Photographer Serdar Bilgili Stages The World’s Largest Outdoor Photo Exhibition

Intimate portraits stretching across 4,910 square meters of space

by Ann Binlot

Serdar Bilgili wants to show people another side of Istanbul. The 54-year-old can best be described as Istanbuls answer to Andr Balazswith a dash of Roman Abramovich mixed in. As one of Turkeys most powerful businessman, Bilgili is the chairman of Bilgili Holding and BLG Capital, the owner of a few of Istanbuls chicest hotelsThe W Istanbul and Soho House Istanbul are just two of them. From 2000 to 2004 he was also president of Besiktas J.K., one of Istanbuls most popular football clubs. On top of that, hes also the developer behind Galataport, Istanbuls ambitious waterfront project on the Bosphorus that will serve as a cruise ship port, retail, museum quarter and more. That said, the sharply dressed Bilgili also has quite an eye for photography, having studied it under Andy Schumachera former assistant of the famed photographer Ansel Adamsduring his time at the University of the Redlands.

Bilgili is currently developing a 67-meter (220,000-feet) residential building in Istanbuls Niantai districtan upscale and creative walking neighborhood. Global luxury labels like Louis Vuitton, Prada and Chanel hold court with hip, cool luxury shops like Vakkorama, the cooler, younger counterpart to Turkish luxury fashion giant Vakko. Bilgili describes it as “The Old Istanbul” that hasnt changed much in the last few decades. The streets are the same, the apartments are all the same, and you see second or third generation Istanbul people here. When it came time to decide on a temporary facade for the residential buildingBilgili and his team got creative. “You see this building from everywhere and its not nice trying to use it as marketing material,” says Bilgili. “I said lets use this an artists palette, so it should be an exhibition space.”

Bilgili decided to pay homage to Niantai and the vibrant people who make up the district by taking portraits of its vibrant denizens. “I said, ‘Why dont I do a photography shoot, and celebrate the people that are related to this area, that live in this area, that work in this area, or that hang out in this area, that identify themselves with this area'” recalls Bilgili, who titled the exhibition, which runs through the fall, “Portraits of Niantai.”

“Come as you are,” Bilgili told his subjects before they arrived at his studio for their portrait session. His easygoing demeanor, large, gentle eyes and kind smile put his subjects at ease. Among the 35 faces in black and white that can be seen outside the building is the humble Feridun gm, who runs the 67-year-old Hnkar, a favorite eatery for locals, international foodies and celebrities alike that serves dishes like its house specialty, the Hnkar beendi (It literally translates to “admired by the sultan”) a dish of soft, juicy lamb atop a bowl of mashed eggplant. Just below is a photo of the bearded Levent Erden, an intellectual and “accidental” host of a television show that investigates a different aspect of Istanbul each week. “It could be about the history, it could be about current affairs,” notes Erden. On the other side of the building, Turkish singer Nil Karaibrahimgils punchy knotted turban and bright smile shines. Just to her left, a young student named Alara Akdogu clutches her stuffed puppy dog as she shyly smirks at the camera. One character that Bilgili left off the building is the cute dog who sat for him who is usually posted at The House Caf, but Bilgili left him off to avoid causing offense.

Bilgilis photographic work spans into series like “Despite the Barriers,” where he photographed disabled subjects to capture the plight of the human spirit, and a series that highlights a common Turkish accessory: the mustache. Bilgili shot the facial hair of men from various backgrounds for an exhibition in Milan.The entrepreneur and photographer thinks the exhibition is so big that he put it in the running for the Guinness World Record for “Worlds Largest Photo Exhibition on a Building,” covering it with 4,910 square meters (3.05 square miles) of photography. He says the scale and magnitude of the project alone would probably put it in the running. “It’s very difficult to print at high quality on fabric and put it on such a high building,” says Bilgili. “It’s both costly and very difficult.”

It is especially crucial to highlight the positive side of Istanbul in light of the last few years, which has seen numerous terrorist attacks, a failed coup attempt and political turmoil bring down tourism numbers by as much as a third in 2016the lowest number in nine yearsaccording to one Financial Times article. “I think Turkey needs this right now,” Bilgili explains. “Except for the eastern part of Turkey, the Syrian border, or the really eastern border, there is nowhere thats problematic.” Bilgili brings up the fact that Istanbul hasnt experienced a terrorist attack since the New Years Eve shooting at Reina. “Youre seeing Istanbul right now,” Bilgili says from a plush chair in an ornate sitting room at Soho House Istanbulwhich was formerly a palatial residence commissioned by Genoese shipbuilder Ignazio Corpi in 1873, the U.S. Embassy and Residence from 1906 to 1937, and then the U.S. Consulate General from 1937 to 2003. “When you see it, it’s very comfortable, you can walk around, shop around, there’s nothing.”

Images courtesy of Birol Bali