When Savas Onur Sen visits the stray dogs in the streets of Van, a city in Turkey, he lets out a whistle, and they all come running toward him. One of them, Big Boy, follows him everywhere. The streets can be very dangerous, but with Big Boy by his side, the photographer always feels safe. “When he’s there, I’m not afraid of anything,” the animal photojournalist tells me.
For five years, Sen has been documenting the hardships, neglect, and abuse faced by Turkey’s stray dogs, particularly those living in Van. He’d been feeding the dogs long before he started photographing them, but after one encounter with a mother dog, he knew he had to share their stories with the world.
“She had eight puppies,” he remembers now. “When I first met them, their eyes hadn’t even opened yet.” At first, the mother dog was afraid of him, but he kept coming back to feed them. After a month, she let her guard down. The puppies were growing.
“When I visited them one day, though, six puppies had died,” Sen says. “The mother dog had arranged them in a circle and was crying in the middle. I still can’t get that image out of my mind. The next time I went, the mother dog and her two remaining puppies had disappeared. I never saw them again. It was an event that made me feel that I had to devote all my energy to this work.”
In Turkey, stray animals face not only the threat of starvation, illness, and injury, but also the danger of cruelty. In recent years, instances of violence against animals have sparked renewed conversations about strengthening inadequate animal protection laws, which allowed the killing and torture of stray animals to be punishable by a light fine—rather than jail time.
In 2020, during the pandemic, Sen was regularly visiting a community of more than 500 dogs at the city dump. “This was a real crime scene for animal rights and a micro-hell for dogs,” he says. “The big pits where the municipalities brought the dead animals were left open for a long time, and other animals were eating the dead animals. Dozens of puppies were born in the garbage every period and they died in agony. There was incredible brutality here.”
But a group of courageous individuals is working on behalf of Van’s neglected animals. The Van Animal Voice platform, an NGO, has facilitated the rescue of several local dogs. There are also animal shelters working to provide care and spaying and neutering for the dogs, although they need more support.
In 2020, Sen contacted local volunteers and activities and helped mobilize the municipality to help feed the starving dogs. In some cases, he’s been able to get municipal help with urgent medical issues for the dogs.
His work contributed directly to the rescue of three dogs, with help from a larger network operating on social media on behalf of animals. With help from Basak Avci, a local animal lover, Ayda the golden retriever went to a home in the United States. Another dog, a pointer, found a home locally in Van after the adopter saw Sen’s photographs.
And then there’s Masal. “Masal was a calm and timid dog with three legs,” the photojournalist tells me. “She disappeared for a while, and then I found her in a very bad state. As a result of our sharing, Masal has found a beautiful home in Istanbul and a family that loves her very much. Her life has turned into a fairy tale.”
Masal is one of the lucky ones, as many of the dogs Sen has photographed died or disappeared before they could be rescued. Most of the dogs in Van were born on the streets, but some were abandoned by their owners. A lack of consistent and reliable access to spaying and neutering means that puppies keep being born—and suffering in the same way their parents did.
“Authorities state that more than 20 thousand stray dogs living in Van,” the animal photojournalist says. “And the lives of these stray dogs are really hard.” While others turn away, he understands that the only way to solve the problem is by facing it directly. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to return to the dump, as authorities grew concerned that he was taking pictures of the conditions faced by the dogs there. He hasn’t been allowed to return to feed those dogs.
Until last year, Sen estimates that he was caring for around 100 stray dogs throughout various parts of the city. “However, due to the economic crisis we have experienced in the last few years, I had to reduce this number,” he reflects. “For the past year, I’ve only been taking care of dogs in one spot, and when I get enough food, I visit the others.”
Real change can only come from collective action. “In order to solve these problems, municipalities across Turkey need policies that will be implemented consistently and away from populism,” the photojournalist explains. “First of all, all municipalities need to continue their efforts to castrate with a very high capacity. The second stage is to solve the health problems of animals on the street and to prevent zoonotic diseases.”
Sen has no way of knowing if the dogs he feeds today will still be alive tomorrow. So many have already disappeared. “Nothing is guaranteed on the streets, but there is plenty of violence, brutality, and recklessness,” he says. “The feeling of saying goodbye to them at the end of each day and the possibility of not being able to find them the next time you come back is emotionally heavy.
“I leave them on the street and return to my house, and the next time I visit them, they may be abused, they may be dead, they may be killed, or they may never be found again. And knowing that, it’s really hard to leave them every time.”
Some of the dogs have names, given by many different people. Many don’t have a name. But Sen gives each dog his or her own name when he can. “I try not only to feed them but also to spend as much time as possible with them,” he tells me. “I take walks and play games with them. Being with them makes me very happy. It is indescribable to see their happiness when they are with me.”
“Big Boy,” the dog who follows him as he makes his rounds feeding everyone, is one of the individuals he’s named. “Sometimes I think of moving to a house with a garden just for him and taking him with me,” the photojournalist admits. For now, it’s just a dream.
Much of Savas Onur Sen’s work on behalf of animals is represented by We Animals Media, a leading group of animal photojournalists and filmmakers documenting exploitation around the world. “After dedicating five years of my life to this project, I am finally bringing it to a close,” the photographer says. “The culmination of my efforts will be presented in a book titled Precarious, which will soon be published.
An exhibition of Sen’s work opens this week at Fotografevi in Istanbul.
Further reading on animal photojournalism from We Animals Media:
• These Photos Are Painful, But We All Need to See Them
• Shocking Photos Taken Behind-the-Scenes at Puppy Mills
• The Bittersweet Story of Abbey, a Beagle Rescued from Research