From drought to deluge of visual info

I’ve been in Istanbul for the past week doing research for the historical novel I mentioned in my last blog post!

Also having regular touristy fun with Sam, of course: mosques, ferries, fantastic food. But all the time I’m trying to figure out what Istanbul was like in the 1600s— what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like back then.

It’s challenging. First of all, no commonplace buildings still exist from that century, only monumental structures like stone mosques and the Topkapi Palace. The everyday city was built of wood, and it burned periodically, and nothing is left from before the late 1800s and 1900s. There’s no equivalent of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter or Paris’ Marais neighborhood.

In addition, there are few visual depictions of Istanbul from the 1600s.  Muslim art is non-representational—beautiful calligraphy and floral designs, but no images of humans. The few existing landscapes of pre-modern Istanbul are by Western European artists (whose vision is not necessarily reliable due to Orientalist preconceptions), and even those were rare in the 1600s. 

View of Istanbul waterfront (Eminonu) by French painter Jean Baptiste Hilair from 1789 (Pera Museum)
A view of the waterfront today (the opposite shore at Karakoy) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

So I’ve been wandering the very modern streets relying on imagination to see what they were like 350 years ago—before pavement and neon and chain stores, before trams and motorcycles, before the hordes of Istanbullus and tourists promenading along Istiklal Road with ice cream cones and roasted corn on the cob.

And all these Istanbullus and tourists are taking selfies.

Thousands of selfies. Tens of thousands of selfies! Maybe I just notice it more after two years of Covid isolation, but in the city’s gathering spots it seems like every fifth person is taking a cell phone photo. 

Clustering around local street musicians, people take cell phone photos. Jumping onto an old-fashioned trolley, more photos. And of course the view spots—the grand mosques, the palace—even more cell phone photos.

Cell phones eliminated any price barrier to taking photos—lots of photos. I take advantage of this as much as anyone does. I’ve snapped probably two dozen photos of Istanbul’s street cats. Do I need to remember each cat? Will I want to look at each cat five years from now? Of course not. But I pass a cat, and I think “how cute” or “how picturesque,” and I click and move on.

Sam photographs a street cat, and Ilana photographs Sam / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Data point: Over 6 billion people on the planet now have cell phones.  If only one-quarter of them take only one selfie each month, that’s 1.5 billion new images floating up into the cloud each month. That’s 18 billion new images each year.

It adds up to a visual library with incredible potential for future social historians, assuming they are able to access it.* 

Even simple posed portraits tell us a lot about someone’s place in society. (Think about those Renaissance portraits where there was significance to the way a nobleman was standing, or the items placed on a table beside him.) 

And portraits in a busy public setting tell stories about the surroundings as well as the subject: What’s the demographic make-up of that crowd watching the street musicians? Which products are for sale in the shop window behind them? Why are a dozen armed policemen leaning against a wall nearby?

But there will be so many photos. Probably a thousand photos of the Galata Tower taken each day, and ten thousand of the Hagia Sofia mosque. Making sense of them will no longer be a job for an individual but for an A.I. program. The program will sort and dice them in countless ways—how many scarfed versus unscarfed women, how many same-sex couples touching each other in public, how many Nike sneakers and what age were the Nike wearers? 

For historians and historical novelists of the future, the challenge will not be too little visual data but too much visual data. 

Will it be easier or harder for a historical novelist in 2422 who is trying to recreate the world in which we’re now living?


*I know that future access to all these photos is a big “if,” both legally and technically. These billions of photos are supposedly private, even if stored on Apple or Google servers in the cloud. And who knows if historians of the future will be able to view jpgs? The first novel that I drafted in my 20s was saved on floppy disks, which computers can no longer read. If I ever wanted to revisit that (early, painfully bad, not worth revisiting) work, I’d need to hire a data retrieval company.

Of course I have to include a selfie! For those future historians who want to know how American tourists dressed in 2022. / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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