Notes from the Under Quarant

Photographer Osman Özel’s reflections from an official quarantine center on the outskirts of İstanbul during the Novel Coronavirus outbreak.

“Quarantine”: The concept suddenly appeared in our lives, we don’t know how long it will be here for, and it’s now a contender for the 2020 “word of the year”. (In case you missed it, the 2019 word of the year was “climate emergency”.)

The Coronavirus outbreak is far from the first disaster the global population has witnessed in its lifetime, but the fact that the ensuing chaos is being experienced by everyone, everywhere, at the same time, signals that our lives on the micro and macro scales aren’t as separate as we may think. There is no country we can escape to, no bribe we can offer to avoid infection. A system built on continuing without ever stopping in this case doesn’t have the option to keep going at its usual pace or focus solely on profit. As institutions that belong to the past, such as the European Union, question their existence and practices like working from home find their way into mainstream work culture, a globeful of people gaze into the empty streets from their windowsills.

Although the word “quarantine” is used by a large group of people to describe their current situation, people who stay at home without the risk of being carriers are actually practicing “social distancing” or “self-isolation”. Fashion photographer and director Osman Özel, however, is officially in quarantine, in a dormitory in Başakşehir (a suburb of İstanbul), under government-dictated conditions, ever since his arrival to the city from Paris on March 17th. Özel’s photographs and longing poetic gaze to the outside world not only reflect his own experience, but the deep isolation we have all suddenly found ourselves in.

Seven days into his quarantine, we chatted from our opposing windows about this introverted new world.

Day One: Arrival, Panic. As if we had the plague.

“I was in Paris for a meeting, and ever since I set off to return to İstanbul I’m experiencing deep uncertainty. Everyone was wearing masks on the train to the airport, and health officials escorted us onto the plane.

A long wait began upon our arrival to İstanbul. A quiet waiting from inside the plane, looking at the night outside. Since we took off, it’s like we are our own little country. Finally, they removed our baggage and placed them under a wing of the plane, but nobody touched them. They told everyone to retrieve their own bags, the hectic ritual typically experienced the conveyor belt was now analogue, taking place on the tarmac itself. No one even wants to talk to us, as if we had the plague.

We get on buses and are being taken to an undisclosed location. I will later find out that this is the Başakşehir Sultan Süleyman Student Dormitory, and that a total of 3300 people are there. Chairs that are all a meter away from each other await us in a large common area. The overall feeling of it is something between a wedding hall and an auditorium.”

Day Two: Time is useless without space.

“It took me a very short while to realize that I had more time on my hands than ever before in my life. I also quickly realized that when I had this much time, it didn’t make a difference what time I woke up.

In our current era, physical space becomes less important every day. During these days of exponential contamination in megacities, our homes have gotten smaller and our offices have been our laptops for a long time. In my dorm room I am only allowed to open the window. I cannot go into the corridor or the garden.

Without space, so much time becomes meaningless. I cannot sit still.

The best part of today was when my wife came to the dormitory. We couldn’t see each other but she brought me a few things from our home. Most importantly I felt her, my best friend, spiritually beside me.”

Day Three: On (not) eating animals.

“Besides not being allowed to go outside, the worst thing about quarantine is not being able to make your own choices. I imagine that people staying in their own homes, surrounded by their own things, are doing a little bit better. Here we have to obey the conditions placed upon us. For example the carnivorous meals I have been receiving for three days.

I have been a vegetarian since 2015. Since I arrived here, I can only eat breakfast and pick through the occasional meatless dish. During the first two days they left the food in front of our doors, on the floor, at least today they brought it to our rooms. Everyone has different needs with regards to nutrition, I like seeing what my neighbors write on their notes to the kitchen.

According to the news I receive from outside, the restaurant industry in New York is tanking. It’s still unclear what will happen in İstanbul. I think about the delivery people who have to work while everybody is being told to stay at home. Not everyone can stay at home.”

Day Four: Housekeeping.

“When we first arrived to the dorms all the rooms weren’t ready, but now they come to clean them twice a day. Something that keeps me busy besides taking photographs is cleaning my room. I clean my room every day. There are four single beds in the room, some days I put them side by side and make my bed wider, some days I put them front-to-back like a train.

I’ve been working on a prison documentary for six or seven months, during which I tried very hard to understand the state of mind of the person I was filming. This might be the closest I’ve come to understanding.

I wonder: how can my spirit grow here?”

Day Five: Neighbors.

“Since we arrived they take our temperatures multiple times a day. As far as I know no one has been tested. There is no flow of information, we still don’t know how long we have to stay here. In some sense I protect myself by melding this quarantine situation with my work. But some of my neighbors are very frightened. We hear ambulance sirens approaching from three streets away, and we hear the sirens turn off as they approach the dorms. Some people staying here have been taken to the hospital and back.

My next-door-neighbor B. is one of the people who has difficulty coping with the uncertainty. I comforted her by saying that in situations we have no power to change, we have to take a deep breath and experience what we are living through.

Our non-quarantined neighbors are the police. They are the only people who have been as bored as us since we arrived. They sit on chairs in the corridors for 12 hours and tell the people who leave their rooms to go back in. We have become friends.”

Day Six: The trouble with ourselves, our “inability” to look within.

“It’s become tiring to keep up with the outside world with my phone and iPad, for people to keep calling and asking how I am. It’s a meaningless traffic that knows no end. We don’t speak about anything with depth, we don’t do each other any good. The weird social media challenges people have come up with to spend their time in the last few days made me reconsider this.

One of the messages I remember and have been thinking about in quarantine is: if I’m a link in the chain, what do I have to communicate to the other links I’m in contact with?”

Day Seven: Digital Burnout, Spiritual Quarantine

“As of yesterday I only turn on my phone at certain hours, and only to communicate with my wife, my family, and a few friends. I deleted Whatsapp. I continue to photograph the quarantine process, but I will speak less about it.

I think that as humanity we are facing a unique opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror, to start thinking about how important issues affect everyone. But the mirror is dusty, first we need to clean it.

My body has been in a difficult quarantine for a week. Now my soul is also in quarantine.”

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