In his first weeks in Istanbul, Vela worked as a copy editor for a corporate publishing outfit. He was at that office on the day in 2010 when nine civilians were killed after Israeli troops in international waters boarded the MV Mavi Marmara, a vessel headed for Gaza. From his desk, Vela says he saw protesters marching down a main boulevard, bound for the Israeli consulate. “I walked out the door with a notebook,” he says. Over the next days, Vela contributed reporting to The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and other outlets. “It was my first big story,” he says.
As glamorous and adventurous as it might seem on the surface, this pursuit of stories and a paycheck makes it difficult, Jaques and Vela both say, for freelancers in Istanbul to achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Vela described a recent Saturday off, “a rarity,” he says, and a sore point for his girlfriend. Jaques says her busy travel schedule makes romance nearly impossible.
“It’s a certain kind of guy who will put up with you being a journalist, and a tough badass,” she says.
Still, both Jaques and Vela say they are happy, consider themselves lucky to live in a world-class city, and to be working regularly on important stories. They also both say they cannot imagine living in the United States. Vela told me of the disconnect he felt during a recent visit to California.
“I was looking at the Pacific, and I felt like I was on the edge of the world,” he says. “America is very far away from the center.”
For older journalists in Istanbul, the measure of success is perhaps more nuanced, with the thrill of living in “the center” balanced against the sometimes steadying, sometimes frustrating concerns that come, for instance, with having a mortgage. But older freelancers I met with also seem more adept at tailoring their place in the market to meet unique interests and ambitions.
For ten years, Jodi Hilton, who graduated from the University of Missouri’s photojournalism master’s program, was an accomplished freelance photographer in Boston, making between $3,000 and $5,000 a month shooting for clients that included The New York Times, Getty Images, and The Boston Globe. In the fall of 2010, having long harbored the dream of moving abroad, she and her husband rented out their condo and traded a stable American life for one in Istanbul.
“It was one thing to be a big fish in Boston,” the dark-haired Hilton says, staring into her coffee cup. “I wanted to see what it’d be like to be a fish in Istanbul . If I didn’t try it now, I’d risk never trying.”
The last thing Hilton says she sought was a staff job that would root her in a single place, working for one set of editors. From her base in Istanbul, she’s planned and executed reporting trips to southeast Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Italian island of Lampedusa. After so many years of taking assignments in New England from busy news editors in America, she’s ecstatic to be making her own choices about where to travel and what to shoot. But after almost a year, Hilton says her typical monthly income is often half the $4,000 she needs to live comfortably. “I’m less stressed than ever before,” she says. “But I should’ve done this ten years ago.”
A second married freelancer, the bearded and ever-smiling Yigal Schleifer, moved to Istanbul in 2002 with a long list of contacts at the classic regional papers in the US. One of his first assignments was in northern Iraq—for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That sounds pretty crazy now, right?” he asks.