Françoise Caraco, Hidden Istanbul – Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Art Paper Editions (here). Hardcover (17×24 cm), 404 pages, with 263 color images. Includes artist’s text and double-sided poster. Design and editing by Lien Van Leemput and the artist for 6m56s. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: In recent years, a number of excellent photobooks have explored personal family stories and archives with depth and insight, often revealing more universal dimensions and stories. In one notable example, Amani Willett used her family as a starting point to investigate the larger history of American racial violence in her book. A parallel road (revised here); in another, Brazilian photographer Leticia Valverdes traveled to Portugal to visit her grandmother’s homeland, eventually connecting with the local community of a small village (review here).

In the same way, the Swiss photographer Françoise Caraco goes on a mission to find her ancestors in her recent photo book Hidden Istanbul. Inspired by her family memories, she sets out to discover the culture of the Sephardic Jews, who have lived in the Turkish metropolis for many centuries but remain largely unknown. Caraco’s great-grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated to Switzerland in the early 20th century. Using documents she found in his estate, she began her artistic research by going back into the past, but also learning about the current life of the Sephardic community. . As Caraco interviewed members of Istanbul’s Jewish community about their life in the city, a new narrative emerged. The book is structured around these conversations, while family photographs, postcards and contemporary snapshots of Istanbul provide a visual backdrop.

Hidden Istanbul is a thick object book of over four hundred pages, with a mustard yellow cover and dark blue painted page edges. The title of the book, in a Hebrew-style English font, is placed on the cover with the name of the artist (in a regular font). Inside, the book has a dynamic visual flow, with different locations of photographs and sizes.

The photobook is divided into ten chapters, each centered on a specific question that Caraco posed to locals. These questions revolved around their origins and identity, their sense of belonging and their traditions. She interviewed a total of 35 people, including some relatives, aged 19 to 96. As an example, the first chapter is entitled “Karako Family Fragments” and tries to answer the following question: “Do you know someone called Karako?” A helpful glossary at the end of the book lists terms used by those interviewed by Caraco and includes definitions of Jewish traditions, historical events, neighborhoods, and more.

To build the narrative, in addition to her own photographs, Caraco added photographs from her family archives, historical images, hand-drawn maps and drawings. As such, the book recalls the form of a travel diary. It begins with a letter from the artist to her grandfather, in which she tells her story and formulates her intentions. Each chapter then opens with a text that brings together the voices of those interviewed by Caraco over the years, offering an oral history of the community. If the first chapter of the book tries to find connections with the surname of the artist, the second asks where their families come from. Some of their answers include: “We were descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled Spain in 1492.” “They considered themselves Sephardim, but were originally Ashkenazi.” “My parents are pure Sephardim because my family comes from Spain.” Many of Caraco’s photographs capture seemingly ordinary people and places, searching for clues and connections. The visual part of this chapter shows graves in a cemetery, a handwritten family tree, family photographs, as well as contemporary snapshots of Istanbul. A board combines an old poster of the famous tower of the Virgin with a more recent shot, symbolically associating the past and the present.

One of Caraco’s questions was about languages. Preserving the Ladino language, spoken primarily by Turkey’s Jewish community, was a way to preserve a sense of common identity. “I spoke Turkish with my parents, but I wanted my grandparents to speak Ladino with me, otherwise I would never have learned it.” “Ladino means a lot to me: I associate my childhood, my traditions, my roots with it. A number of photographs document Ladino newspapers, as well as book covers and notes, and again next to maps of Istanbul today. The texts and images complement and respond to each other well.

In the final chapter, Caraco asks a question about immigration, and it’s titled “Leave or Stay.” The range of answers once again shows that this question is difficult for many people. The photographs show a bird’s eye view of the city, people strolling along the waterfront in the evening, a wall covered in framed photographs, the facade of the Ashkenazi Synagogue and a shot of an apple cake, among others. Caraco says that the lives of the people she interviewed “could have been my life if my great-grandfather had not emigrated to Switzerland. That’s why I ask banal questions about their daily lives. Each personal story is a fragment of history.

Hidden Istanbul is a carefully researched and thoughtful, beautifully designed and produced photo book. It offers a creative approach to uncovering personal history, using various research processes and archival materials. Working on this book allowed Caraco to reconnect with their ancestors and bring light to their community today. It depicts a slice of the city through the voices and photographs of its residents, and is a moving ode to the demise of Sephardic Jewish culture.

Collector’s point of view: Françoise Caraco doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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