Work / Photography

Olgaç Bozalp and Benjamin Kirchoff photograph Turkey’s male belly dancers

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Olgaç Bozalp

Belly dancers are one of the most popular of Turkish cultural exports, but somewhere in recent history, zennes — male belly dancers — have been forgotten. “They have been part of Turkey’s culture for a long time. I always watched them on TV, especially on New Year’s Eve,” photographer Olgaç Bozalp explains. Now, zenne dancers are few and far between. “I am guessing it’s not appropriate in the public eye anymore,” Olgaç reasons. “I think people in Turkey are interested their performances as it’s an old tradition, but I’m not sure if every family would support their son to be a male belly dancer.”

Olgaç Bozalp’s latest story for Replica Man had the photographer tapping into the zenne tradition in a first time collaboration with stylist Benjamin Kirchoff (formerly of Meadham Kitchoff). “I am a big fan of belly dancer trio Mezdeke — they used to be quite famous around 90s Turkey and they were my grandma’s favourite,” Olgaç explains. “Last year when I went to Istanbul I heard their song randomly after long time and I thought instantly about how I’d never seen them in fashion content. I was originally thinking about photographing female dancers then I remembered that zennes, the male dancers, are even more unique. I mentioned the idea to Benjamin and he loved it. He commissioned me for the story and we decided to shoot in Istanbul.”

Once in Turkey, it took Olgaç around three weeks to find and convince people. “I had to visit the clubs where they perform,” he says. “I managed to find Turkey’s first male belly dancer Yilmaz Birsen, who is 75 years old now through a journalist,” Olgaç explains. “We met him in a restaurant and he agreed that we could photograph him a week later. We completely lost connection with him a day before the shoot so Benjamin and I decided to look for him on the streets of Istanbul without a clue. After couple of hours searching, we found him randomly on the Istiklal street. That was a unforgettable moment for us.”

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Olgaç Bozalp

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