On Bergera's cross-cultural urbanscapes
"While an outside observer can take things out of proportion by paying excessive attention to certain details, these
are often the same details that come to define that city’s nature."
Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, 2005
The Nobel laureate Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk observes, via Walter Benjamin, that the connection between
a city and its inhabitants are always mediated by memories whereas the enthusiasm for seeing the city from
the outside and for relishing the picturesque and the exotic belongs to the visitor*. Inaki Bergera’s exquisitely
paired photographs of New York and Istanbul testify to precisely such a palpable enthusiasm for looking and seeing
“from the outside”, unburdened by familiarity, memories or prior experiences.  I must confess that when on a late
September day in 2006, I accompanied Bergera on a walk through the steep streets of Istanbul’s historical
peninsula going in and out of classical Ottoman mosques; I had felt rather uneasy watching him walk right into
womens’ segregated prayer areas with camera at hand. I am not sure whether this was a fear of what might transpire
if he were to be spotted by angry mosque officials (after all, he was my guest and I felt responsible) or a deeper
realization that photography is indeed some form of transgression –that “there is something predatory about all
photography” as Salman Rushdie puts it**. I remember thinking that Bergera’s favorite subjects –mosques, covered
women, dilapidated buildings and poor children playing in dirty streets connected him to a long tradition of orientalist
travelers to Istanbul from Pierre Loti to Le Corbusier –outsiders who relish in “the exotic and the picturesque” in a way that
most Istanbulites, routinely going about their daily business of living, do not. Looking at the photographs in this exhibition
now, I see that Bergera’s interest in the devout, the poor and the dilapidated (not only in Istanbul but also in New York)
is not so much an orientalist fascination with “the exotic other” than a sympathetic visual documentation of “the margins
of modern society” everywhere. Rather than objectifying his subjects as frozen, ethnographic specimens posing for the
camera, Bergera’s images portray them in their everyday life, engaged in mundane daily activities within the quotidian
settings of their respective urban contexts, and most importantly, oblivious to the photographer/predator.
My personal favorite is the image of a young Muslim woman in Istanbul, sitting on a bench and bending down to adjust
the buckle of her pink, rather fashionable shoes with sharp, pointed toes. While her headscarf and modest clothing,
coupled with the black carsaf covering the old woman next to her from head to toe, point unequivocally to Islamic
sensibilities alien to a western audience, it is her familiar feminine gesture, not to mention the pink shoes, which effectively
domesticate the scene, removing any hint of a threatening “otherness” from it. Similarly, the way a Turkish man holds
the hand of his little daughter in front of a store or the joy with which two black kids from New York lift their baseball bats
in unison convey a sense of life, hope and normalcy that is often absent from the more stereotypical representations
of Islamic cultural codes or American racial poverty respectively. With remarkable perceptiveness Bergera
catches such mundane moments and renders them familiar, thereby showing the possibilities of photography as an
effective tool for empathy. 
What resonates with me most in this exhibition, however, is the juxtaposition of New York and Istanbul in this particular
manner, employing cross-cultural symmetries as both an aesthetic strategy and a social commentary. The resulting
images of the two great cities are not only beautiful but provocative as well. They offer compelling testimony to
Bergera’s gift to use photography not just as an artistic pursuit but also as a critical cultural inquiry at the same time.
Surely, neither the aesthetic/compositional qualities nor the thematic content of these photographs would have
been impaired if the exhibition were to focus on only one or the other of these two cities. Nevertheless, by the simple
act of pairing these images, Bergera accomplishes much more: he tacitly undermines the notorious East-West cultural
divide and offers us captivating visual testimony to underlying similarities in difference. For example in one of my favorite
pairings, images of New York’s Hasidic Jews juxtaposed with Istanbul’s Muslim women in headscarves (images which,
on their own, would have been exotic ethnographic vignettes), portray a shared human condition that transcends
differences of culture, religion, nation and geography, albeit without erasing them. This is no small accomplishment in our
postmodern world that tends to be seen as either increasingly fragmented by sectarian discourses of cultural particularity,
identity and difference, or conversely, as increasingly homogenized by discourses of globalization and transnational
“brandscapes” that are the same everywhere. Bergera’s photographs project a much more complicated world: one that
acknowledges the existence of cultural difference while at the same time negating the incommensurability and insularity
of such differences. Old men sit along sidewalks and watch the urban hustle and bustle in more or less the same way all
over the world; hawkers are universal fixtures of urban landscapes whether they are selling donuts in New York or walnuts
in Istanbul. A woman kneeling in front of a Madonna in New York and three women prostrating in a mosque in
Istanbul, while belonging to very different worlds, nonetheless both represent the persistence, against all predictions of
modernization theory to the contrary, of traditional religious practices in modern, urban contexts across the globe.
Difference is recognized but rendered relative, contextual and global at the same time. 
Leaving no doubt as to the disciplinary formation of Bergera as architect/photographer, architecture is quietly but
persistently present in these photographs. The particular repetitive rhythm of the cast-iron pillars of a storefront in New
York is different from that of the masonry arcade of the outer loggia of an Istanbul mosque but they both possess an
unmistakable sense of architectural order that characterizes most great cities of the world. Even in their dilapidated
and graffiti-covered states, these ornate doorways, textured walls, façade modulations and shuttered shop fronts evoke
a rich cosmopolitan history and a past grandeur that makes New York and Istanbul what they uniquely are. It is however,
Bergera’s skillful use of architecture as an indispensible but subtle backdrop for his urban stories that is so remarkable
in these photographs: a backdrop that is absolutely essential to the meaning of these images without overpowering them.
The human subjects of the photographs and the architectural fragments framing them exist in a state of “symbiosis” that
allows the viewer to understand both the people and the places in a richer, more layered way. As such, “a tale of two cities”
crosses/blurs boundaries, not just between cultures but between disciplines –in this case, the disciplines of architectural
photography and urban anthropology.  Also, by their masterful treatment of form, composition, color and light while managing
not to draw attention to this mastery, these images occupy a refreshingly ambiguous ground between professional art
photography and good amateur snapshots. For example, the “street level New York” in Bergera’s photographs is very
different from, say, the crisp New York skylines of Alfred Stieglitz. Nor are his “social topographies of Istanbul” comparable
in any way to the melancholic streets, prostitutes, shop keepers and workers in the Istanbul photographs of the
internationally accomplished Turkish photographer Ara Guler. Refusing to be categorized in any conventional artistic or
academic genre, Bergera’s images offer us strangely familiar, living and breathing fragments of urban life in a seemingly
effortless, uncalculated, almost “un-composed” way, thus drawing the onlooker into the scene as if we too are walking
these streets with the photographer.  In the end, what we see in this exhibition is the work of a talented artist who is not
only architect and photographer, but also, as far as I am concerned, an explorer across continents (perhaps not unlike his
Spanish ancestors!). While savoring these photographs of New York and Istanbul, we cannot help but wonder where
he will set sail next, armed with his camera and his cosmopolitan curiosity.
Sibel Bozdogan, GSD Harvard University and Istanbul Bilgi University
*  O.Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, p.235
** S.Rushdie, “On Being Photographed” (1995), Step Across This Line: collected non-fiction 1992-2002, New York:
   The Modern Library, 2003, p.104
[Text on 'A Tale of Two Cities', 2008]