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March 11, 2021


Photography by Neslihan Uslu
Interview by Melanie Meggs

Capturing the sociology of everyday life brings Neslihan Uslu closer to photojournalism. For her, seeking stories is her way of learning, maybe that is why she looks for human faces, emotions and behaviour as much as she looks for composition and light. It is not a coincidence that Neslihan studied Sociology and Photography in the same year. What attracts her to photography is to be able to witness so many emotions while documenting the events and to tell them as best as she can. According to her, telling an ordinary thing through photography allows us to see it in a completely different way. Narrating social movements, finding short street stories, and telling these stories cinematically makes her one step closer to the documentary subject she has been working on. When Neslihan moved to Antwerp from Istanbul three years ago, she returned to photography because she thought that was the best way to learn a new city was to take pictures. Finding a new topic every week and following the traces of these stories in Antwerp, inspired Neslihan to work on a documentary photography project.

"In my opinion, sociology is bold, but photography is even bolder. What I want to express with my photos is to convey events, social problems, situations, sometimes everyday life and routines as much as possible, to show real lives and feelings."


TPL: Neslihan please tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?

NU: I was born and raised in Istanbul. I have been living in Antwerp for about 3 years. I've been the photographer of the family since I was young. But it was more about taking snapshots and recording everything. I started photography training in AFSAD (Ankara Photography Artists Association) the year I decided to study Sociology at the university in 2000. I feel like I’m still at home while developing photos in the dark room. During my 4-year university education, photography training and projects continued simultaneously. During this period, I also had the opportunity to participate in group exhibitions. My focus on documentary photography was continued with my thesis. This was the breaking point for me.

While I was writing my thesis on "Othering and Labeling in Modern Era: Romani people living in Turkey”, I met many people, took many pictures and I had the opportunity to learn a lot about photography. That's why Josef Koudelka's Gypsies project is always very special to me.

TPL: Tell us more about the series of images from Chinatown that you have shared with us. Could you elaborate a bit on your thoughts on the concept and how you manifested your ideas into a documentary project?

NU: Actually, this short study is one of the first steps of my work on the “cultural importance of festivals and their perception in different cultures” that I want to do in the long run. Festivals are an impressive way to celebrate culture and traditions. At the same time, we come together with our loved ones and share happiness. It is important for cultural solidarity. In addition to this, it can evoke different emotions in different cultures. What I wanted to show was the difference and similarity of the emotions it aroused in people from different cultures through the Chinese New Year celebration. To put it better, it was the cultural perception of this celebration.

Before the celebrations, I went to Chinatown many times and observed. That gave me the information about the photos I will be taking: where I should stand, from what point of view I will see. I don’t think I can easily tell a story that I don’t have an idea about, whether it is a documentary or a photojournalism.

TPL: Sometimes you combine your Sociology into your Photography. What do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?

NU: In my opinion, sociology is bold, but photography is even bolder. What I want to express with my photos is to convey events, social problems, situations, sometimes everyday life and routines as much as possible, to show real lives and feelings. I also want to do this by keeping the story plain and simple, without trying to transform or reproduce reality. Photography is already reproducing its reality through the eye of the photographer.

When I think of myself as a viewer, the photographs that awaken a feeling in me, make me ask myself questions and think critically feed me. I want them to inspire similar feelings in those who look at my photos as well.

I believe that the more we present to the world, the greater steps we take for change and development. That's why Lewis Wickes Hine, the photographer and sociologist who documents child labor, is one of my idols. Hine's images of working children helped change the nation's labor laws. Through his photography, Lewis Hine made a difference in the lives of American workers and, most importantly, American children.

I'm trying to include the connection between the sense of place and people in my photographs. I think this allows me to tell my photo stories more powerfully.

TPL: Where do you find your inspiration?

NU: I find my inspiration in history. Everything that has witnessed history means a lot to me. Maybe that's why I love to chat with old people and listen to them, to go around antique markets and second-hand bookstores.

TPL: Do you have a favourite place to photograph?

NU: Everywhere that I can find documentary photos and stories. To be honest, I think the events and the connections you establish make the difference, not places. Nevertheless, the historical streets in İstanbul that start from Istiklal Street and end in Galata Tower are always a journey to my heart and my childhood. I also like to go to the old passages and shoot in low light conditions there.

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

NU: There are many photographers and artists. Master photographers always inspire me, teach me to see and narrate. Dorothea Lange, Vivian Maier, Bieke Depoorter, Semiha Es, Ansel Adams, Sebastião Salgado, Alec Soth, Ara Güler, İzzet Keribar, Martin Parr, Josef Koudelka, Emin Özmen, Alex Webb…Their works play a big role in making me who I am.

Cinema and my favorite directors also make me look at photography differently. I learn how to use tones, whether in monochrome or in color, and how to take dramatic photographs through cinema. I think it is necessary to keep the intense and fertile relationship between cinema and photography in order to do a good job in photography. Jean-Luc Godard expressed "Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 frames a second." I absolutely agree with this. At the same time, the magical world of cinema contributes to my imagination in every way. Vittorio De Sica, Lars Von Trier, Ken Loach, Nuri Bilge Ceylan have a special place in my heart.

And all of my photographer friends who live in different places of the world. We also have a photography group called Antwerp Photo Collective in Antwerp and I am inspired by all of them.

TPL: Do you have a favourite quote, lyric or saying that especially resonates with you?

NU: In an interview, Ken Loach says, “You have to find a story you have to tell. It should be a story that you must tell, not a story which might have been a good one when you tell.”

I'm trying to do this with my camera. It takes me into photography, pushes me to research and learn.

TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?

NU: I currently have equipment that I love very much. I use Fujifilm X-T3. I want to have a medium format camera in the long run. I take most of my photos with 35mm f/1.4 lens and 50mm f/1.8 lens. However, sometimes I need different equipment and lenses, depending on the style of the photo I want to shoot. 35mm prime lens is always my favorite. It is a wide angle lens and it helps me have a more accurate perspective. It's enough to capture powerful images. I also have zoom lenses but I rarely use them. I like my camera being small and quiet but I always have to carry a spare battery.

I do my analog shots with Nikon F80 and Leica Z2X, even though less often. I'm a fan of cinestill film.

TPL: When you go out photographing, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?

NU: I often let the images come to me when I go out shooting. Maybe I will encounter something new that I do not know or I will see something I am familiar with, from a different perspective. I keep a sort of photo diary.

Sometimes I just give myself homework about a specific theme. I am trying to create a photo series about the theme. For example, from the people who are reading at the café to the street lamps, from the women dressed in green to the bins, from the joy of victory to the someone who seems unhappy, there can be a variety of subjects and emotions. Also, even when I have a concept in my mind and shoot about that, the results I see are different from what I plan. Sometimes this makes me happier, sometimes it causes me to throw everything away and rework the same concept. It helps me to realize long and extensive projects.