Lose the Labels: How Eylül Aslan Combats Pigeonholes Through Her Photography

By Marili - 4 min read

Born and raised in Istanbul, Eylül Aslan discovered photography as a means of overcoming society's limitations to find and express her truest self. By embracing subjectivity and rejecting binary ways of thinking, she invites the viewer to apply their own meanings to her category-defying work.

Eylül Aslan is hard to pin down: Her work is at once playful, provocative and aesthetically exquisite. We chatted to the Berlin-based photographer about the ways she creates figures that are fractured and bare, consciously objectifying the female form and challenging ideas of gender and sexuality.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you find photography?
When I was a child, my mother tooka lot of photos and I was often her subject. I think I was around 16 years old when she gave me her old camera (which I still use) and I started to take photos with it. So, I would say that she was the one who introduced me to photography. I was taking photos of things that got my attention, and back then – as I was trying to understand who I was growing to be – I used myself a lot as a subject. The first photos were mostly self portraits. But something that also got my attention was the light and how it created shadows.

What comes to your mind when thinking about the notion of femininity and masculinity?
I immediately think of the color red when I think about the notion of femininity, and the word “vulnerability” with masculinity.

“Putting people into groups and labeling them only causes sadness in their lives, as much as ours.”

Should we even try to define what those are in the first place?

I think these are two terms that need a makeover. What I can tell from my experience is that putting people into groups and labeling them only causes sadness in their lives as much as ours. I think through love and acceptance we can learn to not label people, we simply allow them to be whatever they arebecause in the end we don’t have control over anything in life.

Definition leads one to jump to a conclusion but when it comes to gender, it’snotblack and white and nor does it even have to be. I don’t need to know how someone feels about their gender to form an opinion about them, but sadly most people do. Hopefully, this is changing.

How do you think naming something changesthe way we think, identify, and relate to ourselves and others?

As I was doing my studies in language and literature, I was amazed by the way words change everything about the way we express ourselves. Language is an amazing tool and I like to use images to tell my stories. That’s what I love about photography. I could be thinking about something completely different while taking a photo, but the viewer will find whatever they want in my work.

I could be seeing something as “feminine” or whatever else, but the viewer might see it as “masculine”. Ithink the two terms are heavily influenced by culture and therefore language. In my opinion, it’s not a universal notion to be either feminine or masculine.

“When something is named a certain way, there is no space for freedom.”

That’s why we need to just let go of whatever we think they should be. When something or someone is named a certain way, there is no space for freedom orpossibility for development andexpansion. Any form of limitation is harmful to the natural development of a person.

As I was growing up and becoming a young woman, I was expected to wear high heels and dress more “feminine” because that is what wasexpected of “women” in my culture. But I was never interested in wearing high heels. And because I did not wear them, it made me feel like an outcast of some kind. I know it’s a silly example maybe, but when girls want to become doctors, pilots etc. in Turkey, it is almost a shock to people – and that’s because of their expectations. A girl is not only interested in playing with dolls and becoming a mother. She can be much more if only she was just left to be. In the end, this kind of labelling is directly influencing people’s lives.

How is gender and identity important to your work?

Questioning my own “sexuality” and “femininity” were the reasons I started taking photos, so I would say it has a big part in my early work. Now that I am 28 years old and have been living in Germany for the last 5 years, my focus and interests have been slowly shifting to different subjects. But I will always be interested in gender and identity because it’snot only important when someone is becoming an adult, it’s a lifelong journey to find ourselves and I hope to discover many new parts about myself and my personality.

How has your Turkish background influenced your work, especially in the way that you portray women in your photos?

Taking photos is a very personal and intimate experience for me, I only do it to please myself to be honest. The fact that I was living in Turkey was the reason I started to take photos. I felt like I was not able to express myself as I truly was: the society expected other things from me and through photography I could have a world of my own, where I got to show myself.

By trying to understand what I was going through, the difficulties of being a woman and living in a patriarchal society, I was able to relate to the problems of other women like me. Even the smallest things in daily life werea challenge, walking home late at night would be considered dangerous because another man could harass, attack or even rape. I was anxious most of the time being outside in crowded places. Being artistically creative meant being weird and it felt like nobody really understood or appreciated what I wanted to say with my photos. I guessI wanted to give all the women a voice of their own, to show that they can change the status quo by simply staying true to themselves and what they want to achieve or become in life.

“Through photography, I could have a world of my own where I got to show myself.”

We have entered a new frontier in public discourse, where the binary thinking around gender is being challenged. Why do you think going beyond the binary is challenging for so many people?

I guess it’s because of the traditions. In some cultures it’s much stronger than others – like in mine. The roles of men and women are drawn clearly and once something “unexpected” happens, this shocks people. I think they are simply scared of what is unknown to them, which is really sad.

With the power of representation and the responsibility that artists and the media share, in what ways do you think your authentic images may open and expand the conversation?

I resisted sharing my photos on Instagram for a long time, only to give up in the last months because if I’m being honest, it’s a big part of our lives now. I find it a little sad but that’sjust how it is. I had thought I didn’twant people to scroll down fast and consume my work in such a manner, on a small screen on their phones. It bothered me somehow, but now I realize I was beingtoo closed-minded in a way. If this is the right way to reach a lot people to give an important message, then it should not matter how we do that. We have all become very visually interested in what is going on around the world, we tend to think that if something is photographed, it’ssome kind of proof, though it may not always be.And I guess thisis why it’s good to use social media, in order to have our voices heard.

“We have all become very visually interested in what is going on around the world.”

Would you say that your photography is an expression of yourself? If so, in which ways?

Yes, it definitely is. I do what pleases me, I am very selfish in the way how I like to photograph, meaning I could not care less about “trends” or what others would find interesting. It’snot for them, it’s only for me and when someone else enjoys what I do, it’s fine but that’s not what motivates me. I try to stay true to myself as much as I can, without being influenced.

Tell us about the future. What kinds of projects do you have planned in 2018?

Last summer,as I was launching my new photography book Trompe L’Oeil, I found out that I was pregnant, so I haven’t had the chance to promote my book as much as I had wanted to. So, thatwill be my plan for this year.

For my book, I met twenty men through the dating app, Tinder. I asked them what their favorite and least favorite body parts were, and photographed them. On the left side of the book are thebody parts they dislike and on the right side are their favorites. I knew I was asking them very intimate questions and wanted to reciprocate such vulnerability, so I asked each man the same question about my body. I then photographed my own body parts based on what they said. So, it’sbasically about the perception of beauty and how subjective it is. And also a light critique of our new dating habits. If you fancy, you can order it here.

If you were to summarize your photography and your relationship to it in 5 words, what would you say?

Love, live, light, patience and honesty.

This post was created as part of #NotYourCliche, our movement away from antiquated stock stereotypes and towards a more relevant, inclusive, representative view of global culture and society. If you want to see more of Eylül’sfemale gaze photography or get your hands on one of her photography books, visit her beautiful website or follow along on her Instagram feed.

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