Bridging In-between-ness as a Situation Space through Photography in the Sixtieth Anniversary of Migration

“Imagine a city somewhere; a fairly large city of 130,000 inhabitants, where the citizens have an unusually imbalanced communication, infrastructure. Although 90 percent of the population own a radio, they receive only one hour and thirty minutes of broadcasting a day. Although 90 percent own a TV set they receive only forty-five minutes of TV programs every second week. Movies are shown irregularly, maybe once a week. Five dailies and a dozen magazines in the local language are available but, since they are imported from abroad their content is irrelevant to the people. A dozen libraries hold fewer than 31,000 books. Cultural events like theater or dance and song performances are scarce, with no more than two or three per month. One would expect this city to be someplace in the Third World. Yet, it is the fourth largest Turkish city. However, it is not located in Turkey, but may be found in the very center of Europe—Berlin” (Manfred Oepen, 1984).

Immigrant neighbourhoods: Magnificent spaces of in-between-ness

This excerpt from the introduction to an academic article written in the early 1980s offers a very powerful description of what immigrant neighbourhoods look like from the outside as a unique social space. We encounter the early forms of these spaces around the train stations of the big cities in the countries that receive migration, they are located at the margins of the centres in a sense. Yet, they have become institutionalised over generations. Although these spaces [immigrant neighbourhoods] took on different colours depending on the political climate of its time (either celebrated as a diversity or feared for foreignness), they became one of the key founding elements of the representations of immigrants. These neighbourhoods have maintained their existence as a new social situation-space that is not easy to grasp either for the host communities or visitors from the homeland. Those who have looked at these neighbourhoods, where immigrants build a new life, with the premise of “parallel society”, have seen social enclaves intrinsic to a country that is homogeneous, detached from the society they live in, and geographically more distant. Whereas, in that distant homeland, they were imagined either as a caricature of the “native” culture (typecast as expatriate/Alamancı [German-Turk]) or, in rare cases, as heroic representatives of the homeland. I refer to this situation as “in-between-ness”. However, I do not take this phrase literally as a “pathology” as implied by the description of “being/staying/squeezed in-between two worlds” widely used in migration literature, but rather as a spontaneous conceptual provocation that makes visible the historical seams of national fiction and narratives that are taken for granted.

For this reason, it is difficult to construct a narrative about this new social space, to hear and describe its existence in its own authentic language. For instance, when we consider the representations in cinema; films produced abroad by expatriates including Tevfik Başer’s Hamburg Trilogy – 40 Quadratmeter Deutschland (40 square meters of Germany) (1986), Abschied vom falschen Paradies (Farewell to False Paradise) (1989), Lebewohl, Fremde (Goodbye Stranger )(1991) as well as films shot by directors from the homeland such as Şerif Gören’s Almanya Acı Vatan (Germany Bitter Homeland) (1979) and Polizei (Police) (1988), Sinan Çetin’s Berlin in Berlin (1993) (crippled by his own orientalist exoticism), Kutluğ Ataman’s Lola and Bilidikid (1999) have been able to approach these neighbourhoods through different lenses, partially looking from the inside. On the other hand, books based on visits to Berlin with texts speaking to one another, including Demir Özlü’s Berlin’de Sanrı (Delusion in Berlin) (1987) and Berlin Güncesi – 1989 İlkbaharı (Berlin Diary – Spring 1989) (1991), Nedim Gürsel’s Çıplak Berlin (Naked Berlin) (2006) and Enis Batur’s Siyah Sert Berlin (Black Rough Berlin) (2013), inform us on how these neighbourhoods remain in the margins even for the authors of the homeland. These authors were hosted in Germany by fellow immigrant [expatriate] writers such as Aras Ören, Gültekin Emre or Güney Dal, and their books seek to find the flavours of the homeland in the [immigrant] neighbourhoods visited, depicting them as geographies that are even farther away than Turkey.

When we look at these narratives, I understand the situation I refer to as “in-between-ness” not only as being stuck between two defined spaces, but also as an opportunity to develop a critical thinking about defined spaces. Let us remember how in the film Polizei, the script writer Hüseyin Kuzu reflected on this through the lines of protagonist Ali Ekber (Kemal Sunal) (1988): “Burası Alamanya değil Berlinistan.” (“This is Berlinistan not Alamanya [German-Turk land]”). This simple line featured at the beginning of the film later found its correspondence in academic studies within the concepts of transnational or translocal. For instance, the hip-hop corridor that was opened between Kadıköy and Kreuzberg in the early 2000s, still alive today. Or various cultural events using the location tag BerlIstanbul, pointing to a new imagined space. Another example is works published online through new media platforms by the “New Wave” of migrants, whose numbers exponentially increased after the 2013 Gezi Park Protests: Jeyan İdil Arslan’s Üçüncü Yaka (The Third Side/Bank – adding Berlin on top of Asia [Kadıköy] and European sides/banks of the Bosphorus) which was initially written for lavarla and Yelta Köm’s Berlin Notes published in Manifold. As Levent Soysal (2001) witnessed it by observing the daily life of young people with a migration background in Berlin in the early 2000s, these neighbourhoods cannot be reduced down to a national space on a world map – neither to the locality they live in (Germany) or to the place they access through transnational relations (Turkey). The districts of Kreuzberg in Berlin, Altona in Hamburg, Venloer and Keup Streets in Cologne are significant examples in terms of understanding the formation of this new social space and its transformation with generations.

Photography in search of in-between-ness…

As 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of migration, it also carried a special meaning for these unique geographies of in-between-ness for various reasons. On the one hand, by that time, those migrated around the 1960s and the next generation have already settled down, and institutionalised as a post-migration community; but on the other hand, it was also a time when the policies of multiculturalism (against the backdrop of the dreadful NSU Murders [Nationalist Socialist Underground]) [1]Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (National Socialist Underground) (NSU), an organisation that killed 10 people, 8 of them of Turkish descent [8 of them immigrants from Turkey], undertook two bomb … Continue reading was replaced with rather judgemental integration debates, the positive atmosphere in the early 2000s around Turkey’s EU membership bid dissipated, immigrants from Turkey had to renegotiate their positions in the wake of influx of refugees from Syria to Europe after 2011. Meanwhile, middle-class immigrants with creative professional backgrounds, who migrated in the “New Wave” that exponentially grew after the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, have diversified the “bitter homeland”.

Overshadowed by the political tensions between Turkey and Germany (and hence the West as embodied by the EU), I spent most of this remarkable year in Germany. During this time, I had the chance to see four different photography exhibitions undertaken on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of [labour] migration as well as various side-activities held around the exhibitions. Although varied in scope and focus of the visual materials, these four exhibitions in a sense served as a gateway to the visual archaeology of in-between-ness and raised thought-provoking questions about migration phenomenon today.

In Situ: Photo stories on migration – Ludwig Museum

“In-Situ: Photo Stories on Migration” exhibition was prepared for the Ludwig Museum in partnership with Yilmaz Dziewior, Ela Kaçel and Barbara Engelbach. What makes this exhibition unique is its focus on personal photographs taken by immigrants themselves, compiled from the archives of the Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD), and accompanying interviews made with the families [lenders of the photographs] that could be reached. The first proposition of the curators focusing on this visual material is that by taking these photographs, the immigrants have built a narrative outside of the normative visual representation frame produced by the institutional actors of the period such as the municipality or housing companies. When the curators had a look at the materials categorised through questions such as who took the photograph, whose photograph was taken, when, where and for what purpose, they have seen that photography has gained a function as a self-reflexive communication tool for immigrants to localize themselves in this new country. The main stops [milestones] of this process are (1) arrival (workers’ dormitories), (2) localization strategies (posing in the cityscapes they live in with newly purchased cars or clothes), (3) creation of new means and spaces (small orchards created in the backyards of the [new] houses they moved after their families have joined [them in Germany] ) and (4) stories of self-empowerment (events such as weddings or strikes, where being a member of a community is articulated) In other words, the immigrants recorded their own processes by photographing their new lives from the very first day, and thus they managed to localize their presence here apart from the narratives constructed about them.

We Are From Here: Turkish-German Life 1990. [Biz Buralıyız: Türk-Alman Yaşamı 1990] Ergun Çağatay Photography Exhibition

As part of a larger project on labour migration from the Global South, Ergun Çağatay signed an agreement with Gamma agency in 1990 to take the photographs that would later form the backbone of this exhibition. The photographer set out from Hamburg, then travelled to Cologne and Werl to the West, then Berlin to the East and headed to the West again travelling to Duisburg, giving the impression that this trip was not really a planned one. It seems that Çağatay completed this entire trip in 3 weeks in the months of March, April, and May. It is not known exactly when and where he was, but he took 3477 photographs as part of the overall project. Some 116 of these photographs were selected for the exhibition held at the Ruhr Museum. Ergun Çağatay described the purpose of his journey as follows: “The purpose of my trip was to demonstrate the social cohesion of the second generation born or raised in immigration countries, or the lack of it.” Yet, Çağatay’s work, started with uncertainty, and he could not cover all workers from the Global South as initially planned; Gamma was reluctant to support the continuation of the project, and he couldn’t find new sponsors. Çağatay ended the project he financed partly from his own pocket and returned to Paris from Duisburg. The photographs he took fell into a “beauty sleep” for 25 years.

Peter Stephan, one of the curators of the exhibition, met Çağatay in 2004 and discovered the photographs at his home in Istanbul in 2015 by pure chance. As photographs came out of the box for the first time after 25 years, the idea of producing something around these photographs came out too. Nearly fifty photos from this collection made their first appearance as part of the project “Almanya’daki Türkler 1990” (“Turks in Germany 1990”) at an exhibition held on 28 November 2016 at the Berlin Embassy of the Republic of Turkey with the support of the Presidency for Turks Abroad. On the occasion of this exhibition, Çağatay also came together with the members of 36 Boys, whom he photographed back in 1990. In April and September 2018, the exhibition “Our Berlin: Turks in Germany 1990”) (“Bizim Berlin: Almanya’da Türkler 1990) was held at the Berlin City Museum (Stadtmuseum Berlin). Çağatay passed away on 15 February 2018. In an interview he gave on the occasion of these exhibitions, he said: “I felt sorry for them, that’s all. This country had failed to provide those people with a decent life. They worked in harsh conditions and remained second-class people.”

Mustafa’s Dream: Photographs by Henning Christoph on Turkish life in Germany 1977 – 1989

Henning Christoph is also a photographer with a migration background. After the Second World War, with the insistence of his father, the family always had one foot in the United States. He studied cultural anthropology in the US. After his university education, he returned to Germany and took a trip to Europe on his motorcycle to explore new themes. In the late 1970s, he was approached by Geo-Magazine for a proposed project about the Turks in Germany. When the proposal came, he already had certain interactions with these people “coming from the south” in Essen, where he lived with his wife. He came across the Turks through his neighbour upstairs Seyfi Sakin who was interested in cameras. Christoph hosted the children of the Sakin family in his dark room and gave the family a camera as a gift as their conversation continued. One day in 1977, Seyfi Sakin came with the news that his brother-in-law Mustafa Aydın was going to have a “ceremony” [in Turkish düğün, which means wedding], and invited Christoph with his family. What was meant by “ceremony” was not a wedding though, but the circumcision ceremony of the sons of the Aydın family named Mustafa (5) and Bayram (8). This bewildering yet close encounter marked the beginning of a 12-year relationship with immigrant families from the south. Christoph’s wife had been in the story from day one, in this way she could also access the Sakin family household. In 1978, they travelled to Ceylan Village in Kırklareli together with the Sakin family. This is how Christoph bore witness to life and its transformation in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Essen, Kessel and Berlin between 1977 and 1989.

60th Anniversary of Migration [from Turkey] to Germany: Co-existence, Solidarity and Common Struggle

The Federation of Democratic Workers’ Associations (DIDF), present in different European countries, has been active for the past four decades. Having close ties with the Labour Party (EMEP) that pursues a labour-centred leftist policy in Turkey, since its inception, the Federation has adopted a class-oriented work programme and has strong relations with institutions and unions that follow similar lines in German politics. In this regard, it is a key institution that has accumulated a significant portion of collective memory and testimonies regarding the labour force migration from Turkey to Germany. The Federation decided to mark the 60th anniversary of the [labour] migration with a travelling exhibition that deals with the process [of migration] based on the materials compiling their own corporate history over the years. The exhibition is based on Ali Çarman’s documentary novel Suitcases Full of Hope in the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Arrival of Workers from Turkey in Germany (Türkiyeli İşçilerin Almanya’ya Gelişlerinin Altmışıncı Yılında Valizler Dolusu Umut), and also features a [specially commissioned] documentary. Just like in situ, the exhibition draws from the classified photographs collected by the immigrants themselves. Through accompanying immigrant interviews, it also gives cues about how to interpret this visual memory. For instance, a photograph of a group of women with beer bottles in their hands at a picnic-like gathering invited the younger generation viewers with migration background to reflect on how women (their mothers) were represented in the memory of immigration history.

A bridge between generations: Photograph

I believe that the main motive shared by these four exhibitions, focusing on different sequences of the long history of migration from Turkey to Germany on different occasions, is a semantic bridge. While visiting the exhibitions, the reactions of new generations with migration background suggest that they have developed a new understanding of a time that is now long gone yet determined [shaped] their own existence. This is what I concluded judging from the notes they left in the exhibition guest books. Photographs depicting small immigrant homes, modest celebrations and dinner tables where acquaintances come together, objects placed on these dinner tables, portraits hanging on the wall, the way people dressed, a newly bought car or cassette player posing in the centre just like a family member… And perhaps most notably, the encounter of exhibition visitors – with a migration background – with dozens of poses they thought were only present in their own family albums. All these elements have prompted them to contemplate themselves as a part of a wider emotional landscape of immigration. When our organisation the Association for Migration Research (GAR) received the invitation to an online workshop on held 6 May 2022 as part of the Archiv der Flucht [the Archive of Refuge] project to reflect on the concepts of “archive” and “migration” together, as a sociologist, I wanted to present the case of in-between-ness as a situation-space, something I have been pondering on for a long time after seeing the photography exhibitions I spontaneously ran into in the year that I spent in Germany, which also marked the 60th anniversary of migration. Attended by participants having a migration background themselves who have anchored in this process through different histories, the workshop has put forward new questions on our table: Is it possible to harvest a memory from all that gathered in the archives of in-between-ness? Who would be the actors of such a work? Is it possible to initiate an institutionalization [process] that will represent this memory and the spaces of this institutionalization? I believe that these questions will find answers in the new [next] decade of migration, given the things I witnessed in the 60th anniversary, which is also a particular period in Turkey-Europe relations.

Besim Can Zırh

Translated by Burcu Becermen



1Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (National Socialist Underground) (NSU), an organisation that killed 10 people, 8 of them of Turkish descent [8 of them immigrants from Turkey], undertook two bomb attacks and 15 bank robberies in Germany between 2000 and 2007. Until the organisation was uncovered accidentally in 2011, the German authorities and the media portrayed these murders as mere mafia showdowns between immigrants, enabling a climate of fear lingering in immigrant districts for a long time. On 19 February 2020, 11 people lost their lives in the attack on an immigrant cafe in Hanau, Germany, a case referred to as “NSU 2.0”. For further information on NSU Murders, please see: The novel Die schützende Hand (Protecting Hand) (2015) by Wolfgang Schorlau and the investigative report NSU Murders in Germany: Neonazi – Intelligence – Police Nexus (2020).
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