Leyla Hepsaydir (Technische Universiteit Delft)
This research will map the waste choreographies of Istanbul, enacted through an assemblage of People, Pathway, and Place. The opportunity to explore this system for a full month with the support of the Institute was transformative in exposing to me the hidden world of Istanbul’s kağıt toplayıcılar, or ‘paper collectors’.
Taking the collector as an expert, the method of research was rooted in walking, and taking, with them. I deeply observed, and in some cases, became, one of the collectors in order to understand the hidden routines of their choreographies. The collectors have a deep understanding of the streets, each piece of material they encounter, and the processes involved in extending its life. Their tacit knowledge is impressive and deserves celebration and recognition. Therefore, the journey of the waste is understood as a ‘choreography’ due to the deep knowledge held by the collector; as a learnt series of steps and actions. They tap into their tacit knowledge of where to look, what to look for, and how to react to such findings. While collecting, the workers act intuitively in their environment, and towards other actors involved in their choreography, such as other collectors, pedestrians, vehicles and the police.
The informal waste system of Istanbul exists directly alongside its municipal system. The work of the collectors, although demeaned by existing systems of power, underpins the municipal recycling system of the city. Without it, Istanbul’s streets would overflow with garbage. However, like much of the Global South, the image of the collectors as ‘wasted humans’ is inextricably tied to their work in collecting our ‘human waste’. Despite the marginalisation due to this dirtied image, their informal system is deeply, but silently, interwoven into the city’s fabric. This research will unearth the stories behind the system, that seem somewhat mysterious to the regular city inhabitant.
Istanbul’s waste collectors, arriving periodically in the city in search of work, fall into collecting as a ‘survival tactic’. Through harnessing kinship relationships, migrants can find work and housing with those from their hometown, often at a ‘Depo’. The Depos exist in their thousands in Istanbul, of which I visited approximately 15 on both sides of the city, with my main fieldwork informants based in Dolapdere and Atesehir. The Depo is where collected waste is separated, weighed and transported by truck to a pressing site. However, it also acts as home, where together workers eat, drink, watch television, and sleep in shared rooms. Depos are spatial nodes within the waste choreography, enabling choreographies of materials and people over space and time. They always exist in interstitial spaces of the central margins, but vary in size and demographics; some run by just a four-person family, and some hosting 200 men. Many Depos are comprised of men from central or eastern Turkey who stay for a few months, return to their hometown and their families for rest and recuperation, before beginning the cycle once more. Many of the much larger depos also host immigrants from Afghanistan and Syria on a more permanent basis. I am interested in how, through the lens of waste, migrant communities have set up lives in Istanbul.
I value the documentation of non-documented practices of marginalised populations in knowledge-making. The Fellowship opportunity was transformative in unearthing the narratives of Istanbul’s informal waste practices.