- James Baldwin in Turkey: Bearing Witness from Another Place by Kathryn Hubbard and Barbara Earl Thomas
James Baldwin was one of the most frequently photographed writers of the postwar period and was instantly recognizable. Indeed, as the novelist and critic Charles Johnson notes in his Foreword to James Baldwin in Turkey: Bearing Witness from Another Place, African American literature wore the expatriate writer’s “unforgettably distinctive face” (7) in the 1950s and ‘60s. Photographers tended to show Baldwin bent over his typewriter or sitting at a desk strewn with papers and books, facing the camera, and smoking a cigarette contemplatively. In the 1960s following the publication of The Fire Next Time (1963), his extended essay on race relations in the United States and his emergence as one of the nation’s most eloquent and outspoken public intellectuals, photographers began showing him participating in civil rights marches with celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier or walking the blighted streets of Harlem or sitting in a chair, facing the camera, and animatedly gesturing with his hands. These photographs continue to shape the public’s perception of Baldwin as a writer who despite residing abroad throughout most of his career nevertheless remained deeply committed to bearing witness to the racial inequalities of American society. Privileging Baldwin’s identity as an African American writer, many of these photographs could have been taken anywhere. As a result, they downplay the significance of his self-imposed exile from the United States, deflecting attention from his life abroad and its influence on his understanding of his native land’s complicated racial and sexual politics.
The rarely seen photographs collected in James Baldwin in Turkey comprise an alternative photographic archive, one that promises to transform our understanding of the politically engaged writer. Originally part of an exhibition organized by the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle in 2012, the photographs were taken by Sedat Pakay, a Turkish photographer whom Baldwin befriended while he was living in Istanbul in the 1960s. Two of Pakay’s photographs show Baldwin working assiduously at his typewriter, a cigarette pack and an ashtray full of cigarette butts visible in the foreground, and could have been taken in New York, Paris, or Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the village in southern France where the writer lived and worked in the 1950s. But Pakay’s other photographs are much less predictable and provide a richly detailed portrait of Baldwin’s life in Istanbul. We see Baldwin removing his shoes before entering the Blue Mosque in Istanbul; standing on the bridge that spans the Golden Horn, with the Süleymaniye Mosque in the background; smoking a hookah at a cafe in a village near Istanbul; having his shoes polished at a shoeshine stand in Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul; and standing in line at a food stand advertising Coca-Cola.
Several of Pakay’s other photographs provide a much more intimate portrait of Baldwin’s Turkish exile. We see him embracing friends at a party hosted by Engin Cezzar, the Turkish actor who first persuaded him to move to Istanbul; lounging in the sun with African American jazz singer Bertice Reading, herself an expatriate, at her house on the Black Sea; and playing a tambourine at a party with the Turkish actress Gülriz Sururi standing behind him and talking to her husband, Engin. One of Pakay’s photographs is especially intimate. Vaguely erotic, it shows Baldwin napping in the afternoon at his summerhouse in Istanbul’s Rumelihisarı neighborhood. The sheets on the bed are rumpled, and all we see of the writer is his naked torso turned away from the camera. Perhaps the photographer caught him sleeping after a tryst with a boyfriend. [End Page 773]
In providing such an intimate portrait of Baldwin’s life in exile, James Baldwin in Turkey complements the transnational focus of recent scholarly studies of his work. These studies have shown that the writer’s life in exile profoundly shaped his relationship to American society, something...