Developing your own personal shooting style is essential for any serious photographer, but it often takes time, practice and finding the right camera for you. But for Kerim Can Ertug it also meant a new way of seeing -something he put to good use when documenting the Easter celebrations on the island of Sicily. Ailsa McWhinnie reports.
Why do we take pictures? It’s the eternal question — one that photographers have asked themselves almost since the invention of the first camera. It’s a question that Istanbul-based Kerim Can Ertug has not only considered himself, but also been posed. ‘Around 16 years ago, I was in Washington DC, photographing urban landscapes, when a homeless man asked me what I was going to do with my pictures — what I was shooting them for,’ Ertug explains.
It was a thought-provoking moment for Ertug — one of many. Born into a family that is heavily influenced by the visual arts (his father was a keen photographer, his stepmother a film editor, his late brother was an art historian and his uncle, Ahmet Ertug, is an architect, publisher and photographer), it seemed inevitable that Ertug would follow a similar path. He did — having been given his grandfather’s Olympus OM2 when he was 12 years old and then joining his high school’s camera club, where he learned to develop and print his own pictures — but first he followed his uncle’s advice. ‘He told me to find something I would make money at,’ says Ertug. ‘So I studied finance and still work as a management consultant alongside my photography.’
Ertug would be the first to admit that, until a few years ago, his picture-taking was characterised by a somewhat scattergun approach. ‘I wasn’t focused,’ he says, with no pun intended. ‘I would shoot black & white, colour, slide, negative… and I’d switch between formats, too, going from medium format to a Hasselblad XPan. My work was all over the place.’
A few months before attending a workshop in 2010 with the renowned Italian photographer Ernesto Bazan, Ertug realised he had to narrow down his approach if he was going to make any real progress with his photography. ‘I was on a sabbatical, so had the chance to review my work from the previous 10 years,’ he recalls. ‘It was at this point I realised that black & white has a special purity of its own and is a powerful medium to preserve the essential message of an image. So that’s what I chose to concentrate on.’ So, with a resolve that can only be described as steely, he entered into a 10-year plan to immerse himself in the monochrome medium. As he puts it: ‘The foundation was already there — it was just a question of stepping on the accelerator.’ Improving his ability to see in black & white was one thing — finding the right camera to aid him in his mission was another. From a technical point of view, Ertug quickly realised that shooting digitally would help him move more quickly than if he were to continue shooting film. When my uncle started the switch from large format to digital, I soon learned that this was something that would expedite my workflow,’ he says.
And so it was that he rented a Leica M9. However, before he even purchased the camera, he tracked down what he knew to be the perfect lens for the way in which he sees photographs: a second-hand Leica Summicron-M 28mm f/2 Asph. ‘My father joked that it was like buying the horseshoe before the horse,’ Ertug says.
The reason for the 28mm focal length is simple: Ertug likes to get in close. He has a classic social documentary sensibility that is best translated into wideangle images shot in black & white. He has a particular interest in very old traditions, be that oil wrestling in northwest Turkey — a sport that dates back to the 1300s — or the Easter celebrations for which the island of Sicily is famed. ‘Sicily’s Easter processions have been taking place in the same way for more than 400 years,’ Ertug explains. ‘It’s very intense. People meditate, they cry in the street, the widows from that year all dress in black, the music is dramatic… it gets under your skin.’
By the time Ertug came to photograph this very special festival, he had invested in a Leica Monochrom body. He had several reasons for this — not least that it helps him focus on his intention to shoot nothing but black & white images for the foreseeable future. And it certainly helps him visualise those images more effectively. ‘With other cameras, when you import your images into Lightroom, they of course appear in colour, which I don’t like,’ he explains. ‘I’ll look at the pictures that have potential in colour 10 years from now. So when I heard about the launch of the Monochrom, I was amazed, as I really didn’t expect anyone to make a camera like that.’ Straight away, he tested it for its performance in low light conditions, and declared it ‘amazing. ISO 800 with the Monochrom is as smooth as ISO 400 in other cameras. It has such a wide tonal range and — importantly — the feeling of a traditional black & white result. It gave me the range and tonal depth I was after.’
The subtlety of the Monochrom is also crucial when it comes to a body of work such as his Easter in Sicily project. While Ertug wants to go as close as possible to his subjects, the last thing he wants is to feel as if he is intruding on what is a very personal experience. ‘I use a wrist grip, so the camera feels as if it is part of my body,’ he reveals.
‘I approach with my hand down and get a feeling for what’s happening — either by chatting with people or by simply observing.’ He looks not only for body language but what he calls ‘emotional language’.
As he says, ‘It’s not just about having a visual awareness. If you understand something, and respect it, the people you are photographing will feel that too.’ And in order to focus his attention purely on making images, he has one very simple trick: he places a cover over the Monochrom’s rear screen. So while other photographers are studying what they’ve just shot, Ertug is busy taking in what’s happening in front of him.
So how does he approach what is, to say the least, a well-photographed event such as these Easter processions? Ertug recalls some scenes where there were up to 20 photographers all battling for the same photograph. In instances such as these, he has a simple solution: walk in the opposite direction. ‘There were occasions when I chose not to shoot any of the ceremonies, so I wandered off and followed the light,’ he says. ‘Something interesting always happened in front of me when I made that choice.’
He is also keen to build relationships -however brief — with those he photographs, and nowhere was this more the case than with one procession that begins on Good Friday and continues through the night. Ertug and a handful of other photographers were there for the duration. ‘We started to build a bond with the people in the procession. Because we were sharing their experience with them, the barriers came down and there was a real mutual connection. We were all enduring what was a very long process.’
It is clear that Ertug is a man obsessed with photography. Not only is his aim to create the best images he can, he places as much importance on the right tools for the job. His relationship with the medium is summed up in his words, ‘The camera is the brain, the lens is the eye — but the emotional intelligence is the photographer’s.’
As for the homeless man’s question from all those years ago about what he plans to do with his pictures, Ertug admits he is ‘still working on the answer to that’. But one thing is certain — with his curiosity, humanity and determination, he’s well on the way to finding out.
Kerim Can Ertug has recently won first prize in the portrait category in the Prix de la Photographie Paris with the image shown on page 30. He was also a finalist in the Gala Awards B&W competition. Look out for him in the future!
2013 Prix de la Photographie – First Place (Portrait Category) & Second Place (Sports Category)
2012 Winner of FotoDC’s Uncover/Discover series
2012 Prix de la Photographie - Second Place (Wedding Category)
2011 Honorable Mention at Gala Awards B&W Competition
2011 Finalist at the Exposure Photo Contest
2011 Prix de la Photographie - Second Place (Personality Portrait Category) & Second Place (Children Portrait Category)
2011 FotoDC Annual Exhibition Participant