When Turkish carpets are first dyed, they come out in wild, vivid colors, says undergrad Zoe Litaker. But most buyers prefer an aged look. When Litaker first visited Turkey in 2008, several families in the village of Esenler made a living by sunning the carpets to fade them. Since part of the job was to guard the carpets, which are worth a lot of money, Litaker sometimes slept outside on them in what her host family, the Doğdus, called Yildiz Otel—“The Star Hotel.”

But by the time Litaker returned to Esenler in 2011, the carpets were gone, along with many of the people. The village, already small, had shrunk to a population of about 750. Sunning carpets wasn’t earning the villagers enough money, they told Litaker, so they had switched to growing more fruit crops. But while some modern technology exists in the village—many homes have cell phones, TVs, and refrigerators, and there are several cars in town—farm work in Esenler is still done the old-fashioned way. The farms in Esenler have a hard time competing with the larger agricultural operations in Turkey.

There are far more jobs—and high school, for those who can afford it—in neighboring Konya (population one million) than in Esenler. So every few days, a van threads its way through the Taurus Mountains, shuttling workers back and forth to the city over a hundred miles away.

“Since the 1950s, people in the countryside throughout the Middle East have seen much more opportunity for education and employment in the cities—Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, Damascus,” says historian Sarah Shields, Litaker’s project advisor. “A large part of the Turkish population has been migrating to big cities, or to Europe. Istanbul now has 16 million people, and many of them come from the countryside.” Today only 30 percent of Turkey’s people live outside the cities.

Litaker found that industrialization in Turkey meant that working-age villagers were leaving Esenler in droves. But what exactly was their exodus doing to the village’s population? she wondered. Who was missing? Who stayed behind? When she returned in 2011, she set out to find answers. She interviewed several villagers and took photographs of 105 people, creating a visual representation of Esenler’s new demography.

The most notable absence in the village today, Litaker found, is that of young men. Many have already moved to Konya or emigrated to other countries. Those who have stayed behind now make up only 10 percent of the village’s population. In fact, the overall number of men and women between the ages of 18 and 40 has dropped sharply, now accounting for only 24 percent of Esenler’s residents. Villagers over 40 make up 34 percent, evenly split between men and women. And the children now dominate Esenler, Litaker says, making up 42 percent of the population.

“I had a posse of children while I was there,” she laughs. They followed her everywhere. She chatted with them in her rudimentary Turkish and taught them how to make a fish face. They were thrilled to discover and plunder her small stash of makeup.

During Litaker’s first trip to Turkey in 2008, she traveled with Shields and nine other undergrads. “I was really struck every time I walked with Zoe in the city or in villages, or any place we went, because she noticed things that I never noticed,” Shields says. “She had a whole series of images on graffiti that were stunning. I’ve been to Istanbul many times, but she showed me a different way of looking at things through her photographs.”

When Litaker visited people in their homes, most were eager to sit her down to look at their photo albums. “The first thing almost everybody said was, ‘Come sit. These are all my relatives,’” she says. Litaker made a habit of printing her photos and giving them away. Her favorite is of a little girl named Cennet. “She was spunky, a little bit shy,” Litaker says. In the photo, Cennet shows off her henna-painted fingernails and holds a photograph of herself that Litaker gave to her.

Cennet and her friends will have to leave Esenler for Konya if they plan to stay in school beyond the elementary grades, Shields says. “And to find the kinds of jobs they’ll learn about in a globalizing, urbanizing world,” she says, “they’ll have to go to the cities.”

Zoe Litaker graduated from Carolina in May 2011 with a degree in studio art. Her first trip to Turkey was funded by the Burch Fellows Program Field Resesarch Seminar and her photography project was funded by a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Sarah Shields is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This project was made possible, with many thanks, by the kind and open people of Esenler, my incredible host family, Güleser, Mehmet, Rukiye, Ekrem, Sait, and of course, Ayşe Doğdu; Sarah Shields who first showed me Turkey; and Muammer and Mehmet Ucar, without whom I would have been lost.” —Zoe Litaker