It is 10am in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m about to have a conversation with one of my favorite photographers in the world – Ebru Yildiz. I started doing these interviews back in 2012 with the simple intention to connect, learn, and to highlight work that spoke deeply to me. What I did not expect to happen is to make life-long friendships along the way as a result. Connections are so important in any creative field - not just to be able to work – but because as artists we have to continue to listen, uplift, and look out for one another. I guarantee that if you talk to another artist about their craft in real life, you will gain more insight and inspiration in a few minutes than you could in a full day of scrolling on social media.
When you see an Ebru Yildiz photograph you know it right away. Her work gives equal respect to both the dark and the light, which is one of the qualities that first drew me in. Skillful lighting combined with an ability to thoughtfully connect with her subjects is what I believe helps create such a unique atmosphere in her work. She is one of the true New York City staples and has cemented her place in photographic history with her approach (not only to photography), but also the way she uses it to help others. I am honored to have a few minutes to talk to her in real life today and I hope you all get something positive out of it.
I’m sure you heard about Mick Rock passing away yesterday.
Yeah I did and I really love his work. It was one of those things that hit me more than I thought it would for some reason. You realize how important that person is for you when they pass away. I got emotional right away.
It was similar for me as well because he was just one of those larger than life figures that I think we all looked to for inspiration. His style behind and in front of the lens was so iconic - nobody saw the world the way that he did. When you lose such a unique presence like that…he impacted photography and he impacted music, you know?
I was thinking this morning how lucky I am that I lived in the same time period he did. I saw Mick Rock in person and kind of have a sense of his personality (not that we spoke or anything) but I feel grateful to have lived in the same period and the same goes for David Bowie and Lou Reed - even though I never got to see them in real life.
When you started out in your career, who were the photographers you looked to? What did you learn from them?
It’s interesting, because when I started it wasn’t the music photographers I was looking at. The first photographer that shook me to my core was Diane Arbus. When I started being interested in photography, all of the names you would hear were all male (Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, etc). When I found Diane Arbus, her work taught me that it doesn’t have to be a perfect photo - it doesn’t have to be an incredibly beautiful woman with no imperfections.
There were other female photographers I found very inspiring, like Sarah Moon and Deborah Turbeville. Those are the other two I found very interesting from the beginning, because the photos were never perfect. It wasn’t technically perfect, but very emotional…it had so much character and so much personality. I think from then on I never worried about my photos being perfectly in focus or if there’s motion blur etc.
It’s more about the moment and the emotion you’re capturing.
Exactly. I recently went to a Sarah Moon exhibit at Fotografiska in New York and it was absolutely beautiful.
I was really inspired by old Life Magazines when I started out.
They’re incredible. Life Magazine is something so special. I wish I was alive when it was being published on a regular basis.
Sometimes I think about how easy they had it back then because of how cool things looked. You could seemingly point a camera at anything and forty or fifty years later you’re like, “Wow, things just don’t look like that anymore.” So I wonder if fifty years from now we’re going to have the same sort of sentiment about how things appear now.
To me it’s already happening. When I first started hanging out in Williamsburg (which was around 2000), now I wish that I was taking photography more seriously then because there was so much to document - this was before I had even started out. It looks nothing like it used to now. I am a hundred percent sure we’re going to say that sooner than you think.
What is the current climate of the photography industry from your perspective and how has it changed throughout your career?
I’m originally from Turkey and as an immigrant I couldn’t start taking freelance jobs until very recently actually - I got my green card in 2012. Up until that point, I was on a working visa which allowed me to work for one company only. The process to get your visa worked out is very painful - it takes a really long time and money - especially if you are from a muslim country. It takes so much emotional power to go through that. All of the things that I've experienced - I just thought it was apart of being an immigrant in this country. Even though it took me fourteen years to get my freedom to work for whoever I want and start my career late, I happen to think you can either identify yourself as a victim of a situation or you can think, "Even though all of these things happened, I survived it." At the beginning, getting jobs was really difficult and of course being a woman didn't make it easier either, but I kind of feel like everything is changing in that sense. People are more open and there’s a better support system between everybody.
"YOU CAN EITHER IDENTIFY YOURSELF AS A VICTIM OF A SITUATION OR YOU CAN THINK, EVEN THOUGH ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED, I SURVIVED IT"
So you’re feeling hopeful?
I do feel hopeful and now there are different groups of people organizing like Women Photograph and Diversify Photo - both organizations are trying to raise the voices of people who did not get a fair share before - so it won't be only white males getting jobs. I think those are all positives.
I can feel a lot of that in your photography. There’s a lot of depth, emotion, and mood – especially in your lighting. I think a lot of who you are comes out in your work and it’s apart of what makes it so unique. As artists, I think we are consciously and subconsciously filtering our experiences and all of those challenges we've been through into our work.
That’s absolutely right on and I think you literally can’t replicate the same photo - even if you wanted to. The way we were raised, our friends, where we were living, which magazines we looked at, all of these things affect us - without us even realizing it - they create our own filter. It’s like your own fingerprint, there’s no other person on Earth that could see something the way you see it.
How has the pandemic affected your photography?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it and just say that I was in a really depressive mood for the first part of it. I’m sure many other people experienced the same - all of your shoots get cancelled - everything you worked for is taken away from you. It’s the heaviness of that and now you have too much time to think about what you’ve been doing and all of those things kind of add up. I didn’t make any photos during those first times, but when the Black Lives Matter protests started happening it kind of brought me back to life and gave me purpose again.
I did a benefit project for an organization that was formed during the pandemic called NYC Nightlife United. We decided to make a zine from the photos to raise money for them. It was really nerve racking because it was still early on, so just the unknowns and physicality of it was stressful. The people I photographed were working in venues, artists, dancers, drag queens, and all different kinds of people. The venues were closed, the bars were closed, nobody was going out, so when they came to the studio - it was like the first time in months they had put nice clothes and make up on - it was really uplifting for them. Just the fact that I made them feel good for an hour or whatever - that made me feel good. Emotionally, it was very rewarding and that’s how I sort of came out of the depression spiral.
One of the things I wanted to credit you with is using your photography for a greater good; from offering your studio space to LGBTQIA/BIPOC photographers for free; to making zines benefiting your community. Could you share a positive experience you've had as a result of these efforts?
People do not become successful photographers overnight. They’re courted by editors and there are other people that are making a difference in their career by supporting their work in some way.
It is totally who you know in photography or any creative field.
Yeah, exactly and if you've never experienced shooting in a studio - it’s unlikely you’re going to get a job to shoot in a studio to be able to expand your portfolio. We started this thing where we are giving free studio time to BIPOC and LGBTQIA people just to offer that. We pick it completely randomly - it is not like "You’re a good photographer or you’re not a good photographer," because who are we to judge that? So we randomly pick someone and give them the space. They’ve been really appreciative and I hope it makes a difference for someone - for us we have the space why not do that?
But to answer your question, one thing that I experienced (that I have to say made me so happy) was one of the personal projects I worked on. I wanted to do personal work that highlighted people that don’t get highlighted necessarily. I like the power of photography in that sense. One of the last projects I started working on before the pandemic was photographing women that work behind the scenes in the music industry. I really wanted to highlight these women because they literally pour their heart and soul into someone else’s career and they never get credit.
So I took photos of managers, publicists, sound engineers, tour managers, security, costume designers, and independent label owners. The project is called For The Record and is still ongoing because there are people that I have it in my heart to photograph but never did. We had an exhibit and all of them showed up - they were so supportive of one another - I could tell it made them feel good. It was such a positive energy and it made me so happy. Normally I’m so critical of my work, but this project made me so proud because of the people in it. I think personal projects are so important because you get to do what you like - not only in terms of subject matter - but also stylistically as well.
How has having a studio space shaped your photography?
Having a space to work in is great, but sometimes it can become boring after a while because I really truly love shooting on location. I like the excitement of being in a different space.
Before I got the space, I knew nothing about studio photography or lighting. I have always been so interested in lighting - you’ll see me staring at the wall watching the light move. Having a studio gave me room to play and made me feel comfortable - but there is still so much to learn.
What I’ve always loved about your work is how you play with shadows and darkness. I feel like that’s something a lot of portrait photographers miss.
There’s nothing I love more than light. And light makes all of the shadows I love. It’s funny because when I’m shooting and directing the sitter to move slightly - so they are just in that perfect spot - I can tell they think I’m a little bit off. Like maybe they’re thinking, “It can’t make that much of a difference” but it really does.
It absolutely does and I think that’s a large part of what separates one photographer from another. When I’m on a shoot it’s the same thing, the light has to be just right. I think it's important to be particular.
Lighting is so important in a portrait. You need to hear Paolo Roversi talk about light. He’s so mesmerized by it. Even though he is so deep into his career of many years, he still sounds like a kid talking about light.
I've been kind of struggling recently with Instagram. I know it's a great marketing tool, but I also don't want to be subconsciously making work based off of what I think people will like, you know? I always want to make work totally free of what anyone else will think about it. Do you think Instagram specifically is creating bad habits for artists?
Overall I find it incredibly depressing. There’s no way it has positive psychological influences on anyone. There are so many good things and so many bad things as well. I’ve been thinking about this so much, because I feel affected emotionally. I have to explain it somehow in my brain so that I can do my best not to be affected by it.
The good thing about it is that you have access to people. It kind of democratized photography in that way. It still has gatekeepers of course - there are photo editors that could give you assignments or agents that could work with you - but it gives you the freedom to reach these people directly and people can find you easily.
"PEOPLE SEE SOMETHING ON INSTAGRAM AND TRY TO DO IT IN THEIR OWN PHOTOGRAPHY THE NEXT DAY WITHOUT EVER HAVING A CHANCE TO DIGEST WHAT THEY SAW"
And the irony here of course is that we met through Instagram and I'll be promoting this interview on that platform as well, so for those reasons I do appreciate it - like you said - access is definitely a positive.
The bad thing is though, there’s so much visual pollution – too many photographers – too much of everything - it is kind of overwhelming in that sense. People are making work without basic knowledge of photographic history or respect for the previous generations.
I think the most important thought I have on this is that photographic trends come in waves right? Now people see something on Instagram and try to do it in their own photography the next day without ever having a chance to digest what they saw. You can’t possibly make it your own that fast. These visual trends happen and then you’re like, "When did everybody start using gels? Why didn’t I get the memo?," or bedsheets as backdrops. It’s just like all of the sudden everybody's doing it - I think it’s kind of weird in that sense.
Absolutely and it's so easy to be affected by it all, especially as a creative person.
I like looking at photo books, or old issues of LIFE magazine. You look through things, you think about them, and you come back to it - so you can digest it. Everything is just so fast now.
When you go to a gallery and see art in real life...it’s a very organic experience and you have time to process it naturally.
Yes, that Sarah Moon exhibit I mentioned - seeing the prints that she had to approve - it's a whole process. It made me so emotional to see all the little details, little textures on her prints, those are things you can't really see online - it was mind blowing. It reminded me how we are so conditioned to consume visual art through our screens that we almost forget the value of seeing something in person. That’s kind of why I started doing zine projects because I didn’t want things to only exist on a screen. It’s so important to hold books, go to galleries, and see things in person other than living a fake life inside a screen. Even just hearing your speaking tone - the way you choose your words - it gives me an idea of you that Instagram communications could never. It's a human experience.
I feel like a lab rat sometimes. I’ve found that I’m way more inspired outside of social media than I am inside of it. When I’m inside of it I feel like that inspiration is toxic somehow - it feels like it’s very disingenuous.
I don’t want to find myself in a spot where I’m questioning my work based on likes. It has nothing to do with what people are liking, but having that knowledge doesn’t make you stop thinking maybe one photo was better than another. You have to remind yourself how stupid it all really is. You cannot let other people affect how you feel about your own work. It’s soul sucking. If you’re off Instagram it seems people think you’re not working. I don’t care how many likes any photo gets, I’m using it because I want to post images that are representative of my work.
"YOU CANNOT START YOUR DAY BY LOOKING AT INSTAGRAM. NO GOOD IS GOING TO COME OUT OF THAT"
I think we just have to be mindful of how we use it and how we interpret it. It’s a very psychological experience - I don’t think it’s healthy.
It is absolutely not healthy. I’ll tell you my secrets - I’ve finally found a bit of a balance. I put limits on Instagram - I’m only allowed on it an hour. I never look at it as soon as I wake up - that's helped me a lot. I do other things like read the news, make coffee, or meditate. You cannot start your day by looking at Instagram. No good is going to come out of that. There’s nothing that could come out of that that is going to make your day go better. I do everything I can to give my day a good start and also going to bed - I set my phone in a way that stops sending me things after 10pm. I don’t see emails or any notifications. I just don’t look at my phone after 10. If I receive an email at 10 - I’m not the president of the United States - it can wait until tomorrow. Those helped a lot and it’s improved things psychologically because you go to bed with a clear mind and you start your day with a clear mind and in the middle of the day if you’re going to entertain yourself that’s on you I guess. That’s how I see it.
What is the greatest album ever made in your opinion?
I don’t even have to think about this. For me the most influential album that changed my life was The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s an album that I’ll never get bored of. I remember clearly the first time I heard Sunday Morning at a friends and ever since I’ve been obsessed. Brian Eno was quoted in saying, "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."
What do you want to be remembered for?
That’s interesting. Being a good and honest person I guess? Compassionate. I would want to be remembered that way.
What is a mistake or an experience that you’ve learned from?
Let me think about that for a second, because I feel like I’m constantly making mistakes. I guess it would be when there was a moment when I stopped taking photos and thought I was too old to make photos in the music industry. When I think back now, I’m like “What was I thinking?” I was so young. You’re never too old to do anything. If you want to do something you need to just do it.
What would you say has been the most helpful thing in your career besides your camera?
I think relating to people. I relate to people and I’m sensitive to how the other person is feeling so I think that’s really important, especially in portraiture. Being able to realize if someone is uncomfortable etc. Being in tune with the person, engaging, listening, and being aware of what they’re going through I think is really important.
Do you have any of your own work hanging on your walls at home? What significance do they hold for you personally?
I have four photos hanging in my apartment that are mine. CBGB’s had a gallery space called CB’s gallery. You could drop off prints and they would consider to include you in one of their group shows. A friend of mine said “Hey you’re in CB’s gallery - I saw your name listed – when is the opening?” I was like “What? I didn’t know anything about it and then I realized they left me a message at an old phone number and I never got it. It was an exhibit called “Back to the Bowery” and Mick Rock was in it with all of these other great music photographers. The opening was in two days and they said if I could bring them prints they would still hang them. I went to the darkroom and printed them, so I got in the show. It was so meaningful for me and it was the first time I ever showed photos in an exhibit like that. It was such an honor to be in the same exhibit as other photographers I admire. Those are emotionally important to me so I hung those up in my apartment.
Is there a question that you haven’t been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked?
Well when I saw some of the questions that you sent yesterday I really genuinely appreciated them, because usually I get questions about like “What was it like to photograph this famous person” and so on. I really appreciate how thoughtful your questions are and I like how they’re about process and how I work as a photographer other than the superficial things. I really appreciated all of your questions and I haven’t been asked any of them before so I appreciate that.
There’s a portrait of yours that I felt really drawn to on your page of Elif Key. There’s so much emotion and it’s such an intimate moment – which is so hard to capture that organically. Your work feels like you have very intimate relationships with the people you photograph and think that says a lot about who you are as well.
Sometimes I feel like people get so stuck on who’s in the photo, what they do, and how important they are - they base their value on that. I appreciate that you’re not looking at it because of who is in the photo - because I am sure you don't know her - but for the quality of it. She's a phenomenal Turkish journalist and writer. I always found Elif fascinating, because the way that she writes is kind of the way I'd like to take photos if that makes sense? She was so surprised and intrigued that I wanted to take photos with her. I’m so blown away that you single handedly picked the photos I made with her because they mean a lot to me.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to?
It’s funny because I just sold my cameras and bought new ones. I’m not a gear person at all. I went mirrorless and got the Canon R5 and a Fujifilm Medium Format camera. I’m looking forward to trying those out - I’ve got some quiet time before it gets busy again in December - so I’m hoping to do some tests with those cameras.
I also started writing a pitch for a documentary about a Turkish musician.
Oh that sounds cool, what kind of music?
It’s psychedelic music.
If he agrees to do it, I’m going to try and raise money for it and get it going.
Wishing you all of the luck with that project - hopefully it comes together. Thank you for talking to me for so long today - I really enjoyed it!
Thank you! I really appreciate your interest in my work - it means the world and I genuinely mean it. It is so meaningful to speak to someone who’s into photography and you’re excited about music, light, and the whole process. I appreciate your time. Thank you!