Heidi Trautmann

787 - The Sky walks with me – Buket Özatay - A photo exhibition – Women in prison

By Heidi Trautmann

 Journalists and writers say….with the title and first paragraph written, the story runs by itself because those first words express not only the essence of what is to be said but also your own impressions and these first words must attract the attention of the reader, must take him/her by the hand and lead him fascinated to the very end of your write-up where you connect to the title again to make it a well-rounded story. This, however, is also valid for any event where you expect the attendance of an audience.

The Sky walks with me…..the title Buket Özatay had chosen for her project’s exhibition is very good, telling…. a woman walking along the high walls of an enclosed courtyard, she can look down and will see her lonely tired feet but she can look up and see the sky walk with her, the clouds, see the sun appear for a short period of rectangular space, feel the wind that chases the clouds or moves the washing on the line, the only signs of a world outside, freedom, a dream.

Buket has written down her thoughts about her project and which I am attaching here because she says it much better than I could ever do. She was visiting these women in the Lefkoşa prison for many months and has talked to them, taken pictures of their daily lives, has found entrance to their innermost thoughts, sadness, has won their trust because she is a woman, because she did not judge but has tried to meet them without any prejudice and with an open heart.

The photos well presented in the beautiful rooms of the Naci Talat Peace and Guest House in Nicosia (north of the Selemiye Mosque) speak for themselves and together with the subtitles they touch in us something ….hot and passionate, fearful sadness comes up and I thought….it is only by a hair’s breadth that we are away from this side of existence; we may cause an accident and kill somebody, that does not make you a bad person, but you will land in prison until you are judged; so many things can happen where the law says, you have done something wrong.

Some lines recited – subtitles to photos - that tell the stories of the women, of their despair, frustration, hope:


I did not ask life ‘why’ if I could, would it tell?

My fate hides my dreams.

I shall depart from this world without ever knowing.

These roads are far too narrow for me.

Dip the bread into freedom, add a bit of the essence of earth and bring it to me.

Here, there are limits to eating a meal as well…

If you scratch the surface of those in prison, you will find human beings.


Hundreds of people had come to Buket Özatay’s photo exhibition, and I am sure they all went home with a completely new experience of thoughts about life. I wonder how Buket came out of this extraordinary experience, a learning process of high intensity. Thank you, Buket for sharing this with us.

The exhibition is still open until June 25, Monday – Friday from 09:00 – 19:00 hrs and Saturday from 09:00 – 14:00 hrs. 

INTRODUCTION and Buket Özatay's Biography

Everyone starts the day with the daily routine of their lives, but I do so with a concern regarding how to discover life with photography and finding beautiful things in life. I say “beautiful” but in fact it does not matter whether it’s good or ugly. Whatever there is that looks good to the eye I strive to capture them from the moment in life and carry them to another dimension. I do know that it is not possible to come across anything that is “beautiful” at this exhibition. However it is a fact that as long as “hope” sparkles in the eyes of the people, beauty will continue to live inside us and in the eyes that see the sun regardless of whether we are imprisoned behind closed doors. How did I start the project concerning the women’s wing at the Lefkoşa Central Prison? I had woken up early one morning and wondered again about “What kind of a photography project I should start?”. A voice inside me was saying that the photography project which I had been contemplating for a long time but failed to give a shape to in mind could be the “women’s wing”. I made up my mind that morning to start this project.

The project work lasted about ten months. I started taking photographs at the women’s wing of the prison during the second half of 2014 and continued until today. For the first time in my 18 yearlong existence as a photographer I wanted to open a solo exhibition and the theme that was blossoming in my mind was the lives of women convicts at the prison. The reason why I concentrated on a project which has a high emotional impact and effect was a curiosity towards the lives of these women. In other words, I wanted to create an awareness about the stories of the women at the prison, the unfortunate wounds that they sustained during the breaking points in their lives, their feelings and thoughts and to bring them together with art lovers.

I had made up my mind that morning when I started a new day with these thoughts. I simply had to realize the project. However I found myself confronted with the question of “Where do I obtain a permit to enter the Lefkoşa Central Prison?” I was excited and impatient. A couple of days later I found myself explaining my project to Interior Minister Teberrüken Uluçay. The Minister found my project interesting and novel and granted the permission there and then. I was overjoyed.

Before the necessary permits were granted, I went to the prison on 3 September, 2014, to meet Lefkoşa Central Prison director Metin Bilmem. The guards at the entrance had been informed of my visit. The huge iron gates were opened and I was told to follow the warden in front of me. I was overcome with conflicting emotions. I was entering a prison for the first time in my life. I was not an inmate but I felt as if I was stepping from freedom towards imprisonment. The gates of the prison closed behind me. All my ties with the outside world had been severed. The first step had now been taken and the only thought that I had in my mind was to touch the shutter release button of my camera during the times that I would spend with the women. While I was swimming in a sea of such thoughts the director stressed that despite having the necessary permits my project could only go ahead if the women gave their permission to be photographed. Then I had to talk to the women and accompanied with a female warden I started to walk towards the building that housed the women’s wing. The warden on duty took me to the room used by her and the female inmates. She gave me information about the prison and the inmates. That day there were only ten female in mates . (Their numbers ranged between 10 and 19 during the visits that I paid later when all the necessary permits had been secured). Two of them were serving sentences for serious crimes, the rest were convicts serving sentences for minor offenses or inmates awaiting their court trials. “Criminals” serving time for murder, theft, drugs, fatal traffic accidents, forgery of documents.

When the time to meet the inmates came, the iron railings were opened and the announcement of “there is a visitor” was made. All the women had gathered together and they were looking at me with bewilderment and vice versa. We all stood in a room that had a dining table, chairs, armchairs, a LED television set hung on a wall and a washing machine in a corner, and we all looked at each other. A little while later Rukiye who was serving a sentence for a serious crime said “I know who you are from the press and I recognize the merit of the competition you organize in memory of your father”.

Immediately after this first dialogue everyone started sharing their memories of when they had first seen me. Some of them had seen me on the television, some in the newspapers, some in a book. Meeting the women was exciting but meeting Rukiye’s dog Alfie was interesting. Alfie was a present from the former prison director. Alfie’s fate was the same as the women of the wing.

Eventually I talked about my project and explained how important it was for me. The first question that they asked was “How do you see us when you look from the outside?”. When I answered they said I could take photographs. Maybe I shall share the details at a later date. What was important was to start the project and to share our worlds with a handful of women at the Lefkoşa Central Prison. They showed me their living quarters, dormitories, workshops and “airing gardens”. My first impression was that it resembled more of a women’s hall of residence than a prison. It was not dark. Contrary to my expectations it was a light and airy place. I felt that it was a good place regarding the “rights of the convicts”. But despite all the good conditions it was still a place where life was restricted. You walk in the company of the sky that you can see behind high walls with barbed wires, from one wall to the next. This is called “pacing up and down” and as you pace up and down, freedom smiles at you as you look up to the sky from your confined limits.

Yes I am bang in the midst of sorrow and excitement of the moment as a photographer. I am at the prison which everyone has such a bad perception of, and looks at the convicts there with pity and pray that God may free them from there. What I had experienced that day during my first visit to the prison was an unsettling feeling, a feeling that felt as if my brain and soul was in pain- as if they had shouldered a huge piece of rock. Having informed the prison director of the positive response, I wanted to get away from there as fast as I could and as far as I could. I spent days on thoughts concerning the next visit. Where and how should I start. I made up my mind. The project had to focus on the human beings. I had to get to know them through chats and somehow I had to touch their hearts through the cracks of the walls of their lives. I went to our second meeting not to take photographs but to talk, chat and listen to the women. Later shooting photographs were added to our chats. In natural poses that were not set up, the women –either alone or in groups- were caught by the camera. I did not stop with taking only photographs, a little while later I started recording the brief moments on the video. With small notes, I was recording all the moments that we experienced together and later I started getting lost in the worlds of these women whom I did not know at all until very recently, as I looked at the short films I had recorded, the notes that I had taken and the photographs that I had repeatedly shot. “Getting lost” had a good impact on me. From another street of life and by staying at a place that is in between and is always dark and opens on to a dead end street, one can only look at one’s self from other people’s stories. I do not know whether I held a mirror to myself or to the stories of the women before their time in prison. I can say that a while later I surrendered to the images that were engrained to my mind and started questioning why.

Even though some of the women were uncomfortable about my presence and my camera during the initial days, in time they got used to me and I got used to them. I was able to establish good relations with them, and we all had many productive hours. Maybe the fact of the matter is that I shared the same environment with people that I would not otherwise have met in my lifetime. I had luch with them and drank coffee. Every time I went I was introduced to new stories and new heroes. I found out that listening to human stories and observing their lives in that restricted environment was interesting. I came across women’s tales that were very different from the ones that existed in my own life and I listened. As a matter of fact the stories were very similar to one another and one common aspect was always the existence of a man. I listened to so many stories that at the end I started questioning and thinking “What is crime?” I realised that nothing was as it seemed. But why? Why? What conditions and reasons had forced them to commit a crime? Why does a human being change his/her direction?

Throughout the project shoots, I witnessed that women can strike a friendship with each other and set up families under every condition, even at the prison where hope is exhausted. They know how to laugh and have a good time. No matter what, life goes on in a fashion everywhere. During my prison work I experienced that the closeness and conflict created by group pscyhe was happening there and thus life was continuing behind those walls as well. It is as if the “Women’s wing” is a symbol of family for us that live on the outside.

The Women’s Wing is where the life outside comes to an end and where you pay for the sins that have been committed. This wing is home to women who have been given prison sentences for a variety of crimes. Their crimes are different but their fate is the same. They are confined within four walls. Only four walls and those walls could not speak.

I have to say that I was not under the influence of any book or film but I did have an emotional turmoil. I went on a journey into a sad tunnel of life. It was my choice. The project and taking photographs was my priority at the beginning but later they were replaced by my conscience. Therefore my work did not prove to be easy. Moreover, I experienced a number of negativities caused by prison red tape and physical conditions of the prison. Despite all the objections and negativities, I was able to take photographs in all parts of the women’s wing and at the seamstress workshop. Interior Ministry, Prison Directorate, wardens and the other personnel were very helpful towards me. Thanks to them the lives of women that I met and who belong to the other side of life will remain with me as memories that I shall remember until my dying day. The visuals that I collected, the moments I lived caused a sensation for me that was akin to a journey taken by a photographer in a virgin land.

No matter what the physical conditions of the prison may be, I wanted to draw attention to the phenomenon of women who are imprisoned and deprived of their freedom. I wanted to reflect the lives within four walls without resorting to a theatrical description. I wanted to use the dramatic, effective aspect of black and white photographs naturally without being set up. I wanted it to be sincere, natural, uncensored. In addition to all that, I want to tell you that I have completed my project by remaining within the limits set up by the women and by respecting their privacy. I wanted to touch the women who had been forced to live for a set time within restricted areas, as much as I could. All photographs at the “The Sky Walks With Me” exhibition are documents that send notes to the outside, from the in side, they allow us a way to see the imprisoned women. At the same time they also show that even the sad images of life in prison can be given an aesthetic expression in the perspective of the artist. I wanted to draw attention to the elements of daily life at the women’s ward that we are not aware of even though it is right next to the town that we live in. I also wanted to draw attention to the details of life in there. Every photograph points to the times and places that belong to convicted women.

We can say that the common feelings of the photographs is that they “hold a light to the details of life at the women’s prison from a special perspective”. Over the high walls of the prison and its iron railings, they turn into witnesses of the lives of convicted women through the lens of my camera.

Since that day that I set out I hope that I have succeeded in now making them visible to all. What you are seeing now is a voyage of documentary photography of the prison which I entered asking the questions “why?” and came out with stories belonging to those women. I can say that this is the first documentary photography work on prisons in our country. Maybe the point that we have reached is a starting point for the future of Turkish Cypriot photography. But what really matters is to show and for us all to look at the women’s problems from the reality of the prison. I believe that it can make a contribution towards shedding light on many of the problems and hopefully develop proposals to solve them.


Buket Özatay, AFIAP, RISF2, MICS

Nicosia, June 2015

Buket Özatay AFIAP, R.ISF2, Master.ICS

Buket Özatay was born in 1972 in Nicosia, Cyprus and studied business management and marketing in the USA before completing her MBA degree in Cyprus. She then won an EU grant for a five month training programme at the EU Commission and is now studying for an associate degree in Photography and Filmmaking at the Open University Faculty of Anatolia University. Since 1995 she has jointly run her family company Özatay Photography with her two brothers and is regarded as the first contemporary female photography entrepreneur in the history of Cyprus Turkish photography. Ms Özatay has produced and presented the television programme “Buket Özatay and Photography Addicts” for national Bayrak Radio TV since June 2014 and also gives beginners photography lessons at the Gönyeli Social Activities Centre (SAM).

Her early photographic portfolio of classical and documentary works took an artistic turn from 1997 when her modernist and abstract compositions brought her to the forefront of Cyprus Turkish photography. Ms Özatay’s works include documentary, portrait, travel and street photography and have been widely published, some as cover pictures, in magazines, newspapers, catalogues and brochures or online. Her photographs have been exhibited in international competitions in 48 countries across six continents and she is the first Turkish Cypriot to have won a first prize in South Cyprus. She was awarded the qualification badge in photography in the USA and France in 2014. Ms Özatay is also the first female Turkish Cypriot photographer to win a gold medal in her home country and at international photography competitions held by PSA (Photographic Society of America) and FIAP (the International Federation of Photographic Art). She is also one of the first two women to win the AFIAP photography artist title from the organisation which has consultative status at UNESCO thanks to her artistic works and contributions towards international events. Ms Özatay also participates in the judging of many short film and photography competitions held in her home country.

In 2013 due to the success she demonstrated in the international photo contests
she won the right to enter the '' Who is Who’’ list in PSA Photographic Society of America.
Her photograph entitled “Admiration” was selected for the “2013 anthology” album of the 22. Trierenbergl Super Circuit (Austria) in 2013, some 2000 photographs which were considered the worldwide best of 2013, yet another first for Turkish Cypriot photography. As a member of the organisation Images Without Borders ISF , Buket Özatay exhibited four photographs at the ISF Women Photographers Exhibition 2014 at Oltremare Park, Riccione Italy. Another of her pictures was exhibited at the Shenzhen International Photography Art Exhibition 2015 and at six galleries in China.

In 2014 together with photographer Tijen Yakup she opened the “Exotic Morocco Exhibition” in South and North Cyprus. She has been organising a photography competition and exhibition since 2009 in memory of her late journalist and photographer father. The Öztan Özatay Photography Competition and Exhibition is the most popular in North Cyprus, attracting record numbers of high quality photographers and the highest volume of entries.



Reception at the Naci Talat Peace and Guest House
Reception at the Naci Talat Peace and Guest House

Buket Özatay opening the exhibition with an extensive introductory speech
Buket Özatay opening the exhibition with an extensive introductory speech

The honoraries listening carefully
The honoraries listening carefully

Buket Özatay
Buket Özatay's speech recorded by various TV channels

in the background one of the first and oldest photographers Mehmet Şik
in the background one of the first and oldest photographers Mehmet Şik

The exhibition on the first floor
The exhibition on the first floor

only y few photos
only y few photos

Officers of the prison
Officers of the prison

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