World News

02.05.13

Sarai Sierra, American Slain in Istanbul, Was an Artist in the Making

Forget the ridiculous speculation that Staten Island mom Sarai Sierra, killed on a solo vacation to Istanbul, was some kind of spy or smuggler. She was simply a woman who had found her calling in photography, says Michael Daly.

The coroner in Istanbul has released her body, and soon Sarai Sierra will be flown back to Staten Island for a funeral at the church where she met and later married her husband.

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A view of the street with the hostel, in yellow at the left end, where Sarai Sierra was staying in Istanbul, on January 29, 2013. (AP)

Her coffin is expected to land at the same New Jersey airport where she departed on January 7 on a solitary trip to Istanbul and where she was scheduled to return two weeks later. She never made the flight back and was missing until Saturday, when she was discovered in some undergrowth in the Turkish city, with what was determined to be a fatal blow to the head.

Still missing are the instruments with which she discovered, through the democracy of the Internet, that a churchgoing 33-year-old city bus driver’s wife can prove herself to be an artist of considerable sensitivity and talent.

“thank you very much for the likes and kind comments, I’m glad you enjoyed my pics,” the mother of two, who worked in a chiropractor’s office, posted on December 8 after her photographs got a warm response on Instagram. “I take pics with my Samsung Galaxy 3 and do editing with my iPad 3. :)))”

That newfound calling, and the response from so many people from far beyond the city where Sierra had spent her entire life, had emboldened her to embark with that smartphone camera and iPad on an international adventure in search of new images.

Some of the Turkish press has engaged in ridiculous speculation about Sarai being some kind of spy or smuggler, but in truth she was an artist in the making, as is made in this digital era.

She may have run afoul of someone she connected with online. Or she might simply have fallen victim to a thief, electronics having become the new gold chains for criminals the world over.

As of Monday, her two sons, aged 9 and 11, had not yet been told of her death. The family is waiting until their father returns from Turkey, where he traveled nearly two weeks ago to search for their vanished mother.

“Dad told them he is going to get Mom,” Sarai’s mother, Betzaida Jimenez, told the reporters who were invited into their living room on Monday.

The father, Steven Sierra, had been joined in the search effort by Sarai’s brother, David Jimenez. They will now be escorting her body home and can only hope the Turkish police and the FBI will track down whoever dealt the fatal blow.

In the meanwhile, Sarai’s mother sought counsel on Monday from Pastor John Carlo of the Christian Pentecostal Church in Staten Island. Carlo remembers when a teenage Sarai met her husband at a church youth group. He officiated at their wedding in 1998.

“They had a nice life, a nice apartment, he just got a good job,” Carlo says.

Carlo now offered advice on what to tell the children when the terrible moment inevitably comes.

“You don’t tell them, ‘Your mother was murdered,’” Carlo says. “You say something like, ‘Your mother was in an accident.’”

He further advises, “One word you don’t want to use is ‘die.’ They don’t understand that concept.”

The pastor spoke with the wisdom of experience. He was a cop for 28 years, retiring as an NYPD captain of detectives. His policeman’s prayer when the family first told him that Sarai had gone missing January 21 was that she had been picked up by the Turkish security service.

“Even though I wanted to see my daughter alive, at least we have closure, at least they found her,” her mother said.

“What I was hoping in the beginning was maybe because she was taking pictures of bridges and things, maybe secret police took her in,” Carlo says. “I was hoping they were holding her incommunicado to see who she was. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.”

Had the security service picked her up, they would have determined she was a late-blooming artist of a particularly modern kind. Her family says she discovered this new facet of herself of herself only last year, while taking a course on women in the arts at the College of Staten Island. But the passion and curiosity and spirituality and adventuresome spark that propelled her had been manifest since she was a little girl.

While other youngsters played, little Sarai had joined the adults in handing out sandwiches and ladling soup at the food for the poor program at Christian Pentecostal Church.

“A young girl that always had a compassionate heart,” says another pastor, Martin Tursi. “Nine years old going on 29 years old.”

Tursi also noted early on that Sarai seemed to delight both in the diversity of the people who came through the church and in what they had in common.

“She really enjoyed experiencing different people and different cultures,” Tursi says. “We live in a world where we label people and we tag people. Sarai was one of those girls who just saw the value of people and did not necessarily put people in a box.”

She was outwardly quiet, but the passions that still filled her in adulthood left Tursi thinking of an oven.

“If you open up that door, it was just a great burning passion; she was very passionate about the family, about her children, about her marriage, about her faith,” Tursi says.

She seemed to find a way to express that quiet fire when she took up photography. And in Instagram, she found a supportive global community of strangers made intimate by seeing through each other’s eyes. Her Instagram name said it all:

“memyself_Sarai.”

She offered much more than a thousand words on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by drawing an outline of the pre-attack skyline on a piece of clear acetate and then taking a picture of her hand holding it so it aligned with the outlines of the surviving buildings. The twin towers never looked more poignantly absent.

“Most amazing skyline,” the caption read.

She also took a remarkable photo of some long-forgotten seaside railroad tracks that had been uncovered by the fury of Hurricane Sandy.

“Secret tracks revealed by Sandy,” read this caption.

In hundreds of other pictures, she found godliness in New York’s sunsets and bridges and even graffiti, as if all were constructed not just with brick and concrete and steel, but spirit as well. She who had never ventured outside the city suddenly had thousands of followers from all over the world, even more thrillingly diverse than the crowd that came through church and just as bound by what they had in common.

The church had taught her to see through the eyes of others. She now was really doing it, and giving them a look through hers.

In November, an Instagram site called “bestofmy” singled out a photo she took of the sun setting behind the Verrazano Bridge. She posted her gratitude:

“Thank you to @bestofmy for including my photo in this awesome spread … I’m truly honored by it and thankful!!!! They feature amazing pics from all over and they are awesome to follow!!!”

One of the two coordinators of bestofmy is someone named Nedim, who goes by the Instagram moniker istanbul2see. His own work includes some similarly remarkable sunsets in Istanbul, as well as images of the Galata tower.

The honor of being singled out and the images of another city may have inspired Sarai to embark on her first overseas adventure. Her close friend, Magdalena Rodriguez, was to have accompanied her on the trip but was forced to bow out for financial reasons.

“Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t working, so I didn’t have the money,” Rodriguez later told reporters. “I have kids and a family of my own, so it would have been really difficult for me to go.”

Sarai decided to go ahead solo, perhaps because she would not really be so solitary as a photographer traveling in the appreciative and affirmative realm of Instagram. She departed for Istanbul on January 7 and had even less cause to feel alone during her journey, thanks to more Internet magic, by which she Skyped with her family regularly. That also lessened their worries, even though she had never left the country before.

“It felt safe,” her mother later said.

Her father, Dennis Jimenez, said: “Turkey was a land of rich culture, ancient history. She was very fascinated with that. You could tell she was happy.”

But the father could not shake his paternal concern at having his daughter so far away.

“I just wanted her to come home,” he said.

She made two side trips, taking some nice photographs in Amsterdam and in Munich before returning to Istanbul, all of it being part of an ultimate itinerary that her brother understood perfectly.

“She was following the path of what women can accomplish in the arts,” he later told a reporter.

In Istanbul, Sarai does not seem to who have actually met instanbul2see. He said in a general tweet at the time that he was in Toronto. And in reply to a tweet from The Daily Beast inquiring if he knew“memyself_sarai" he said, "i follow her on instagram but didn't know about her until i learnt her loss from the press. I am sorry about that."

She took her own photo of an Istanbul sunset and reportedly arranged to meet someone at the Galata tower on January 21, the day she disappeared. She was to have arrived on a flight into Newark Airport a day early to surprise her sons, but her family waited in vain. The airline told them she had never checked in.

As the two pastors who knew Sarai since she was a little girl offered prayers, her husband and her brother flew to Istanbul to search for her. That ended on Saturday when a passer-by came upon her body.

On Monday, her parents allowed reporters into their home so they could express their gratitude for the continuing efforts of the Turkish police.

“Even though I wanted to see my daughter alive, at least we have closure, at least they found her,” the mother said.

The coroner in Istanbul had found no signs of sexual assault. Investigators hope that she fought off her attacker and that scrapings from under her fingernails might provide incriminating DNA. Forensic investigators also are examining a blanket that was recovered near the overgrown area where he body was found.

Police note that she had still been wearing her jewelry, but the tools of her Internet magic were missing. Her murder may prove to be a crime such as could have befallen her in her own city, where more than one person has suffered violence at the hands of a thief bent on taking a smartphone or an iPad.

If it turns out someone she met online killed her, and her murder does prove to be cautionary tale of where the Internet can take you, it still remains a tale of the liberating power of the digital revolution, despite the dangers. A photographer no longer needs a gallery or an employer, just as a musician no longer needs a record company and a filmmaker no longer needs a studio.

The proof is there for all the world to see in the photos so rightly filed under memyself_Sarai. She leaves them for her children, who as of Monday night still did not know she was gone.