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Father of the Turks

On 29th October 1923, a modern nation rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first President of the Turkish republic, declared Turkey to be a secular republic based on the separation of the powers of state and religion.

Decades later, the adoration of Ataturk is still alive and well, and his image is ubiquitous. The relationship with the leader's legacy is more complicated in the South East of the country, where the Kurdish ethnic minority is concentrated. Some Kurds see Ataturk's nation-building as an attempt to erase Kurdish and other minority cultures. While there are hardly any images of Ataturk in those regions, most of Turkey seems to be wallpapered with his iconography.

Despite his omnipresence, Ataturk's image is now seen as a sign of political opposition to the ruling AKP party of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many secular citizens raise his image as a subtle sign of discontent. They feel that the modern-day Turkish Republic has strayed
from Ataturk's western-looking, secular principles.

Perhaps the most visible example of the growing role of religion in Turkish politics was the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque in 2018 after it had been stripped of its religious status and turned into a museum by Ataturk. The move was a widely criticised by many, seen as unnecessarily antagonistic towards Europe, especially Greece.

The frequent quarrels between the EU and Turkey belie a persistent willingness to cooperate which is being stretched to its limits due to current geopolitical events.

The European Union has used Turkey as a buffer for refugees from parts of Africa and Asia who transit through Turkey on their way to the EU border. The EU pays Turkey billions of euros to manage the flow of migrants heading further west to the EU. The darker side of this is the well documented illegal 'pushbacks' by the Greek coastguard, where migrants and refugees are forcibly returned to Turkish waters by the Greek authorities.

In Turkey, any anti-government opinions must be worded with care; the law makes it illegal to insult the Turkish state. But that same law, Article 301, prevents the government from erasing Ataturk's imagery now that it is slowly transforming into a symbol of the opposition. Any purposeful degradation of an image of Atatürk, even one drawn by hand on a wall, can be interpreted as a criminal act. In a country where self-censorship is the norm and public protest is increasingly limited, displaying Ataturk is one of the few 'safe' forms of protest against the government and its values.

Like many symbols, Ataturk has an antithesis. During the past two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also amassed a cult-like following and his image has become increasingly prominent in Turkish daily life. It's hanging from street corners, adorning large billboards,
and is printed on a range of merchandise. These two icons of the Turkish Republic, the first and the most recent, represent a visual clash of politics and ideology that goes to the heart of modern Turkey.

This series looks at all the different forms of iconography related to Ataturk - from flags and hastily drawn images on the side of buildings to statues, clothing and the country's only Ataturk impersonator. A popular attraction is the mysterious appearance of Ataturk's face on a hill in
the form of a silhouette for two weeks every year. Each summer, the sun sets at a certain angle, and the shadow cast on a valley between two hills bears a striking resemblance to the great man's face. On a viewing platform at an adjacent hilltop, people hold weddings,
sell popcorn and take the obligatory selfie in the shadow of his presence.
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