An exhibition named “Team Africa Turkey” opened up its doors at REM Artspace in Cihangir, İstanbul last month. The exhibition documents the young professional football players, who came to Turkey from various African countries on scams and with false promises of progress in their careers. Photography artist Stella Schwendner and writer Helen MacKreath, who are the creators of this exhibition spent days with the footballers in various environments getting to know their stories and routines. Here’s our chat with Schwendner and MacKreath about how this exhibition has come together, and “football as a dream”.
Interview by Nazlı Sönmez
Let’s get to know you more first, what brought you to Istanbul after the Berlin, Rome and Paris?
STELLA SSCHWENDNER: It happened by accident. A year after graduating from my photography studies in Berlin my plan was to move to Paris. I wanted to see how the ‘big’ men and women in the fashion photography world were working and to learn from them. A curator who made a group exhibition of artists from Istanbul and Berlin chose a portrait I had shot for his exhibition in Istanbul. By chance the opening was happening when I was in Istanbul for the first time in holiday. I went there and met the gallerist.
By then I had already fallen in love with the city. So when the Gallerist contacted me two weeks later suggesting I should come to Istanbul, that I could work here, I decided to skip Paris and go to Istanbul. This was in 2012. I stayed for seven month and I still remember the magic I felt about the city. I moved to Paris in 2013 but there was this atmosphere in Istanbul which was so, in German we use the word ‘pulsierend,’ like the throbbing of blood in your veins, the smell of something new was in the air all the time. After a year and a half in Paris I decided to go back to Istanbul.
The city and its atmosphere has changed a lot since then. But Istanbul still very much feeds my visual appetite. I love the light. It’s always a bit diffuse even when it’s very sunny. Sometimes I imagine there’s an enormous soft box over the city.
How did you first get in touch with the young people you have photographed, awfully tricked into coming here and since when have you been following them? What are your main observations and impressions on their experiences here?
STELLA SCHWENDNER: I always walk around the city with my eyes open, as a photographer. I normally capture certain sights and impressions, moments and the light. When I saw these guys playing they caught my attention because they were playing very well, they made me curious. I spoke about them to Helen, who’s doing the writing for the exhibition and is working in the migration field. We started to have a conversation, mainly with the manager of Team Africa Turkey, Segun Timothy Alade, who explained the situation of the players and his goals. He asked me to take some sports photographs for the club, and we started communicated more.
After starting to speak with some of the players, this was the part which really impressed me. I was touched in their way of approaching life, of seeing things, on this hard road after having been so disappointed. I wanted to know more. We thought about making a reportage about their stories and I started to take portraits of them, maybe naively, after the game, before the game, during the training. While taking photographs I was always having conversations, I learnt more about them. I kept doing this for nine months, intermittently.
After having collected more material, a reportage didn’t seem adequate to convey the multiple dynamics and ambiguities at play. It has so many aspects and the reportage wasn’t the right medium. The football aspect – it’s important, but maybe it’s not the most impressive aspect.
In terms of observations and reflections, there’s a few points. The players stay between themselves very much. All of them see Turkey as a transition country, nobody really has plans to stay here. Another observation is that none of them want to return to their home countries, even if they got tricked into coming here.
HELEN MACKREATH: We got to know the players first from Feriköy pitch and then spending time together in common spaces. The church, the beach, the pitch. We spent a day on the beach and it was interesting to observe interactions between different people in this public space – there was initially a discomforting fascination with the players which morphed into many strangers from different countries joining in with a spontaneous game of football. It goes without saying that you cannot discuss the lives of the players without talking about the racism, which manifests itself in many different ways. While we didn’t want to focus too much on this in the exhibition, since we’re focusing more on the identity of the players as footballers, it is something which touches many aspects of their lives here structurally and socially.
One of the most noticeable impressions from spending time with the players is the strength of solidarity and friendship between them. They’re naturally competitors on the pitch but the environment they create is not one of division or pretensions, but a spirit of generosity, openness and engagement. They live together, train together, work together off the pitch. The bonds of support and respect are very strong and for many this is the most important element of their lives in Istanbul.
I work in the field of migration so I have a more theoretical appreciation of the systems they’re exposed to. They lie at the intersection of many political dynamics, and now they are in a kind of limbo space which is dependent on forces outside their control. On football agents, football clubs, visibility. These things in turn are controlled by access to such spaces, money, power status, therefore nationality, race, class etc. They have already spent huge amounts of money to get here in the first place, often collectively raised in difficult circumstances. There are interesting questions at play of structure versus agency, and how they’re trying, or able to, practice agency in different ways.
It’s a lazy cliché, albeit true, to say that football connects people across cultures, but when we spoke to the players about the dynamics of what it means to be a member of a team I found some different perspectives about this. What it means to adapt to different dynamics, different cultures, different behavioural norms or styles. A lot of the players speak about different forms of communication, of sensibility about the pace, movement, skill of other bodies, forms of adaption on the pitch, what it means to be a member of a cohesive team. One reflection is that for many players this is not necessarily continued off the pitch – to make a generalisation, many of the players we spoke to don’t have many interactions with Turkish people or society and live quite contained lives between the pitch, the gym and the workplace.
Along with their stories, how does the exhibition work around the dreams these people have and football as a dream?
HELEN MACKREATH: Football has a very fickle relationship with dreams – with building and crushing them. It builds its huge market, obscene amounts of money, off dreamers. The players, the wannabe players, the ardent supporters, children playing on the streets. This is not an empty promise, although the market has exploited it – some people’s dreams are fulfilled, at the expense of others, and this allows the perpetuation of possibilities to continue and the continued growth of the market. But those dreams are trapping wider numbers of people in their net. And it’s a very political question about who may be more vulnerable to being trapped than others.
These players are not only dreaming in a fantastical sense, their pursuit of football as a career is a logical calculation – they have a skill, and they see it as the most viable livelihood source to invest in. When you appreciate that these players are just the visible apex of many connections of people who are invested in their dream and their success – their families, friends, former football colleagues, etc. – you see how wide the net of dreams is cast and how many lives it touches. The pressure on them is enormous. The fact that they’re playing in Turkey rather than their own countries is a mix of dreaming and reality. As we learnt from Segun Timothy Alade, the Manager of Team Africa Turkey, the level of investment in football in various countries across Africa, to generalise, is very low and this is pushing many players to pursue their career elsewhere. Dreams, maybe of a more fantastical nature, of being the next Pogba or Mbappe or Balotelli draw them to Europe, and Turkey is often seen as a stepping stone to that.
The exhibition tries to find a space which ties together the players as individuals within the structures of violence they’re exposed to. I find Stella’s photographs capture something very intimate about the players, an honesty. The writing tries to combine the voices of the players with some reflections on the context they’re playing in, and which brought them here. Maybe the paradox between the two, the hope and focus of the players and the realities of the unforgiving football system, is quite stark, but it also aims to highlight the integrity of the players without being uncritically sentimental.
This exhibition could be seen as a social project, to raise awareness of the tricks which many have been exposed to and traps fallen in. But we didn’t want to focus absolutely on this, or frame the players as victims – no one should be reduced to this status and it doesn’t recognise their continued agency. I find it more interesting to document how people make their lives in this gap between opportunity and fulfilment. Football is something which is extremely emotional, it creates bonds of intimacy between players and spectators, and between team members. How these emotions are governed by structures and institutions, or whether they are, is quite interesting. We, collectively as human beings, continue to make choices caught between layers of different structures, either in ignorance or knowledge of those structures, and the tangents of those choices are not necessarily inevitable. How they proceed, the forms of negotiation, defiance or subjugation to those structures which emerge, is interesting.
Compared to the editorial work you’ve put out for publications like XOXO, L’Officiel Paris, the photography work on this exhibition has a natural contrast, an untouched light. How is the creative span of this work different? Do you approach the subject in an even-tempered journalistic manner, or do you find this project close-to-heart and want that to be visible on the photographs?
STELLA SCHWENDNER: This work has a completely different approach to commissioned work or to the fashion editorials I normally do. You have a different relationship with the people you’re photographing, and you have a responsibility to the people you portray. You want to show something, catch something real. And you’re not creating something. In fashion photography you’re directing, which is something more of a mirror of yourself, creating a picture which you want to see. In this case I wanted to understand the man who was standing in front of me. It’s the other way around. Of course, there’s also a time aspect, of following a footballer for nine months.
Technically it meant using no Photoshop since any act of filtering is disturbing the process of understanding the person. Of course, I have an eye for aesthetics, I took the photographs of the players in certain lights, I was directing them a bit. I usually took a portrait after I had had a conversation with them, I never approached any of the players and shot their photograph without knowing their story, so there was more intimacy.
As a photographer and artist, do you ever feel you have a tendency to think on different levels and maybe catch things that others may not? Do you feel like you have certain ethical responsibilities? If you do, how does this contribute to the work you put forward or affect you on a personal level?
STELLA SCHWENDNER: We always have a responsibility for the people we work with, always. When it comes to photography, I have to be very aware of this responsibility since it’s’ a very powerful medium, it can change reality. I should be aware of the narrative I’m telling and who I’m talking about. It’s a natural form of respect that we should all have for each other. I recognise the power dynamics at play between me and my subjects. I love street photography, for example, but if you place pictures within a certain context, or give them a certain destiny, you should understand that destiny and know the power the picture has. I should say that this is my first experience of photo reportage.
Taking photographs is something personal – I can never detach my work from my personality, it’s my medium and it’s my way of expressing myself, so I’m affected on a personal level.