Cemre Yesil’s Hayal and Hakikat: Thumbs, forefingers and murder in the time of Abdul Hamid II.
For a work so dominated by photographed hands, it is perhaps no accident that Cemre Yesil Gonenli’s Hayal and Hakikat opens with the book maker’s equivalent of an opposing thumb.
Pull back the ‘thumb’ of this green, fabric-covered hardback and there’s a number – 91185 – jotted in pencil on a page dulled with mould.
An archive reference? A prisoner number? Population reference? We’re never told. But it puts the reader on edge.
This first page sits on top of the introduction, itself resembling a policeman’s notepad with pages that fold vertically.
Gonenli’s work is a response to the photographic archives of the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918). During the 25th year of his reign, the sultan declared that all murder convicts in the empire be photographed with their hands showing.
Why? An aficionado of crime fiction, Abdul Hamid II was inspired by a pseudo-scientific idea which claimed “any criminal with a thumb joint longer than the index finger joint, is inclined to murder”.
I (as I imagine most readers will) checked my thumb and forefinger joints. It was bad news concerning my inclinations…
Open the belly of this gilt-edged book and there are two blocks (again opening vertically) of duotone images. One, Hayal, a Turkish word which translates to ‘dreams’, is about three times as deep as the opposing Hakikat (or ‘truth’) pictures.
Starting with Hayal, the reader encounters image after image of men bearing their hands to the camera. Each figure is decapitated by Gonenli’s intentional cropping.
Hands, after hands after hands. The reader’s gaze might wander to the men’s clothing or to the ornate woodwork panelling behind them – but will inevitably return to the hands, to assess whether each hand for murderous inclination.
Then, on the eighth plate of Hayal, there are remnants of a thumbprint on the original photographic plate. Whose? Were they examining their own thumb and forefinger? We can only imagine.
What did being photographed mean to these men? What did they make of an assumed insistence they must reveal their fingers and thumbs? Did they know why or who would be looking at them? Did they consciously try to communicate through their hands? Is that why, in Hayal, so many rest their hands upon their stomachs tenderly, a visual expression of benignity?
Hands, hands, hands, so many hands. Then comes the immense rush of discomfort at realising we, the viewer, in trying to learn something of these men through their hands, have become Abdul Hamid II. We are seeing these men as the sultan did.
This is the visceral madness of the despot: That human motivation, capacity or worth might be classified or predicted according to some arbitrary feature. Then, the thumb joint; today, complexion, for example, or political view or faith. It is here that Gonenli’s work becomes searingly relevant.
The relentless drip, drip, drip of hands continues in Hakikat. But there’s a shift. These men are certainly convicts, their hands often hanging downwards, burdened by the weight of their shackles and chains. The photographs of Hakikat often damaged, the originals apparently being dissolved from the bottom up as though the men themselves are disintegrating before our eyes.
Then, towards the end, we encounter a plate of immense beauty.
It shows two men, one freely draping his hand across the shoulder of another in friendship. Beautiful, all the more so amongst the madness.
Hayal and Hakikat is a difficult work to place. But for that lone image of the two friends, its images do not delight. They disorient and demand engagement, they urge us to question the act of incarceration and of those who incarcerate. Hayal and Hakikat is a book that ‘does’ rather than ‘is’ and its natural home may not be the bookshelf but in circulation, from reader to reader and perhaps, just perhaps, to one of the many thousands around the globe unjustly imprisoned for what they think, where they live or how they look.
Hayal & Hakikat: A Handbook of Forgiveness & A Handbook of Punishment by Cemre Yeşil Gönenli
Published September 2020
Co-Edition Gost and FiLBooks
210 x 157 mm3 book blocks (160 pages + 64 pages + 16 pages)
112 duotone images