Turkish lensman Omer Kursat on being 60 and loving the Chinatown beats

Text by Kelli Gratz||  Portrait of Omer by John Hook, images from Young Turks courtesy Omer Kursat

Omer Kursat lives in an airy, rustic house in Waimanalo on the east side of O‘ahu, where a resident breeze carries the music from his stereo (typically electronic Balearic beats) drifting into the street. Prints of his photographs are hung on the walls and sit under piles of notes on his desk. His subjects are varied, from blurry silhouettes of Chinatown hotspots, to portraits of young Turks taken near his hometown of Izmir, Turkey. The images capture a significant period of time for Kursat, who has, throughout the course of his life, hopped from one island to the next, always with a camera in hand. “Back then, there were no camera phones,” he says. “It was really unusual for someone to be carrying around an actual camera. For me, it was so natural. I love the spontaneity, the candidness of things, capturing the moment.”

The 60-year-old photographer, techie, and Chinatown scenester (you probably have witnessed him shutting down nights at thirtyninehotel) was first introduced to photography by his father, a journalist who later entered Turkish politics. At an early age, Kursat found himself congregating with all sorts of photographers and reporters, and yet, he never really considered pursuing either vocation as a profession. In 1978, he left Turkey to attend the University of Southern California, where he got his degree in computer science. He worked at a bank in Los Angeles for eight years, during which time he met his wife Dee, before making the leap across the Pacific, landing in Hawai‘i. “At the time I liked the Asian culture,” he says. “I was between jobs, and a trip to Hawai‘i sounded great; plus Dee’s sister lived there. When we got here, I said, ‘This is it. I don’t need a passport.’ That was 1994. We rented Dee’s sister’s house in Waimanalo and have been there ever since.”

Now, nearly every day, the 60-year-old makes the drive over the Pali to downtown Honolulu, where he works for eWorld as a software developer. He’s out of the office by 2 p.m., which gives him plenty of time to pursue his other projects, like running his publishing house, Deuxmers. Although he no longer stays out until 2 a.m. (well, only on occasion), those memories of making the drive over the Pali after a long night of partying in Chinatown became the inspiration for his first book, Over the Pali, 2:00 AM, No Pork. Flipping through the book, young 20-somethings appear on the pages like a glorious mosaic of color and frenzy. Beautiful people. Beautiful music. Not a care in the world. Everyone who came down to Chinatown to party (you know who you are) thought the night would never end. And Kursat was there, behind the lens, as the night sparked off. “It all started when First Fridays came to town,” he recalls. “Before that, Dee and I would just stay and party in Waimanalo. We discovered a whole hip culture downtown.”

Since releasing Over the Pali in 2011, Deuxmers has produced six more publications, including Young Turks, featuring photos he took in his home country in the 1970s, and works by Peter Shaindlin and Elsha Bohnert. Today, Kursat’s works in progress include a follow up to his second book, Peggy and the Roadrunners—a collection of images salvaged from old negatives he happened upon at a garage sale of the late Peggy Ferris, one of the first female journalists to arrive in Honolulu after World War II—and a translation of poems by a group of Turkish poets who were part of a movement called “The Second New.” 

“They were a bunch of Turkish bohemians,” Kursat says of the poets. “They would gather round, just as we are doing, and drink raki, which is supposed to entice conversation.” With this nostalgic memory in mind, he peers out the window across the street toward the old thirtyninehotel, which closed in 2014. “Just the other day, I was talking with Christa (Wittmier) about the good old days,” he says of the social influencer and DJ who goes by SuperCW. “Before I came to Chinatown, I was the shy type, never danced in my life. I started dancing at thirtyninehotel. All because of the music.”