Picturing the Labor Landscape: The Silahtarağa Power Plant and Istanbul’s Electrical Infrastructure
By Nurçin İleri
In March 1913, André Joseph Auric, former chief architect of Lyon’s municipality (who became head of the Istanbul Council of Science during the mayoralty of Halil Edhem Bey in 1909) and a member of the technical commission that assessed the applications for the electrification of the city, published a report in Génie Civil Ottoman. He claimed that once the construction of the Silahtarağa Power Plant was completed, Istanbul would have a monument of modern technology, “the plant would be of a size and scope of which there were few similar in Europe and which was almost unique in the world. At the time, no nation had undertaken the simultaneous construction of such an electrical plant and network.”
This essay centres on a series of photographs, which I first came across at an auction in November 2020. These black and white images depict Istanbul’s first urban scale power plant, the Silahtarağa campus and extension of the grid to the city in the early 1910s. These silver gelatine images, which range in size from 15 x 12, 17 x 12, and 18×13 cm, are all numbered and sequentially dated and feature short descriptive annotations in French. Since they include only French, and not Ottoman Turkish, annotations, one might argue that the images were commissioned to appeal to multilingual subjects of the empire or international audience rather than the local Ottoman population. They are intended to be presented in a specific order and demonstrate the evolution of the technical work.
Despite the fact that Silahtarağa was Istanbul’s sole urban-scale electric supplier from 1914 to 1952 and played a critical role in transforming industrial, public, and domestic spaces until its closure in 1983, research on this power plant and the city’s electrification remains scarce. However, due to the recent global energy crisis, attention to the history of energy/power regimes has grown, and Silahtarağa has become a significant component in understanding Turkey’s energy history. Any kind of documentary sources, textual or visual, on the history of this power plant or the city’s electrical landscape is now academically and materially invaluable. This entire series of images on Silahtarağa was sold to different people at exorbitant prices at auction. Unfortunately, neither the photographer(s) nor the series’ provenance were disclosed. The story behind the photographs, and how they came into being, was lost as these photographs gained commercial popularity, giving rise to new and separate ownerships following the auction.
In this essay, I elaborate on six images depicting various aspects of the electrical infrastructure’s labor landscape. The aspirations and intentions behind these images become clear when one carefully examines them as a series, which show the early stages of the construction of the power plant buildings, the machines and technical equipment used, as well as human and animal labor working in the construction and laying wires into the streets. This assemblage of images opens up conversations about the multiple emanations these photographs sparked, enriched, or obscured in relation to the interconnected histories of international capital, technology, the environment, and labor.
In 1909, the Ottoman Ministry for Public Works appointed a technical commission to draw up specifications for the concession for a central power station and electrical lighting in Istanbul. Istanbul, as the Ottoman Empire’s capital and commercial port city with a heterogeneous population of around 950,000 at the end of the nineteenth century, piqued the interest of international corporations as a lucrative investment opportunity. However, the previous attempts at adopting electrical infrastructure did not work out due to imperial concerns about the ambiguous and unfamiliar characteristics of electricity, the city’s physical characteristics being incompatible with electric technology, long-term concessions made to gas companies, and Sultan Abdülhamid II.’s (r. 1876–1909) personal, political, and financial concerns about the transfer of electrical technology.
In 1910, a call was made for the electrification of the European side and Suriçi (walled city) of Istanbul, and eight prominent foreign firms presented themselves for the competition. After a careful examination of the technical and economic advantages offered by the competitors, the Ottoman Ministry of Public Works deemed the Austrian-Hungarian Ganz Electric Company the most suitable bidder and granted the company a 50-year concession. The Ganz Company formed a consortium with the “Giros et Loucheur” and the “Fouquian et Warrant” groups, whose applications were also found successful by the technical committee in the international competition. Soon after, a joint stock company, which would be subject to Ottoman regulations and rules, was established in April 1911 and named the “Ottoman Anonymous Electric Company”.
In a period when photography had already evolved into a significant cultural medium used by imperial authorities, capturing images of people, places, objects, and daily life around the globe, the concessionaires in public utility and infrastructure projects, multinational companies, and industrialists also used cameras for surveillance purposes and to record scientific management or institutional heritage.
As Rick Halpern suggests, it was quite common for corporate managements to consciously use photography for utilitarian purposes. Including the maximum amount of information in the frame, the images under scrutiny here functioned as a means of documentation that would bolster multinational entrepreneurs’ power in capitalist competition across multiple geographies. Based on this, I assume that these images, as records of progress, were either commissioned by the Ganz Company, the French Company Giros et Loucheur (founder of Société Generale d’Entreprises-SGE), or the Istanbul Consortium (Union Ottoman Société d’Entreprises Electriques à Constantinople), a multinational trust established in September 1911 in charge of the subsequent electrical works in Istanbul.
Landscape photographs documenting the extensiveness of and progress on the construction site may be the most spectacular images in the series. The Ottoman government assigned land to the Ganz Company in Silahtarağa towards the end of the Golden Horn, which is a natural harbour at the junction of Alibeyköy and Kağıthane streams. The spacious deep-water basin on the Golden Horn was thought to facilitate both the transportation of coal and the supply of cooling water for the plant.
Moreover, the Golden Horn was already a harbour with industrial facilities, allowing the company to avoid energy loss in transmitting electricity from the power plant to the factories. Figure 1, for instance, depicts the natural environment of the power plant, surrounded by water and a hilly terrain. A few small and big buildings – the rectangular one on the right was built as accommodations for workers who most probably had to work for long hours on-site – and a bridge were the human-made interventions in this landscape. The image also shows three groups of workers assigned to different tasks: the construction of a dike and channel, the construction of a pier required for the transfer of cooling water and coal, and the transfer of wooden poles to the pier. The photographer resorted to landscape photography to help humble the scale of human figures and the work they have been doing while emphasizing the expansive landscape that the company must pierce. As Zeynep Çelik points out, infrastructure construction photographs “depicting vast, dramatic landscapes attest further to engineering technology’s effort to conquer nature,” and this image, with its natural, human, and non-human components, reflects the company’s desire to transform the landscape.
The image is not just about human impact on the terrain, though. The photographer frames the scene as a new type of landscape with the evidence of human impact creating aesthetic forms that are also worthy of visual acclaim. An effort to highlight the variety in patterns across the terrain as well as the deliberate composition where the figures in the lower third of the photograph create a visual balance similar to those seen in landscape paintings is also apparent. Thus, in addition to its documentary function, or an effort at visualizing the conquering of nature, the image is also an appreciation/celebration of the beauty of form, pattern, and composition of the industrialized/ing landscape.
The task of piercing into the landscape was not easy though, and the photographer’s task was to highlight the topographic and technical difficulties that the company had to overcome. The transport of electric reels to Pera, which is nearly six kilometres away from the plant campus, is depicted in Figure 2. As the bureaucratic and commercial centre of the city since the nineteenth century and as a part of the sixth district municipality, Pera favoured modern public utilities earlier than other parts of Istanbul. Compared to most infrastructure photographs, what draws our attention in this image are not the tall mountains or rugged earth. Nor is it the majestic new machines that would be used to pierce the landscape. Rather, human and animal labor, which have mostly remained as anonymous numbers in state documents, come to life in this image. The picture depicts how the landscape was still challenging to its living labor on a warm August day. While some workers were doing their jobs, others seem to notice the camera and pose. Animal power, seen in this image through the use of donkeys and mules, is employed to transfer materials required in extending the grid, to remove the earth and stone that came from the excavations, and, perhaps, to carry water and food for the workers.
Other than the cable carts, no other carts, trucks, or vehicles appear in the image, men and pack animals literally look like the only carriers available. The image’s framing shows that the construction team had a long way to go and a hill to be crossed, and from their posture with their hands on their waists, some of the workers already look tired. The laborers in this image appear to be the construction workers digging the land for putting the electric cables. Most figures wear the fez and other examples of everyday attire. One man wearing a white wide-brim hat and black suit, perhaps the engineer, gesturing to those digging in the terrain while two men standing behind him seem to be his associates. Along with pointing to class differences, the outfits in this photograph also highlight the hierarchies among the company’s employees.
Figure 3, taken two days after Figure 2, depicts the installation of the cable unwinding from the electric reel to the duct. Unlike trenching, which does not necessitate technical knowledge, the installation of electrical cables does. Thus, in this close-up shot, technicians, most likely European, in western suits are depicted in the foreground.
The company in Silahtarağa, like many international companies carrying out infrastructure projects in various geographies, hired foreign engineers and technicians for the organization and advancement of technical work, while assigning some tasks that did not require technical skills to members of the local population. At this time in photographic technology, movement would often be captured in a blur since it was too fast for the camera to capture. Thus, the visual composition of the figures posing for the image seem to counterbalance the sharp diagonal created by the bar of the wheeled carriage carrying the electric reel, rendering the scene as one of dramatic tension. The repeated circles of the wheel, cable, and the reel itself, which almost takes ups the entire center of the image, shows the monumental scale of the reel in comparison to the humans surrounding it.
In Figure 4, the workers, not their labor, are the focus of the photograph. The workers consciously pose for the camera, seemingly taking a break from their task of laying down electrical cables in Harbiye, a residential area near Pera mostly populated by upper- and middle-class families. The three men in the centre of the photo, one carrying a notebook, another with his hand in his chest, and the third carrying a kind of rope or whip, seem to be the leading figures in charge of the work’s progress. There is a possibility that the man with the black bowler hat and bowtie, who stands behind the carrier, is a bystander. However, since he is featured in this photo frame, he is more likely to be one of the company’s executives. In addition, the child on the far left, who could be one of the workers, raises the question of whether child labor is commonly used in power plant construction and grid laying.
Since the power plant was still under construction, most of the photographs shot during this period were taken outdoors. However, a couple of images, for instance Figure 5, depict the brick production process that were used in the construction of buildings. Unlike some of the previous images, the workers in this photograph, each dealing with a separate task of brick production, seem to be aware of the photographer in the room and negotiate different levels of intimacy. In its pursuit of highlighting the mechanical machinery, the photographer’s carefully calibrated lens helps us comprehend the production hall’s linear and logical arrangement, from the manufacture of the bricks to their transportation. This staged shot, which features workers dressed in both traditional and western attire, piques the viewer’s interest in the ethnic and religious composition of those who formerly worked at the power plant.
Photographs of various technologies such as electric reels, cables, dikes, and cisterns that comprise various components of the general electricity network are also included in the collection. Figure 6 depicts the montage of a 20,000-volt box, which, when covered with earth, would quickly become an invisible part of the electrical infrastructure. In contrast to wide-angle images that sacrifice technical details to highlight the expansive landscape, this close-up shot of the montage, in which the spectator can almost feel the aridity of the soil and the texture of tools made of aluminum, copper, and iron, helps to magnify each individual component that makes the electricity network possible. The image shows what was deemed important to document, where the photographer’s gaze was and/or what the company commissioned/wanted to be documented.
The first phase of Silahtarağa Power Plant’s construction was completed towards the end of 1913. In the early months of 1914, the plant started to supply electricity to Istanbul trams and to three substations in Beyazıt (Suriçi), Tozkoparan (Pera-Galata), and İstinye (along the Bosphorus) for private users. The total power of the central station was 13,400 kilowatts, and the capacities of the main supply cables and main distribution cables were 8,000 kilowatts. Upon completion, the electrical infrastructure of the city generated promise and hope among the city’s population for a “civilized” urban life with better living conditions, fast transportation, a vibrant nightlife, and developing industries. However, the outbreak of World War I would complicate the supply and use of electricity in the city, as well as generate new controversies and tensions among international, local, human, and non-human actors.
This series of photographs depicting the initial stages of a technological achievement of universal importance aligns with Auric’s words mentioned at the start of this essay. Despite capturing fixed moments, these images of the plant construction and grid extension promote a sense of movement and progress in the electrical landscape. Having utilitarian purposes, these photographs display the capacity of the scientific management of the company that commissioned them. The images attest to the company’s engineering expertise in dealing with potential topographic and technical hardships in the construction of buildings or extension of the grid in a city dispersed across a peninsula and two continents divided by inlets.
Visualizing, and making the viewer contemplate, the labor processes and profiles, the images also hint at the hierarchies that were at play in the electrical infrastructural labor landscape by depicting various actors ranging from skilled workers to the unskilled, and from humans to non-humans. The framing of the images, in which the natural environment, human, and non-human figures are central but also presented in certain symmetries by the photographer(s), exemplifies an appreciation of the forms, patterns, and compositions of the industrialized/ing landscapes. With Silahtarağa’s environs being one of the most populous areas in the city today, often discussed as a contemporary example of urban sprawl, these photographs also give us an opportunity to explore the history of the region’s changing environmental and industrial landscape.
 Osman Nuri Ergin, İstanbul Şehreminleri, A. Nezih Galitekin (der.) (İstanbul: İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi, 1996), 237. Genie Civil Ottoman, published between the years 1910 and 1914, was an illustrated monthly magazine about the technical and industrial of public works in the Ottoman Empire.
 Auric argues that most of the large plants developed from modest beginnings, see “Travaux de L’Usine Electrique de Siligtar” Génie Civil Ottoman, March 1913, no. 9, 92.
 The power plant complex was converted into an energy museum between 2004 and 2007 and continues to serve as a private university today.
 I benefited from Cengiz Özkarabekir’s (one of the numerous buyers) collection in this paper. I would like to thank him for allowing me to use these photographs.
 “Revue Universelle d’Electricité (Paris, 1908-1916),” La Lumière Electric, Vol. 7, 4 September 1909.
 “L’eléctricité en Turquie,” Le Moniteur Oriental, 24 Février 1910, pp 1-2. The bidding companies were Union Ottomane, Fouquian et Warrant, Westinghouse Electric Company, Société Générale, Syndicate Suisse, Giros et Loucheur, Société Anonyme d’Electricité de Ganz and the Schneider Group (MM Schneider & Cie, Crédit Mobilier Français and Société des Grands Travaux de Marseille), see The French Diplomatic Archives at Nantes, Electricité de Constantinople (1905-1910), 166PO, 550, 136-1-4.
 “Dersaadet’in Rumeli cihetiyle mülhakâtında kudretü’l-elektrikiyye tevziât-i umumiyesi,” Conventions et Cahiers des Charges, 1336 (Constantinople: Zellitch Freres, Pera, Rue Yazidji, 1920).
 “L’Electricité a Constantinople,” Revue Technique d’Orient, no 1, 15 Septembre 1910, 12.
 See Ahmet Ersoy, “The Sultan and His Tribe: Documenting Ottoman Roots in the Abdülhamid II Photographic Albums,” in Bahattin Öztuncay and Özger Ertem (eds.), Ottoman Arcadia: The Hamidian Expedition to the Land of Tribal Roots (1886), İstanbul: Koç University Press, 2018, 31–63: 32; Edhem Eldem, “Bad Boys,” in Edhem Eldem and Zeynep Çelik (eds.), Camera Ottomana: Photography and Modernity in the Ottoman Empire, İstanbul: Koç University Press, 2015, 256–57; Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, “Portraits of Unbelonging,” Ottoman History Podcast, Episode 502; and İlkay Yılmaz, “The Ottoman State, Police Photographs and Anthropometry,” Photoresearcher-European Society for History of Photography, 31 (2019): 90–100.
 “Société Ottomane d’Electricité,” Génie Civil Ottoman, September and October 1912, No 3 et 4, 35.
 The purpose of this multinational trust composed of German, French, Belgian, and Swiss companies, and financial institutions was to operate tramways and underground railways, as well as gas and electricity lighting in the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. See The French Diplomatic Archives at Nantes, Electricité de Constantinople (1897-1914), 166PO, 1–554, No. 204.
 “Travaux de L’Usine Electrique de Siligtar” Génie Civil Ottoman, March 1913, No 9, 92 ; “Société Anonyme Ottomane d’Electricité”, La Gazette Financière, 18 April 1911, 8–9; see also Asu Aksoy, Funda Açıkbaş and Ayşenur Akman, “Silahtarağa Elektrik Santrali’nin Hikayesi,” in Asu Aksoy (ed.) Silahtarağa Elektrik Santrali: 1910-2004 (İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2007), 21.
 Zeynep Çelik, “Photographing Mundane Modernity,” in Edhem Eldem and Zeynep Çelik (eds.), Camera Ottomana: Photography and Modernity in the Ottoman Empire, İstanbul: Koç University Press, 2015, 154–203: 155.
 Usine Electrique et Réseau de Distribution de La Ville de Constantinople, 5–6.
Nurçin İleri is a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien 2020-22, associated with the IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History (re:work) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her dissertation focused on the social and material geographies of night in late Ottoman Istanbul. She has taught at Binghamton University, Boğaziçi University, and Işık University, and worked as an assistant coordinator at the Boğaziçi University Archives and Documentation Center. Her current research questions and interests are driven by the theoretical and methodological frameworks which are engaged within the broad fields of transnational history and environmental humanities in relation to global capitalism, nationalism, gender, ethnicity, labor, and material cultures. She is also one of the editors of the TRAFO blog series Factory Reloaded and Envisioning Work.
Further articles in the TRAFO series Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor:
Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, 05 April 2022
Rick Halpern, The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary, 14 June 2022
Zehra Betül Atasoy, Ever-Present Tobacco Dust: Women’s Labor Conditions at the Cibali Tobacco Factory, 19 July 2022
Citation: Nurçin İleri, Picturing the Labor Landscape: The Silahtarağa Power Plant and Istanbul’s Electrical Infrastructure, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.10.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/42129