Five people in burqas stand on and near a motorcycle on a salt flat.

Photos of the Pain – and Beauty – of Being an Immigrant

Turkish photographer Olgaç Bozalp's new book explores the journeys made by migrants the world over.

On his return to Turkey in 2018, photographer Olgaç Bozalp found himself in the Instanbul, far from his hometown of Konya. Surprised by feelings of isolation and his disconnection from a country that was nominally his own, he started a photographic project that would become his new book, Leaving One for Another.


Bozalp reflects on his own journey from Turkey to London, making use of staged photos, observational photographs taken during his travels and the ephemera of migration. It’s an emotional portrait of the motives and movements of people, where the lines between documentary, sculpture and performance are blurred.

A person sitting on a bed hunches over with a floral cloth covering their entire head.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

VICE: How did the project start out?
Olgaç Bozalp:
I’d been living in London for years, but in 2018 I decided to move back to Turkey, to live in Istanbul. It wasn’t until I moved back permanently that I realised I felt completely estranged from the place, from the country. At that time I started to consider these existential questions: Why had I left in the first place? Why does one move anywhere? What makes people into emigrants? 

How did those feelings transform into this book?
I’d wanted to be a fashion photographer, I did a lot of commercial work for maybe five or six years between 2009 to 2016. In the late summer of 2018 I decided to start taking a different sort of photo. I wanted to explore those ideas around alienation and moving. I went back to my hometown and shot some stuff, but I knew I wanted to do something different from straight documentary, something less direct. 

A mattress stands against two trees with red and white flowers covering it in a pattern.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

I asked an art director friend of mine in London – Raphael Hirsch – whether he wanted to collaborate on a project: to build some sets and help stage some semi-documentary, constructed images. He got involved, and we shot maybe ten or 12 photos. I didn’t really have any money at that time, so it was all done for about £300. Poses or props were often improvised. We pretty much either built these set ups with whatever was around in the environment, or we bought cheap stuff from the bazaar in Istanbul. 


I couldn’t see how it could ever be a book at that time, so I decided to just release the photos. The moment I did they got a lot of attention. That’s how it all started. Ironically, I started a project on migrating, and found myself on the move non-stop, without a permanent home for years. 

A person is laying down fully submerged in a fish tank with water while bubbles come out of their nose. A light blue wall has a photograph of a man with two flowers hanging off of it and a clock.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

Those constructed images were the starting point. But they only make up a part of the book. How and when did the more traditional reportage images come into it? 
The staged stuff was cool, but it was repetitive, I didn't want that to be the whole project. So, from that point on, whenever I was travelling on assignments – or just for my own reasons – I took photos of things that made me think about people moving, about migration. Over the years I collected images, bit by bit. I also included family photos, and the material possessions of migrants that I gathered during my travels. Some of the images that look staged aren’t, and some are only partly posed… I wanted to keep a balance between reality and fiction. I don’t want people to clearly understand the book, I don’t want it to be obvious what's real and what is not all the time. 

A collection of photographs of uniformed men sit on top of a floral throw pillow, the pillow is on top of a rug.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

Are there any images that stand out as being most closely tied to your own emigration from Turkey?
Throughout this project I shot a lot of images in my grandmother’s house. It’s not changed since I was born. Those images are connected to me, my personal feelings about “home”, about moving. For example there’s an image in the book of a woman behind a curtain – every time I visited when I was living abroad, when I left they would go behind that same curtain and wave goodbye. That was my leaving, and I wanted to memorialise that moment. 

A person with their back towards the camera stands in front of a window with lace curtains on their back.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

Why did you opt to look at migration through your own life, rather than taking a more documentary-based tack?
We wanted to reflect my personal memories, my experiences of moving, as well as Raphael’s experiences. I wanted to mix those with my observations of migration. I can’t just say, it’s about “refugees and migration”. It is, in part, but it’s more about why would you move from one place to another? Perhaps for reasons that aren’t as dark or serious as war – perhaps you move for work, perhaps because you don’t get on with your family. There are so many reasons.

But that said, there are images in the book that reflect or reference imagery we have become familiar with from the media – the lifejackets on the coast, for example. The motorbike is another image that recurs in the book. When I was in Asia I saw how a simple bike can be a home, a business, a means of transportation. I wanted to use the bike as a representation of this idea of place and home, but also of mobility. 

A group of people with their backs towards the camera wear blue plastic ponchos and stand on a motorcycle leaned against a group of rocks, pink smoke can be seen in front of them.

Photo: Olgaç Bozalp

There are some unsetting or strange images in the book, but overall the project feels quite optimistic. 
Again, I’m not coming from that dark background. That’s not my experience of migration. If I made a project about that it wouldn't be honest, in my opinion. It's not about me fleeing a warzone. Because I’m not... 

Leaving One for Another is on show at 1014 Gallery, in London, from 2 February - 2 March, 2023.