When Guy Martin was gravely injured in a mortar attack on a street corner in Libya in April 2011 (the same strike that killed famed photographers Tim Hetherington, co-director of Restrepo, and Chris Hondros, and injured two others), the English documentary photographer didn’t know if he’d survive, let alone pick up a camera again.
It took a number of operations and more than a year for Martin to be able to walk again. He eventually found himself looking through a lens again, too. Except this time, he wasn’t seeing the wreckage of bomb blasts and violent protests on the other side of the camera. He was viewing Turkish soap operas.
Martin traveled to Turkey to begin visiting TV and movie locations in the fall of 2012, but was soon drawn back into scenes of unrest, as protests broke out in the country the following summer. He soon began to notice something odd about the two distinct subjects he was capturing: “The images began to look very, very similar,” he says. Standing amid a protest, watching a young man lie down and spread open his shirt after sighting Martin (pictured, above) reminded him, in shape and body language, of an image he’d captured before, standing over a dead, bloodied woman on the ground—an actress on a soap opera set. In taking the photo of the man, Martin began to piece together the beginnings of a new photography project. “[Taking that photo was] me acknowledging that truth is far more complex than the media is willing to investigate or elaborate,” he says.
That blending of fact and fiction is at the heart of The Parallel State, a multi-year effort—described as “a semi-fictional study of truth, reality, and lies” in modern-day Turkey—on view at the new Pattern art center through October 27. It marks Martin’s first solo show and the first time the completed project has been displayed in the United States.
“I felt that there was still something left that I had to say about that part of the world I’d devoted a long amount of time to,” Martin says of the project. This time, though, the narrative wouldn’t focus on conflict or the “extremes of the human condition.” “I just knew that life is much more complex and mundane than everybody doing stories about the Middle East and the Islamic world, where everyone’s a stone thrower, women in hijab, everyone’s praying,” he says. “This is not what I knew was reality.”
Layered on top of each other, in varying sizes and formations, and accompanied by vinyl images in the windows and a looping short film, The Parallel State‘s design is meant to make viewers feel immersed in this other world, a place where reality and story intersect. A world not so distant from the contemporary United States, where “fake news” could be the phrase of the year.
There is some explanatory text in the exhibition, but there are no captions pasted to the wall; it’s up to viewers to read the photos for themselves and, if they want, determine if they were captured on the street or on location.
Reflecting on what drew him to the Middle East initially, the 35-year-old Martin says the Iraq War “defined my generation” and, like many others, he was “seduced by stories and tales and egos and everything else associated with being a foreign correspondent.” He first visited the northern Iraqi border around 2004 while still in university in Wales; his work won a journalism prize and inspired him to keep going (the accompanying money and new camera didn’t hurt). “That was it, really. That started the fascination with working in that part of the world,” he says.
By the end of 2010, revolution was reaching a tipping point throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. (The Arab Spring began in the spring of 2011.) “A generation of photographers in their mid-20s felt that was our moment…this was our Berlin Wall moment,” Martin says. So, he purchased a plane ticket to Cairo and started taking pictures.
At that time, he was shooting almost exclusively for the Wall Street Journal and relished seeing his work published but was having trouble reconciling the images the world was seeing with what he was actually watching unfold before him. He noticed that the subjects he photographed would behave differently when he—a white, Western photographer—approached. “I was making images that reinforced a narrative, a stereotype, a cliché, of how things should look,” Martin says. “Subconsciously, the scene changes and there’s this little nonverbal dance that happens between a revolutionary and a Western photographer. People’s behavior changes. And you can either acknowledge that…or not, and you play that game.”
With The Parallel State, Martin was able to push back against, or erase, that artificial fourth wall and bring viewers into his perspective. He was introduced to Turkish soap operas when visiting people’s homes. Everyone seemed to be watching them or had them on the in background. At the time, in late 2012, Turkey, he says “was a beacon of hope” in the Middle East, a “model” for the region. “These soap operas were incredible because they basically were exporting Turkishness to the Islamic world,” he says. “It was selling this version of Turkey’s outlook, Turkey’s democracy, Turkey’s secularism to a demographic that could not get their heads around it….It was an aspirational lifestyle.” It fascinated him. And he could relate: Watching TV is a global pastime, after all.
Then, violent protests broke out in Turkey, the refugee crisis began, and politics in the region grew more complicated—and Martin’s two worlds came crashing together. He shed some of the journalistic rules he’d followed for so long and spent six years following the trail of both of those realities. His efforts culminated in The Parallel State, a book that was published last year (it’s for sale at Pattern) and named one of Time‘s 25 best photobooks of 2018.
“I want people to come into this book and into this space [Pattern gallery] and for them to be in another space, in this parallel state, this world I’ve created for them,” he says.
Martin isn’t sure what world he’ll inhabit next, but he knows it’ll come to him. “I certainly don’t have any willingness to photograph war again. I don’t have a willingness to put myself in the extreme danger that I did before because I ultimately don’t think it’s worth it,” he says. “I have this very uneasy relationship with photography now….These things I feel drawn to take a long time for me to work up to.”
If You Go: The Parallel State is on view at Pattern (855 Wyandot St.) through October 27. The gallery is open Sunday through Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m.