Identity & Exile: Zehra

I wanted to work on a series of portraits about someone who felt divided between two cultures. Living in East London at the time I was curious about the Kurdish and Turkish communities. For many immigrants their past seems to haunt them, for others it is a stimulus to create a new life. I was introduced to Zehra by a mutual friend who asked her if she was willing to collaborate with me on this work. Zehra's family initially come from Sivas but her mother and remaining sisters and brother in Turkey now live in Istanbul. The family are Alevi Kurds, the Alevi are followers of Ali but interpret Islam in a very cultural sense, they do not use mosques and are very involved in poetry, literature and music. Zehra agreed to work on this piece, half of the work was shot in London in and around her apartment in Hackney and then rest in Istanbul. She wanted to express the way she thought people might percieve her in England and explore these issues herself.

The family are socialists and active in politics and as such were tortured during the military coup in the 1980's. Zehra was tortured at the age of 13 and watched as her Mother was being tortured. She sought refuge in England as did her sisters and a brother. The journey back to Istanbul to photograph aspects of her past proved to be very upsetting and confusing for Zehra. We visited a railway station where she had seen her Father for the last time at the age of six. We photographed beautiful linen clothes embroidered by her Mother. In this work I mingle the flat in Hackney with her Mother's house in Istanbul. After photographing in Turkey, Zehra ceased communicating with me. I wrote to her suggesting that if she did not want me to use the work that I would respect her wishes and that if I did not hear from her that I would be able to show the work. I never heard from her again. I hope the work does justice to her story and in some way highlights the rich and diverse nature of a duel identity as well as highlighting its at times painful origins.

© 2017 Helen Sheehan