Photo Essay: Istanbul, Turkey

I travel the world because I believe in living in the arena rather than judging from the crowd. Many of the best ideas on health and happiness are the ones that are being used on the front lines of life, and so I do my best to get out there, track them down, and share them with you here.

While I’m traveling, one of my goals is to create beautiful photos of the people, culture, and history of a place. I care about creating art and getting better at it because I believe that people who explore, contribute, and create will live longer, more fulfilling lives. Creating things isn’t just an artistic choice, it’s a healthy life choice.

The images in this photo essay are from Istanbul, Turkey. As always, all photos are my own.

Istanbul Photos

Istanbul photos
A young man sells chestnuts in Taksim Square at night. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Roasted chestnuts are a popular treat in Istanbul. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
This man is selling small rings of bread known as “simit.” These carts can be found all over the city. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
My roadside chef spread some spices as I grabbed a bite to eat. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
A man stands alone on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
A woman plays street music in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Sultan Ahmed Mosque during early evening in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Early evening in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Two men fish in the Bosphorus from the European side of Istanbul. The Asian side of the city can be seen across the water. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
The mighty Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
A small building along the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)
Istanbul photos
Night falls over the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)

A Quick Story

While walking along Istanbul’s most famous street, Istiklal Caddesi, I passed a small girl playing an accordion for money. I didn’t think much of it at first as I had already passed a handful of musicians along the street.

But almost five hours later, I walked back along the same road and there she was again. Still playing her accordion and looking as if she had never moved. My heart went out to her. I was reaching for my loose change, when a thought flashed through my mind and I paused.

When you see a small child playing an accordion for hours, it’s natural to want to help. But the reason her parents put her out on the street in the first place is because they know people feel sorry for her and that’s why they give her money. So if you give the child money, then her parents have one more reason to put her back out there for 12 hours tomorrow. You’re supporting a good cause and a bad situation at the same time.

I thought it was terrible that she was out there all day, but I decided not to give her money. I didn’t want to support that type of system.

Istanbul photos
A young girl plays an accordion for hours in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by James Clear.)

What Would You Have Done?

I don’t think there is a right answer to situations like this, but one thing I know is true: you vote with your actions and sometimes you’re voting for more than one thing.

Questions of ethics and morals and integrity are often the hardest ones to answer. The only real way to feel at peace with the mixed consequences of tough decisions is to be clear about what you believe. Then you can let your principles guide you.

What would you have done in this situation?


  1. Great pictures and insights here James! Don’t be too hard on yourself. Stay with your principles and let them guide you, and let them be ever changing as you continue to experience life. A kind glance and an acknowledgment of another’s plight goes a long way. An instilled memory for you that may lead you to be an even more compassionate doctor than you ever thought you could be. My philosophy goes against the old chestnut, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. This is a great lesson to learn, but it must be reflected upon to see that in situation of charity and sharing at the end of the day, the more opportunities you take to be generous, the more you will make the world a better place. Shame on me if I don’t rest on my faith in people and the more we can build this trust, the less times you will be fooled.

    Keep up the good work my friend!

    • Sounds great, Can! I’d love to return and would be happy to meetup next time I find myself in Istanbul.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Hey James,

    Thanks for the article, I always had a pretty negative association with Turkey even though I never visited it. (Likely from a couple of “not fun” encounters with the locals in Egypt.) But this article makes me want to visit this beautiful country. :)

    Anyway, to answer the question “What would you do?”

    I wouldn’t have given any money either.

    Here’s my take on this: sadly, one cannot help everyone directly, as a lot of the times it will be counter productive (as you mentioned in the situation with the girl playing in the street). And a lot of the time it feels quite painful to restrain yourself, especially when you’re used to the addictive feeling of giving.

    HOWEVER, when I know that my effort WILL help those in need, I will go out of my way to do so.

    Have a great day!

    • Darius — thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad to have you contributing to the community.

      And yes, you should definitely give Turkey a visit. I really enjoyed my time there.

    • Istanbul is my hometown. I’ve lived in the USA for 20 years now, as well as many other locations internationally. Istanbul trumps most metropolises just with its sheer history. It’s a gem.

      Turkey gets some bad press, even though a major source of income for the whole country is tourism. I’ll say this: There are many, many cities that have the potential for “not fun” encounters. Turks are known for their hospitality and this is on display everywhere.

  3. Beautiful article! Your photographs are amazing as well. I’ve visited Istanbul twice. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world. You’ve captured the feel of the city so well that it makes me long to return there!

  4. To be honest, I’m a big fat softy-heart mushy-pants, so I probably would have given. That doesn’t mean that I can’t also support systemic changes or existing NGOs that are working more effectively in the region – I’m just not always strong enough to stick to logic in situations like that.

    Kudos to you, though, for making a well-reasoned decision that supports your convictions, and thanks for sharing your beautiful travel pictures. :)

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed your photos and comments. I have been to Istanbul and have a great love for the place and read many beautiful stories about the place. Keep up the good work abd enjoy what you do.

  6. Your photos blow my mind James. Amazing work on these. And I loved the story at the end. Man you know how to make a guy think. It’s a tough place but I’d side with the action you took. You just wish you could do something more to remedy it in a situation like that.

    Thanks for doing what you’re doing man!

  7. Dear James

    I encountered something similar in Uganda, except with babies, sometimes no more than 2… Just sitting there with a tin can. It was heart wrenching and I wanted more than anything to scoop them up and take them somewhere safe… Obviously that was not an option. I also did not give money because I did not want this mother to return her baby the next day. We did feed her though.

    On a happier note, one of my dear friends was a missionary in Turkey for 20 years. She came back to Australia last year to see her son go throb university. I am sending her the link to your beautiful photos.

    • Thanks for sharing, Melanie. It’s great to have you as part of the community.

      And I’m glad you enjoyed the photos! I’m looking forward to sharing more of them with you in the future.

  8. What happened to not judging? A lot of assumptions have been made starting with the assumption that this little girl has parents. Do you also assume that they are at home being lazy in front of the TV? Or did you picture them strung out on drugs? Do you think she is an only child? Not knowing anything about this girl I would have thought her better off playing music in the street than sold into prostitution and would have at least fed her.

    • J — I did assume that she had parents. (I figured that her clothes, headband, accordion and stool to sit on probably came from someone, right?)

      Anyway, you raise some interesting ideas about what we take for granted when see someone else. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s always a welcome reminder to overcome our biases and withhold judgement.

  9. I was once in Vietnam, struggling with a similar question about giving or not. So I gave the young girl ice cream. Wow was she happy. I’m a novice photographer and know something about good shots. Good ones pull you into the story. You want to learn more about the moment. I found myself starting at many of your pictures wondering just that. Really, really good work James. Technically too.

  10. Hi James,

    Very nice pictures and essay. Well I think like George, If I took her picture, I would give her money. And ‘simit’ is a kind of bagel. By the next time you visit Turkey let me know, so we can meet in person:) I can show you some unknown spots of Istanbul and around!

  11. Hi James,

    Probably I would not either. On these kind of busy districts one come a cross so many of these type of money expecting kids that after seeing a first few of them and deciding not to give, my mind then makes its decision for the rest of them too. If they can come up with very interesting ways to attract more attention and change my predetermination, then we have another situation.

    And like many other big cities, also in Istanbul kids come knocking on car windows and asking for money in traffic lights. So it’s like a continuous part of daily life unfortunately.

    Do you look to understand how its folks doing with exercise and sport when you are sightseeing new places ?

    Keep up the good work.

  12. Your last picture of night falls over the Golden Horn is absolutely breathtaking. Such a perfect spot you took to observe and record that beautiful view of the city.

  13. Wow – this is a hard one.

    Right now, I am supporting 4 people besides myself. Three are my grandchildren and the other is their parent who has substance abuse issues. I have battled “enabling” questions literally for years through all the things we have been through.

    Personally I , more than likely, would have given money BUT I also would have taken the time to visit the girl, ask her to stop playing for a while to rest, and tried my best to communicate with her parents and ask them to reconsider. Maybe I would have tried to use my sales skills to sell them on how much more they will make in the long run if they balance it and let her play and be educated as well…. hummm.. going to keep pondering this one. Once again, you make me think!

  14. Hi James,

    You were right hitting on the core issue in this situation. It is the same illustration as giving money to those homeless people on the street intersection where the more they receive the money compassion the more it will encourage them to keep begging on the street or even to the degree of using it for drugs.

    Perhaps in this case, I would go get a candy or ice cream and give it to the small child to show compassion that the neighborhood has not neglected her sweet accordion play. That perhaps is what can cheer the small child up.

  15. Never an easy question. I usually do pay something if I take a photo of someone in this situation. The other thing I do is buy a drink or a snack and leave with the child. This way, hopefully they will benefit directly from their efforts. I get your point though. We don’t want to support the continuation of this behaviour, but then again we have very little insight to what drives families to ‘use’ their children in this way.

    A dilemma indeed and one of the reasons I love to travel so I get a small glimpse of the difficult situations that many people face each day.

    Thanks for your site. Cheers.

  16. I love the photographs and the challenge…”What would you do?” Often times we don’t know what we will do until faced with that very situation. I reflected on what I do know and what I don’t know, what I know specifically and what I know in general regarding the little girls situation. I can think of a lot of scenarios that would prompt me not to give, but at the same time I can think of a lot of scenarios which would prompt me to give. So, being devoid of the specifics in this little girls life, her family situation and the household to which she will return, I would have given some money as moved by my own internal compass, to which we all must remain true.

    In situations like that I usually try to talk to people to get to know them a little better and understand their circumstances, however, I understand that there may have been a language barrier, not allowing for a more intimate interaction. It is for that reason that I would have extended myself with a language that transcends mere words…that of love.

    Keep up the great work!

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