A bird’s song can be magical – like music, when it touches the right chord, it induces feelings you didn’t know you had. So it’s not surprising that in Istanbul there’s a whole subculture dedicated to birdsong. A group of enthusiasts there devote their free time to keeping greenfinches or goldfinches and enjoying their songs. The birds are kept in covered cages, because the males – and it is mainly males they catch – sing the most beautiful, mournful song when they can't see any females.
It is, unsurprisingly, a controversial pastime that has alarmed animal welfare groups. And although traditionalists point out that it dates back to the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish authorities are cracking down on the practice (with one eye on their ambition to join the European Union). So the bird men of Istanbul are under threat, and that made photographers Cemre Yesil and Maria Sturm intent on capturing this secretive subculture before it disappears for good.
The pair's series For Birds Sake is about much more than birds though. In fact, it doesn't feature a single bird at all. “We were amazed that the birds are always covered and out of sight," they explain. "For us, photographing something hidden was very inviting.
“It was a world filled with the imagery and sound of birds, but the actual birds were not seen. We could see representations of birds everywhere, but although everything was about birds, the birds were shrouded.”
And so instead their series shows the men hanging out together – in cafes or in the streets of Istanbul – and sometimes, just like their birds, the men’s faces are concealed.
“From the beginning we wanted to make sure that we didn't get anyone in trouble. We asked for permission both for taking and publishing the photographs. We tried to hide the identities of some of the bird men we photographed especially during the bird catching sessions which is the illegal part of this tradition,” the photographers say.
“In the beginning it was hard for us to reach the community. We didn’t know anybody and we literally went to look for covered bird cages in a neighborhood where we heard some bird men were hanging out.”
But, given some of the elements are illegal, finding them wasn’t enough the men also took some convincing that the photographers weren't going to get them into trouble. “When we first started photographing, the bird men didn’t know why we were telling this story, they were concerned that we were going to make a statement against their life-time obsession.”
This dynamic was further complicated by the fact that the photographers were two women trying to enter a male-dominated world. “We were obviously 'crazy girls' for them. In these cafes where only men meet, you never see a woman,” they explain.
“However, after they understood that what we are after is to tell about this fading away tradition and the ‘love’ between bird men and birds, they invited us into their lives. Later they even became proud to be photographed. We became their official photographers during the bird singing competitions.”
It’s how they met Arap Nedim, one of the people who really opened up this world to them. “We were amazed by him, the knowledge he had despite the fact that he had no academic education at all,” Maria and Cemre say. “Through these birds, we learnt a lot about life itself.”
And that shines through their photos – it is an intimate, close-up account not only of these animals, but also of their keepers and life in a disappearing community.