While studying abroad in Istanbul in 2002, Swedish photographer Stefan Bladh had a friend show him neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city to get a fuller view of Turkish society. One morning, they passed a motorway bridge and saw a group sitting around a campfire. When he went over to talk to them, the family of 11 welcomed Bladh and his guide with tea. “They were very open and told us about their situation and life,” he says. “I got very touched. They were so humble and had an open mentality, so I decided to go back.”
Bladh has kept in touch with the Kaplans for the last nine years, learning early on that even a language barrier need not hinder their ability to communicate—pen, paper and hand motions helped a lot. Often times, their desperate living situation spoke for itself. “I found them in various places throughout the country, living in cramped conditions without heat, electricity, clean water or proper sewer systems, in abandoned house skeletons and under motorway bridges,” he says. “Difficulties with money, health care and welfare rights take turns playing havoc on their lives, and every day is a struggle to keep the whole of the large family alive.” Their hardships made such a profound and lasting impact on the photographer that Bladh created a book about the Kaplans called The Family, which was published in 2010 by Nouvel.
At the end of this August, Bladh returned to Turkey to show his book to the Kaplans. For the photographer, it was important to depict the family’s struggles, since the plight of those in similar situations is often underreported. Bladh had more or less shown the Kaplans all the photos separately over the last nine years, during which time the family sometimes asked, “Is our life really this dark?”
The photographer says, “I believe it is hard for one to actually see his or her struggle in pictures… [I told them] this is not about telling truths – just about my experience and our time together.”
He plans to stay in touch with the family, returning to Turkey when possible. But as the kids get older and start families of their own, Bladh says that, for now, he’ll stop photographing them. Other mediums, though, aren’t out of the question. “Why not make a documentary?” He muses. “We will see.”