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Interviews: Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari

State of Ata. Photographs by Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari.
Published by Eighteen Publications, 2011.
State of Ata: An Interview with Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari

The State of Ata is a fascinating new self-published book from Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari exploring modern Turkey by following the pervasive imagery of the revolutionary leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In this 250+ page book, Mandel and Zakari weave interviews, found images, documentary-style photographs, comics, and more to tell a complicated story about a diverse country still in transition.  In preparation for the lecture and book signing for The State of Ata on October 5th at photo-eye Gallery, we were able to get in a few questions with the authors.

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photo-eye:    Why did you choose the figure of Atatürk as the focus of the a documentary project Chantal Zakari's native land of Turkey?

Mike Mandel:     The State of Ata is a little like a combo of [Lee] Friedlander's appreciation of the American monument and [Robert] Frank's curiosity about the icons that might symbolize a time in this country's zeitgeist. In this instance, when Chantal explained to me the ubiquitous presence of the public imagery of Atatürk, the dead leader of the Turkish revolution subsequent to the Ottoman collapse after World War I, and how his imagery has become embroiled in the contest between secularism and political Islam in Turkey. It seemed like a natural opportunity for Chantal and me, Turk and American, to initiate a project together from the perspective of outsider/insider. For those that do not know much about Atatürk, after World War One when the Ottomans were on the losing side, Anatolia (what we now know as Turkey) was invaded by the British, French, Italians and Greeks. Atatürk rallied the people and lead the War of Independence. In 1923 with the declaration of the new Republic he was elected the first president. Tolerant of minimal political opposition, and with a firm control of the military, he remained in power until his death in 1938. During the 15 years of his leadership he transformed the country into a modern and secular state modeled after European states. His reforms include the adoption of the Latin script, the Gregorian calendar, and the hat reform, which banned the fez. He also banned the wearing of religious clothing by clerics in public. Perhaps the most important reform was the abolition of the Caliph, the leader of Sunni Islam.


PE:    Zakari, you mention in the introduction that Mandel's input as an outsider was valuable when looking at one particular image of Atatürk. How else did Mandel's view help to mold the 12-year project?

Chantal Zakari:    Mike was able to see the obvious because he had no personal connection to this symbol. For me each image was connected to a narrative, each one had a story, the moment he tells his troops to attack, the time he stood in front of a crowd to teach the new alphabet, etc. I could not see these images as anything else but signifiers to markers of the revolution. Where as Mike looked at them as simply as photographs. He would notice the unusual green shadow on an illustration. One time he looked at a large cut out shape that was on the side of a building and asked me if it was a map. To me it was obvious that it was the silhouette of Atatürk.

State of Ata, by MIKE MANDEL AND CHANTAL ZAKARI. Published by Eighteen Publications, 2010.
But there were also cultural differences. In Ankara for example, I might not have stood in front of a crowd of Islamists. Mike, instead, saw the situation as a great opportunity to make a picture of two contrasting symbols. As the outsider he was naive to the political implications and the risks. But, of course, neither of us could have guessed that this gesture would be picked up by the press and turned into the spectacle that it became.

Of course Mike's background as a photographer was an important part of our work. He used a variety of camera formats 4x5, Polaroid, 35mm film, and digital. From a technological standpoint the photographs in the book cover much of the history of photography and photographic reproduction. Mike brings his photographic aesthetic and understanding into the project.


PE:    This project got a lot of media attention inside of Turkey because of one action by Zakari and the media's reaction to it. Will you describe this event and tell how this affected the documentary project and book?

MM:    It's a rather amazing story, and certainly the significance of this whole spectacle needs to be recognized for what it was: an opportunity for the secular press to exploit the image of Chantal for their own anti-Islamist agenda. We were carrying framed pictures of Atatürk to put up in the hotel rooms where we staying along our trip, but that's another story: it was part of a performance that questioned the sanctity of the Atatürk icon, we certainly weren't putting up pictures of Atatürk in homage. Be that as it may, we did have these framed post cards, and while we were in Ankara on a Sunday morning we witnessed a street demonstration of Islamists who were protesting the government's new law for increased secular education. We quickly decided to make a picture of Chantal holding up one of the framed post cards of Atatürk. I found a concrete base of a light pole to climb up and get a better angle. Some of the Islamists reacted to Chantal with gestures and shouts. But there was no altercation, there were even some protesters who said that they, too, supported Atatürk. Chantal's gesture was, indeed, a statement in support of secularism. I made six pictures and in a few minutes it was over. Then we were gone. Little did we know that standing next to me on my light pole perch was a Reuters videographer that was keyed into Chantal's every move.

State of Ata, by MIKE MANDEL AND CHANTAL ZAKARI. Published by Eighteen Publications, 2010.
But that was in the morning. The march lasted until the afternoon, and there were converging throngs of protesters who coalesced and started roughing up the secular reporters. The police, who have a reputation for backing the Islamists, didn't stop the violence. So hours after our little photo event, all hell broke loose, the protest became violent, people were hurt. We were nowhere near this madness, as we had packed up and were on our way out of Ankara by then. But when the Reuters imagery of the lone, Western-looking young woman, holding up her picture of Atatürk to the angry marching Islamists was released, it was the perfect symbol for the media to run with. Chantal was proclaimed "The Courageous Girl," "The Girl of the Republic," "Brave Heart." The video was played endlessly on every TV station, all the newspapers were running with the story. When the reporters caught up with us in the little town of Goreme, all of a sudden there were dozens of reporters and photographers descending on us for more of the story of this brave Atatürk supporter. We ended up holding a press conference to try to clarify what we were doing and why. Yes, it was an image of secular support, but Chantal believed that everyone had a democratic right to speak, to protest, just not to become violent. The press edited it their own way to satisfy their agenda.


State of Ata, by MIKE MANDEL AND CHANTAL ZAKARI. Published by Eighteen Publications, 2010.
The story was front-page news for the next ten days. Everywhere we went as we walked the streets of Izmir, Chantal's hometown, she was recognized almost immediately. And usually there were gestures of support: flowers, embraces from strangers on the street. We couldn't pay for a cab ride or a meal. Chantal had overnight become the Turkish Princess Diana. We had come to Turkey to recognize the significance of Atatürk's imagery, we hadn't counted on Chantal becoming another symbol. What a strange twist of irony. And then, when the press found out that Chantal wasn't a Muslim, but a member of the Levantine Christian minority it opened up all kinds of new commentaries about who has the right to call oneself a Turk. When 99% of the population is Muslim, can a Christian claim the mantle of Atatürk? The religious press analyzed the video as a conspiratorial plot. Chantal was looking back at someone before she pulled out the Atatürk picture. Was it her CIA handler who was trying to divide the Turkish people? I'm not making this up. If the religious press had only known that I was a Jew, well, then they would have really had a story to tell. We were scheduled to go on a live national news commentary in Istanbul, along the lines of Charlie Rose. We thought, "we have to get all this calmed down." But in the end we were convinced that we would have put ourselves in more danger than we already were in if we went on TV again. Already I had been out photographing at night and someone had thrown a big liter bottle of water from a third storey window that just missed me. So not everyone was with us, and we were in danger if someone just went off. As we write in the book, "It was time to leave the symbols behind and reenter our lives."


PE:    Why did you choose to self-publish this book? Was this your first venture in to self-publishing and, for Mandel in particular, how did this differ from working with a publisher?

MM:    We self-published the book because we had worked on the project for twelve years, and we were going to publish the book one way or the other. Only one publisher made us an offer to publish and they required that we pay all the printing expenses and then, even if all the books sold, we'd still have lost money on the project. So, when D.A.P. agreed to distribute the book if we published it ourselves, we were ready. Almost all of the book projects that I have done have been self-published, from Myself: Timed Exposures in 1971 on up, ten in all. The first edition of Evidence with Larry Sultan was self-published. In the early days self-publishing seemed like a great way to bypass the art market and get the work out to an audience without making the artwork an art object. Chantal self-published webAffairs about 5 years ago. It's a lot tougher now because there is so little opportunity to get adequate distribution and there's so much more competition that it's a challenge to have the work noticed.

State of Ata, by MIKE MANDEL AND CHANTAL ZAKARI. Published by Eighteen Publications, 2010.
PE:    The design and concept of the book incorporates many elements of imagery and text in portraits, street photography, archival and vernacular images and historical information, diary entries, and interviews, as well as a comic-book style photo novella. Who designed this book and why did you chose to incorporate these elements in this format?

CZ:     I initiated the concept for the design as I was trained as a graphic designer, but we collaborated on every level of the process. Mike and I share a studio in our house, which is not very large. We work about 5 feet away from each other, so we talk, and show our work all the time. Ours is not the model of the lonely artist in the studio at all, our studio is a communal space where even our seven year old daughter has a table. We post our sketches onto a wall and look at what we've produced and critique the work.

We chose to have a variety of different formats within the book because we wanted it to be a rich experience, something beyond the conventional photography monograph where an individual image is treated as a precious object. We wanted an art book that was denser, so we looked for other models, such as Susan Meiselas' Kurdistan, Jim Goldberg's Raised by Wolves, Bill Burke's Mine Fields, but also Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Emmanuel Guibert's The Photographer, Sophie Calle's Double Game, Clifton Meador's The Long Slow March...

We thought of our book as a metaphor to an encyclopedic experience. 12 years is long, we had a variety of experiences, funny moments, interviews, collections etc. There could have not been a single equation to represent all these experiences. So we defined the book as a collection of books where the cumulative experience gives you a sense of the complexity of the subject matter.

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Join us for a lecture and booksigning for The State of Ata on Tuesday, October 5th from 5:30-7:30 at photo-eye Gallery, 376-A Garcia St, Santa Fe, NM.  Order a signed copy of the book here.

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