playing around. It was then that a slightly older girl offered me her email address, much to the excitement of her family, with the intention that I send her the photos I had taken. I don’t know how these homes became so decrepit, but as with everything in Istanbul, the blocks and blocks of absolutely destroyed homes seemed to go on forever, to where the hills eventually sloped down into the sea.

lifestyle travel istanbul street

We all had so much fun together even though we couldn’t really speak to one another. Now, two years later I still am sitting on all these images, and these photographs from Istanbul are among my favorites I have ever taken. With no name and no address, tracking down the families I photographed has been impossible. I could still tell you how to walk to their neighborhood from Taksim Square, and I could easily do it myself if I ever have the opportunity to return. Hopefully the people I met weren’t too disappointed by my failure to reach them, but I am certain they would be over joyed if they ever got to see these portraits.

lifestyle travel istanbul street photography group


[All images by Amanda Picotte]