Photographing Syrian Refugees With Esa Ylijaasko

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All images used with permission by Esa Ylijaasko. Lead image by the author.

A child with one shoe sat on a pile of rubble and licked the remains of a dessert off a spoon. Several feet away stood the remains of a half demolished house in which Syrian Kurdish refugees created their home away from home. They fled their homes in Syria some time ago in order to find some degree of safety from the civil war that has ravaged their country. They found their way to Süleymaniye, a neighborhood in Istanbul mostly known for the city’s largest mosque, and it is there that Finnish photographer Esa Ylijaasko forged strong ties.

Editor’s Note: We incorrectly stated that Ylijaasko used a 23mm lens on his X-Pro1 and Fuji FP-100B film on his Polaroid Land Camera. He uses an 18mm f2 lens and Fuji FP-3000B film.

It was at Ylijaasko’s invitation that I joined him in Süleymaniye for a day of photographing the refugee julius motal the phoblographer syrian refugees esa ylijaasko 07families he has come to know. The route to Süleymaniye was marked, as most routes in Istanbul are, by Syrian refugee children bounding from passerby to passerby in the hope that at least one will procure a coin or two. These were not, however, the children he knew, though he was sensitive to their situation.

On one shoulder, Ylijaasko had a Fujifilm X-Pro1 with an 18mm f2 lens. On the other, he had a Polaroid Land Camera. As we walked towards the neighborhood, an envelope full of prints bounced in his jacket pocket. They were a collection of black and white portraits, some digital some not, of the men, women and children across five families of refugees. In the course of working on his project, “A Paradise Full of Song”, which is the working title, Ylijaasko has become something of a family photographer for them, frequently offering them prints as a way to say thanks for letting him into their lives.

“I came here to find myself as a photographer,” Ylijaasko told me later about his move to Istanbul. He returns to Finland a few times each year to work in construction to earn enough money to sustain his life and project and Istanbul. The Euro goes a long way in Turkey.

“A Paradise Full of Song” is Ylijaasko’s poetic approach to looking at the Syrian refugee crisis through the lives of the families living in the half-demolished of Suleymaniye’s less-frequented neighborhood. His approach and technique is a mix of fine art and documentary photography. It was on a cold night in December 2013 when Ylijaasko first met some of the people who would become part of his project. He saw that they were huddled around a fire, and he joined them largely to stay warm. He then began to communicate with them in a limited way, and the neighborhood quickly became a place he would return to.

Upon arriving at the first family’s location, Ylijaasko slid the prints out of his pocket, and almost immediately, a crowd had gathered, hands eagerly grasping at their images. One thumbed through the prints as the others stood over him, their heads pressed together forming a canopy with their thick black hair. Ylijaasko stood near them, watching as they moved from one image to the next, with the occasional print getting passed around or handed to the person it truly belonged to. The crowd soon dispersed.

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Nearby, a fire pit burned, the smoke trailing up in waves. One member of the family sat on a rocky outcropping, his knees spread, and Ylijaasko readied his Land Camera. I stood a short distance away, watching as the young guy stared through the smoke at Ylijaasko, and once he made the image, he pulled apart the negative from the positive. Ylijaasko uses Fujifilm FP-3000B film because it yields both a positive and a negative. Whenever he uses the Land Camera, he offers his subjects the positive while keeping the negative for processing later.

It almost felt as if everyone knew Ylijaasko in the neighborhood. Outside a store front, he went to julius motal the phoblographer syrian refugees esa ylijaasko 06photograph a teenage boy who pointed eagerly at the Land Camera. Ylijaasko shook his head. The film was not cheap and not every photograph needed the Land Camera. He would switch between film and digital, with his X-Pro1 set to black-and-white by default.

A man approached and gestured for a photograph. What he wanted was prints that Ylijaasko didn’t have, though he handed them over, which the man sifted through to no avail. The prints were in the hands of the family we first visited, and Ylijaasko tried to say as much, though that wasn’t getting through. His communication with his subjects is largely implied through scraps of Arabic and gestures, and oftentimes it’s the biggest hurdle because, while he’s committed to telling their story and photographing them honestly, he can’t speak with them at length.

“Photograph,” was the word Ylijaasko used most often to start a conversation, with children leaping at the chance to be photographed.

We eventually broke away from the man and met another family nearby, who invited us into their home for some tea. The tea was prepared by the elder man, who spoke to Ylijaasko through a family member who knew bits of English. Most of the conversation took place on Google translate, with Ylijaasko explaining his intentions in English and translating it into Arabic, a reassurance that he means well.

The sun was due to set soon, and soft light filtered into the one-room space, catching half of the elder’s face. Ylijaasko tried to make the man’s portrait with the Land Camera, but he was unsuccessful. The X-Pro1 did a better job with what little light there was.

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After leaving the house, we came across three young girls playing a makeshift game with two cinderblocks, a short stick and a long stick. Ylijaasko made photographs first, and joined them a short while later, attempting to play their game. The exchange was effortless and unspoken, with one of the girls stepping aside, so he could try his hand at the game that looked like a combination of baseball, soccer and tag.

Ylijaasko then went to make portraits of them outside of a gutted two-story building. It was four brick walls with openings where a door and windows once were. Ylijaasko switched between the X-Pro1, the Land Camera and a Mamiya 645, which gave him some problems. Three girls, possibly sisters possibly not, stood shoulder to shoulder and waited as he steadied his camera. He often held his position long enough to the point when the girls would lean into each other and laugh as if one had just told a joke. It was a public private moment that Ylijaasko both contributed to and captured.

Who’s to say whether or not that portrait will make it into the final edit of the project. Perhaps it was more for the girls than it was for Ylijaasko. They don’t have much, but with Ylijaasko visiting them almost every day, they’ll have a record of their existence.

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