Buket Özatay – Business woman, art photographer and co-founder of the Öztan Özatay Foundation
Lifestories of creative people living in our midst - 2014
By Heidi Trautmann
Print your photos and keep them in an album, those you want to share with your families now and in the future, with your kids and grandchildren; you never know what the electronic system will be like as we grow older, the CDs, hard disks can get broken and your important memories will be lost. This is the message Buket Özatay gave me at the end of our interview. I thought it important enough to put this message at the beginning of my story because we are going to talk about photography, the life of a young woman that is determined by photography, actually from the very first day of her life.
“I was born in February 1972 in Nicosia as the oldest of three children to my father Öztan and my mother Feryal and my arrival was recorded photographically; my father came to the hospital and laid my first photo album into mum’s arms right next to me; how could it be otherwise, I was the daughter of a photographer who was used to record all important social events of life in the Cypriot society….”. Buket laughs and I think she has taken it as a sort of omen.
Buket and I are sitting in a secluded corner of the very big shop in Kermiya, one of five of the Özatay family enterprise. Buket is a beautiful young woman, very self-assured, open and down to earth; her beauty is not artificial, it is her smile that reaches her eyes… you get the impression that she cares, that nothing goes unobserved. Is that because her father was a photographer who used to observe things and people closely?
“Yes, you could be right, although my interest for photography came only later into my vision of interest…..but let me tell you some facts about my father’s life, you will better understand: My father who was born in Paphos in 1949 came to Nicosia to attend secondary school at the age of thirteen and joined the famous Armenian photographer Arto Tilbian in the afternoon after school as a sort of apprentice; there he discovered the world of photography for himself and bought his first camera from his boss; he stayed with his him until 1974. Having learnt the basics of photography he undertakes to become a social events photographer, i.e. weddings, births in hospitals, events in associations, and works also as photo correspondent for ZAMAN Newspaper and becomes the sports editor. When was that, I asked.
“It was about the time when my parents met, they got married in 1970; my mother was first taking care of the house and as from 1972 on of the growing family, after me came two boys. We lived in Marmara Bölgesi in Nicosia until I was at the age of 14, we then moved to a very big house in Yenikent Gönyeli. Today I live in the Dereboyu area, in Kumsal, that is the area behind the Golden Tulip Hotel.”
A true Nicosian. How was your childhood, Buket, I asked.
“In my childhood days we had lots of neighbour children with whom I passed my time and played games, mostly in the street, for example BeşTaş(a game with five stones which required some skill) or jumping rope, hopscotch… I was quite wild but in the evenings when all was quiet I sat with mum and read books; I never went asleep without reading, still today my bed is surrounded by books, half read and open to continue the next night.”
The 1970s must have been a hard time, and your father must have been rather creative to make ends meet, I am sure, I said to Buket.
“He took on many jobs, even for the court as sequestration officer, but his main occupation became more and more that of a mobile photographer, wandering from event to event. In our house he had set up a darkroom where he developed his photos but his big dream was to have a shop of his own and finally in 1978 he gave up everything else and got his own shop and studio across the Parliament in Nicosia and, as he was very business-minded and prolific, he had immediate success. It was the time when I had to go to school and my mum’s help was required at the shop.”
Where did you go to school?
“First to ŞehitTuncer Ilk Okulu, that is primary school, later to TürkMaarif College. My primary school was very close to my parents shop so after school I went there and usually made my homework there. It was OK, we were good students, my brothers and I, we did not need a lot of supervising - my brother Özfer was born in 1973 and Özhan in 1981. Besides school I did folklore dancing, otherwise nothing extraordinary, a normal youth.”
Did you help in your parents’ shop or rather shops by then? In holidays? What else did you do in your holidays?
“Yes, I did help in the shops in holidays, but sometimes we went to Turkey or I went to England with mum a couple of times. When I was in high school, one summer my parents sent me to Lyon in France for a summer school with my French teacher. That was a great experience.”
So, when you came of age to decide what to do with your life, how did you decide?
“You may find it unusual that I was not interested in photography at that age but I was interested in making a living and so I went for business administration at the Near East University; after one year we decided that I would better continue at an university abroad and so I went to the University of Kansas to study business and marketing; that was in 1991.”
You were then 19 years old, did you go there all by yourself?
“No, I was not alone, my brother Özfer was already in the same university to study business I am telling you, we were entering an entirely new world. There were 30.000 students of all nationalities, so it was very interesting to meet with people from different background and cultures. American people are so friendly and helpful, they come up to you and say…. ‘Hi, Honey, how are you doing, can I help you?’ that would not happen to us here in Cyprus. Here they sit in cafés and wait for the world to come to them. The Americans took me for a Latina anyway, and wouldn’t believe that I was a Cypriot, ha….they did not even know where Cyprus was.”
Yes, I know, there is not much interest in anything that is outside their country. People from rural areas stay within their boundaries altogether. How did your days run off, tell me about it.
“I was quite busy; besides the main subjects I had chosen Geology and French and in my free time I was travelling around by bike to get myself acquainted with the area; on weekends and holidays we hired a car and went visiting new places; from the States I also undertook trips to Australia and Canada. America is a great country for travelling. I just regret that I did not really care about photography then, I could have taken up an elective course there, it was on the agenda of the University.”
The things you are surrounded with are nothing special when you grow up; one only learns later how precious these things are, really. So, you graduated in 1995 and came back to Cyprus. Have you ever considered staying in America?
“Oh no, never, I wanted to come home, although when I did get back here there was nothing here for me to do, there were no good jobs and I didn’t want to work with my father in his shop. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved my father, he was very good to us, but I wanted to be independent and develop my ideas.”
I can well understand your thoughts about your future, what did you do then?
“I stayed with my parents after my arrival from America and we discussed my situation backwards and forwards. There was not much choice: I could go to a company in Turkey, I could get a government job which I refused altogether; I then started with a newly established bank in the international transfer department but that was not for me and I resigned after one month. In the end, my father bought a small photo shop for me in the Kyrenia Road in Nicosia with a mini studio and some expert employees and I started to manage it, doing the importing, advertising for the local business and so on. My father had taken me to Turkey to introduce me to the companies he worked with, he took me to fairs where I learnt a lot and he let me have courses to learn everything about the technique and I joined workshops. My father was very open-minded and it was good to work with him, I enjoyed it. For five years I worked with him alone, or rather next to him, when my brothers joined the business, we had expanded by then. By 2005 my father had established a chain of five shops – Özatay& Co - which we managed among us.”
You had just recently been presented with two international awards for art photography; I reported in Cyprus Observer, tell me about your career as art photographer.
“As you said earlier, one realizes only later in life what precious things you have right next to you; it was in 1997, the time when I took over my own little shop that I started intensively to get involved in art photography, my father had never done art photography himself, he only did social photography, but the artistic aspect interested me very much. I took courses and as I had been introduced into the possibilities a camera offers – and I had all the material available to me – I developed my skills and participated in competitions. We have photo associations here in Cyprus organizing photo competitions, for example in the North FODER, KIFSAD and FODOS but also for many years now, competitions offered by the government where I started participating in 1997 and was regularly winning awards. In those early years of my photographer’s career my idea was born that one day we would create our own competitions. Unfortunately it only happened after my father got seriously sick with brain cancer and died in 2008. In his memory my brothers and I have founded the Öztan Özatay Foundation in 2009 and have now just finalized the 6th competition which will be presented to the jury in February with the exhibition following in March. My father would have been very proud, we miss him very much, he died by far too young.”
That was a very good idea and it is something you can be proud of. I have reported on the coming event in Cyprus Observer, as I have done over the last years. I was amazed about the high quality. But you had acquired the competence in the meantime by not only participating in competitions but also going international.
“In the beginning of our foundation we were not taken seriously, the ‘colleagues’ thought we would never make it, no mention worthy photographer would hand in his works…but they were all mistaken, from year one we were having great success with increasing numbers of participants. For myself, I was continuing to keep informed on the state of the art and
applied for acceptance into AFIAP (artiste FIAP) which is step One in the roof organization of photography FIAP, of which I have become a member to enter competitions in 35 different countries, also FIAP members. I am now getting ready to apply for the next stage which is EFIAP (excellence FIAP) which means Excellency in photography, and will later apply for the other levels such as Master level as well.”
I recite here from my published text in Cyprus Observer of 16 November 2013:
‘A ‘worth of mention’ prize was awarded to her by FIAP (International Federation of Photographic art) for ‘Cyprus Gate’ and with it she was the first female photographer to win a prize. The other award, a gold medal and first prize, was given to her by the ‘Cyprus Photographic Society’ in South Cyprus for her photograph ‘Endless love’ and thus she was the first Turkish Cypriot to win a first prize in South Cyprus.
“It is a time consuming job, the competition keeps me busy seven months a year, before and after the event, but we love doing it. On February 14 the 6thÖztanÖzatayCompetition closes and we have the jury members coming on February 19 to the Golden Tulips Hotel where they will decide on the winners and the participants to take part in the exhibition which will take place at the Atatürk Cultural Centre from 18 to 29 March.”
I will report on the event on my website and in Cyprus Observer. Buket, I am very impressed that you have kept the competition going for six years now, it is very valuable to encourage people to go and experiment in this artistic field; anybody above the age of 15 17 years with a TRNC ID card, or a permanent residence or with a student card can participate…..And you still find time to go on photo excursions yourself for your own art work. Lately you have been to Mexico and Guatemala and some previous years to Cuba from where you brought beautiful material, one of which has won an award at the last competition you took part in. I am excited to see your new material you brought with you from Central America.
“It becomes a sort of habit to you when you have started in art photography, you observe closely and are always on the lookout for something out of the way, or something striking, contrasts, or just beautiful in composition and colour. I always have my camera with me, but I don’t need to go far to find something unusual, or also something very ordinary which in just a specific situation becomes art, I love Nicosia and I love roaming in the Arabahmet Area, it holds history and beauty for me, and a very special atmosphere.”
So do I, Buket, so do I, and I might consider to get myself a good camera and go roaming myself, perhaps I’ll meet you there and we can have a coffee together.
For the interview Buket has been digging in her photo archive and so I can show you the family at different time periods and also the love that reigned between them.