“I was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany, a town in the south. But my family is Kurdish and Turkish and they’re Muslim, so I grew up in a pretty conservative household. On the other hand, my friends were Germans and Italians and Europeans, so I grew up with both. Sexuality, body image, all those things go hand in hand, but we never really talked about them at home. It just didn’t exist, you know? I got breasts when I was like twelve — big boobs. It was like they popped out. My mom took me to H&M, but their bras didn’t fit me because they only go to a D. I was bigger than that and I was only twelve! I was never tiny. My girlfriends at school were jealous — ‘you’re so lucky.’ But I was so shy, I never really learned how to deal with them. I started getting attention from men and my parents hadn’t really prepared me for that. It was just confusing. In the pool, at the beach, men would be staring, but I was just a kid — with these boobs.
The older I got, the more comfortable I was in my body. I had a boyfriend for many years who made me feel very comfortable in my body. He was like, ‘you don’t have to hide anything.’ One of my closest friends is a plus-sized model. She was so comfortable in her body, and it was insane for me to watch her because she was never hiding, but never really showing off her body either — it’s just her body. When we’d been friends for about two years, she came to Tulum with me. I remember she was getting out of the cab at the hotel, and I had a little beach dress on, and the first thing she said was ‘Oh my God your boobs! I didn’t know you had boobs!’ It was so funny. She was like, ‘Show them!’ I was like this little kid. I talked with her about it recently actually — I told her how comfortable she made me. She really opened me up. Before that, I was always very extreme. Hiding because I was afraid of being sexualized. I stayed in that state of mind for many years, and breaking out of it took a long time.
I think when I was younger, in my teenage years, I was pulled back and forth between the cultures because I felt like I needed to identify with something. But then I realized when I was traveling that I feel comfortable everywhere. I’m super open with different religions and cultures, I don’t need to identify as one thing. I can be many things. I always feel the need to tell people I was raised in Germany but my family is from Turkey. I don’t just identify with just being German. My grandparents are from a tiny village in East Turkey, and they moved to Germany because they were poor. My grandma can't read or write. So my dad never went to University or even high school. They’re very simple in that sense. But they always taught me how important it is to get an education, and to be independent — to make money on your own. I have two brothers, and my baby brother is openly gay and my parents are cool with it. Seven years ago I was working retail in Germany and my mom had known my brother was gay for a couple months. I was working on a Saturday and my mom came in to the store with these little flags and I was like, ‘Mom, what is that?’ And she was like, ‘I went to the Christopher Street Day parade by myself.’ Which is the Berlin Pride parade. She’s this old Muslim woman, and she was like, ‘There are so many gay people, I didn’t know!’ That’s my favorite story to tell. My mom is really like a dumpling. She’s so cute. I really respect her ability to accept those things.
Deniz wears the Plunge in Black.
I have this huge circle of women around me. I love it. When I was first starting out, I assisted a female photographer, I worked with all-female teams, I shoot mostly women. It’s the only way I know working. It’s different, and I know that because the models tell me it’s different working with me. I feel like it’s the biggest compliment. If I succeed in making the models feel comfortable that day, that’s all I want. It’s the in between moments. I want to capture the pure, authentic beauty. I don’t want the pose-y, sexy, stuff. I want the moments you miss if you don’t pay attention. That takes a lot of practice and time. I also never retouch the skin. I like scars, I like stretch marks. It’s cute, I would never retouch those away. It’s frustrating as a woman in this industry being underestimated all the time. When people see my work they say, ‘Oh, you’re actually good,’ and I feel insulted. Like, thank you, but still. I know it’s a very male driven, tech driven industry, but I worked my ass off. But I also know that creative things are so personal and subjective anyway, there are always going to be people who like your work and who don’t like your work. One day, I would like to go back to East Turkey where my dad is from and document the Kurdish community and culture. Because I’m paying my bills with campaigns and beautiful images and beautiful people, and sometimes I feel like I want to document more. Photograph real people and real situations.
Deniz wears the Plunge in Black.
I get a lot of jobs through Instagram, which is good of course. But me as a person, I try to keep my distance from it. I don’t take selfies, I don’t take pictures of my cappuccino. If I’m on Instagram and I’m just scrolling through it for hours I feel like shit, I feel unproductive, I start comparing myself, I feel like everyone’s living their best fucking life. It takes a lot of energy and control to put the phone away. I’m sure I could use it better, but I don’t want to be that — I don’t want to be a brand. I’m a private person. I have friends who are ‘influencers’ and I see they have to post even when they don’t feel like it, they’re having a bad day, they’re going through heartbreak. It’s a job now. You’re in it and you need to be this positive person who shows their best life. That’s hard. I wonder what’s next.
I do hope I’m part of something. I can definitely feel it. I’ve been doing photography professionally for almost seven years now. Two of those have been in New York City. More and more women in the industry are doing the big jobs, it’s huge. Not just photographers, but whole teams. DPs, editors, directors, stylists, photographers, the whole team. But I think that we can still go extreme. The way most people see diversity is a little boring. Victoria’s Secret is like, ‘we put the first plus sized model on the catwalk’ and I’m like, ‘which one?’ It can be more diverse. I think it’s such a huge topic and I think we’re just scratching the surface of it. It’s going to take longer.”