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Waiting for a ferry to the Asian shore

Istanbul is my favourite place in the world to take photographs. Granted, I’ve only been to some 30 out of the 193 countries warming the seats at the United Nations. But three visits to this bustling, teeming city have revealed only a fraction of what there is to see.

Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in the world, and one that has grown in massive fits and spurts in recent years; the population doubled from 2.7 million to 5.4 million between 1980 and 1985 and doubled again by 2000. Spread along the Europe and Asia, separated by the black, brooding water of the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul’s streets are a constant hum, filled with commuters and street sellers, tourists and skulking cats.

Istanbul has been a backdrop to some of the street photography’s greatest images, many of them taken by renowned Turkish/Armenian photographer Ara Guler, regarded as the “Eye of Istanbul”. Anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps will find a wealth of inspiration.

Last year I spent a week traipsing around Istanbul in late November; the photos here are some of the picks of that week’s shooting. The city’s tourist season has wound down, and the days are shorter, with the afternoon light rich in golds and reds. Such is the city’s size that trying to tackle it all in anything less than a few months would be an exercise in frustration; the best bet is to find a few districts that you can explore in more detail.  I’m preparing for another trip this November, and chances are I’ll be spending a lot of time in a few select locales.

Golden afternoon light in Sultanahmet

The districts around the Golden Horn, the channel that separates the European neighbourhoods of Sultanahmet (the home of the city’s best mosques and ancient buildings) and Beyoglu (bars and boutiques) are a good start. There’s the bustling quayside at Eminonu – a hive of ferry activity – and the busy streets around it heading to the Spice Bazaar and the religious monuments of Sultanahmet. The predatory waiters urging you to eat at the kebab restaurants and the local workers trooping to the mosques for mid-day prayers; the placid cats stretch out on rugs outside the tourist shops, the fried fish hawkers selling slabs of mouth-watering fish a stone’s throw from the deep black waters.

Galata Bridge is a world in itself. The current bridge is the fifth to have spanned the Golden Horn since the middle of the 19th Century. Close to the water are a clutch of fish restaurants and bars; along the traffic lines fish hundreds of amateur anglers. The bridge is the location of a stunning scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film Uzak; on an overcast day, with the clouds forming a roof over the spires and towers, the lines of fishermen and the buckets full of dead and dying fish, the bridge is made for moody, black and white street shots.

From the Galata Bridge , the steep hill heads through the districts of Galata into Beyoglu, where much of the city’s nightlife is located. There are winding streets full of music shops and cafes leading to the city’s commercial hub. Further towards Taksim Square – the commercial centre of Istanbul – are alleyways rammed with restaurant tables and lined with bars. Istiklal Caddesi – the French-style boulevard lined with some of the city’s smartest shops – is one of the busiest streets in the world;  as many as three million people are believed to walk its mile-long length on any given Saturday. It is a metropolis in itself; a city of walkers and shoppers, the drunk and pious, channelled into a pedestrianised boulevard.

Istanbul’s streets extend into the waterways. The ferries that ply their way across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus are an extension of Istanbul’s public spaces, and a wonderful location for photographers – partly because they offer the city’s skyline as the perfect backdrop. You can spend an entire day on the Bosphorus, capturing the many faces of this intriguing city.

For more Istanbul pics, check out my Flickr sets (here, here and here), and for encounters with the city’s semi-stray cats, read my earlier blog post.

A stern seller of baked goods, taken on a LOMO LC-Wide
A short back and sides near the Spice Bazaar
Catching 40 winks on the ferry to the Asian suburbs
The day’s news digested in the middle of the Bosphorus
A quick candid of on the streets near Eminonu
Istanbul’s gs are fine on their own – but best avoided in packs
Not your average fishing hole…
A private moment on the Golden Horn

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Stephen Dowling
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