A mistake in the development of modern cities has been the notion, inspired by short-term traditional economic thought, that all urban space must be productive. This common line of thought leads to a denial of the true holistic value of green spaces. After all, what would New York or London be without Central or Hyde Park?

After moving to London this year, I noticed how much the city and its citizens value green spaces. After a long, cold, and gloomy winter, Londoners flock to parks – and start to bloom with color like the very flowers that surround them. This observation inspired me to pursue a portrait project depicting the city’s residents while they enjoy themselves outdoors – eating, resting, playing, and laughing. Taken from above, these intimate photographs of The Picnic (2013) provide the viewer with an unusual perspective into peoples’ lives.

The Picnic (2013)

A few weeks after completing the series, an interesting twist occurred when a group of citizens gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to stage a peaceful sit-in in order to protest the park’s demolition. The people occupying the park met with a harsh response from the authorities and this turned their protest into country-wide demonstrations against the government’s supposed recent authoritarianism.

This tiny space, situated in the heart of Turkey’s biggest city, used to provide local urbanites with a small green oasis away from the otherwise congested and overdeveloped surrounding area. Now, the Turkish government apparently plans to turn the park into a mall, thereby making the space ‘more productive’.

Inspired by these events, I travelled to Istanbul to photograph the occupation, quickly realizing how similar some of the scenes encountered here were to my previous portrait series in London’s Regent’s Park. So, a collection of photographs taken from above in Gezi Park became The Piknik (2013).

The Piknik (2013)

These two portrait series are similar in many ways. As part of the Turkish protest, park-goers enjoyed outdoor activities like yoga, romance, music, playing football, eating snacks, and reading books. Yet despite the similarities witnessed in both parks, there were also many differences to observe. For instance, gas masks replaced sunglasses in some cases, while people swapped fashion magazines for newspapers, concerned what might happen to the park and the people inside it. Simply by being there in the park, these people were standing up to their government.

While the London photographs were taken on a ladder, in Istanbul I had to make do with a chair. This chair was just what I needed as the park was too crowded to navigate with a ladder. To name another difference, the park in London was well-tended with green lawns and healthy flowers, while the grass in Gezi Park clearly showed the effects of days of confrontation and occupation. Overall, the photographs serve as visual testimonies of the different situations.

In terms of public space, malls are not as universally accessible as forests, fields, or parks. Malls are most enjoyed by those who have money to spend, whereas parks allow all sorts of different people to get together and enjoy themselves, regardless of socio-economic status. Green spaces have the potential to become hubs of inclusion and social cohesion. London seems to recognize the true value of its green spaces, so Londoners can remain confident that their parks will not be demolished. In Istanbul, on the other hand, people are fighting to show just how important these spaces are in face of a government that seems to be in favor of commercial spaces that are removed from nature and not necessarily welcoming for everyone.

Finally, we need to promote a more holistic view of space, one that recognizes the complex and long-term value of green urban spaces. What is happening in Istanbul right now is indicative of how citizens value their right to enjoy themselves outdoors in a space that is neither ‘private’ nor ‘productive.’  Parks mean a lot of different things to people – and their function needs to be respected. They serve a vital purpose, no matter the city. With this in mind, I am not surprised that in Turkey one little park and the people who wish to protect it came to symbolize the country’s broader grievances.

All photos, incl. header image, by Colin Boyd Shafer.