The photograph of Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Prime Minister Erdoğan, kicking a protester in the mining town of Soma has become a symbol for the contempt with which the Turkish government is treating its people. It shows Yerkel kicking the anonymous protester already lying on the ground as he is manhandled by two special forces policemen. Yerkel’s elavated position in the upper echelons of the Turkish government is signified through his smart suit and well-groomed appearance. The violence he exerts on the protestors is not just accepted, but it is actually facilitated by the policemen who render the protestor defenceless.
Little is known about the man lying on the ground. But perhaps this is precisely the point about images such as these. The man lying there is a ’nobody’, just one of so many, who has, in all likelihood, lost a relative, a friend or a neighbour in the Soma mine. The photograph is a visual allegory of Erdoğan’s contemptuous speech in which he explained that ‘such accidents happen’ by reverting to statistics from 19th century England. Here is a government representative of an oppressive regime kicking a defensiveless man in mourning – 19th century feudalism indeed.
With specific reference to Turkey, the photograph of Yerkel kicking a protestor is strongly reminiscent of the now-iconic image of a woman in a red dress pepper-sprayed by police in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last year (I wrote about this image at the time). By looking at these two photographs, the woman in the red dress and the protestor being kicked in Soma, we are witnessing the evolution of anti-government protests in Turkey. The woman in the red dress signifies a young, urban and well-educated demographic who has become disillusioned with the status quo. The image of the Soma protestor, on the other hand, signifies an important shift in anti-government sentiment as it expands towards the wider population, smaller communities on the periphery and the working classes (supposedly Erdoğan’s stronghold).
The photograph of Yerkel kicking a protestor is a powerful image in the sense that it dramatically illustrates an oligarchical system of power as it is experienced on the ground. It depicts how a government (signified by the suited politician), supported by the repressive state apparatuses (signified by the uniformed policemen), controls and subdues a population (signified by the anonymous man). The image is highly symbolic because the power structure of the state is so precisely replicated – even to the point that the politician is physically ‘above’ the protestor.
Nevertheless, to claim that this image is only representative of the regime in Turkey would be incorrect. In fact, this photograph could have been taken in any other oligarchical system where corporate profits are prioritised over human lives. This is what makes the photograph so potent because it more broadly addresses the imbalances of power between a select few people exerting control (if not physical then certainly financial) over the vast majority of people. Rather than just illustrating a specific incident in Turkey, the photograph represents the arrogance, contempt and violence with which protest is stifled today.