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Interview with Ara Güler

Ara Güler - Photo: Turkishtime
 Untitled Document

The following is the interview with famous Turkish photographer Ara Güler published in December 2002 issue of the Turkishtime.

What is it that's important about me
The walls are covered with signed autographs of people whom we see the pictures of in encyclopedias, books up to the ceiling, boxes on the floor; all are full of "historic works". Whether we would call Ara Güler a photograph artist or a photo-journalist, that part is complicated, but it is certain that the more than half a century he spent behind the visor, accredits him as one of the best in the world in his line of work. The "100 Faces from Turkish literature" exhibition to be open at Yapı Kredi Cultural Center until December 28 is a pretext… In fear of being disrespectful or that something will happen that will enrage him, we asked our questions as if making "kamikaze" dives; he embarrassed us all.

Do you like being interviewed?
Are we on record? Actually, I don't like it much because throughout my life I've interviewed others, now you're cross-examining me. Anyway…

Did you develop methods of smoothing the situation when the person against you was peevish during the interview?
I don't interview people I dislike anyway; I don't care. While working at the newspaper, I'd said, "I don't like that guy at all, give me someone else". If he's an important person, if I know his books, works and so on, then of course I ask questions accordingly. Actually, I don't ask questions, I chat.

Such legends go around about your churlishness at interviews that we were a little uptight before we came…
Nope, everyone says that but don't be uptight. The reason I'm fed up with it is because it's too much. For example, there have been 20 interviews since the latest exhibition. (The photographer starts to work. While she's taking photographs, Ara Güler gets caught up with the short blouse on her.) These young ones now always have their waists bare. You will catch a cold, aren't you cold! You go after them for the sake of fashion. See, designers are mostly men and they think, "how do we ridicule women". I look at fashion shows when they're on TV, if my wife puts on those outfits, no way…By the way, I've done interviews for many fashion magazines at the time, Calvin Klein and all. But 20 years ago there was no such farce. …What were we saying?

In almost all interviews with you until now, there is always the debate of photojournalism and art. Despite your preference to define yourself as a photojournalist, why do people insist on not accepting it and try to convince that you are an artist? Is photojournalism something very bad or is art very exalted?
First, the two are very different, but photojournalism has no relation with art. Photography may be an art but I don't believe that, either. There are a group of guys now, whichever one resembles Beethoven, that's the artist. How can such a trifling become an artist? The easiest thing is to be an artist because there is no diploma for it. Come and be a doctor, a philosopher, an atomic physicist, if you can. Artists! I don't like artists. Now that I've said that, I'm confusing you.

Do people recognize and approach you when you're walking on the street?
They do, I'm annoyed with this. Young people recognize but do you know where they recognize me from? What was that, 0522 or what, I went out on that commercial, they know me from there. Not because of the intellectualism of those who recognize me, besides I'm not an intellectual, either. There are millions of journalists like me in the world. You overrate me; I'm not anything. This was my duty. If you are a wall mason, it is already your duty to paint the wall well.

But you haven't only taken the photographs of people that the editorial sent you to interview; you've also done photojournalism for yourself…
They are important men, artists, too; Picasso, Chagall, Dali…Art is a great thing, there is no art with "ooh, how nice" or with small excitements. (To the photographer) Which focus do you use, how will you capture me with that…

What do you think substituted the photograph before it was invented?
Pictures. In old newspapers, illustration artists used to draw pictures, photographs couldn't be printed back then, there were hyphen half tones. When dotted half-tones came out, then photographs began to be printed on newspapers. Now look, Goya has drawn King Carlos, hasn't he; if he hadn't we wouldn't have known the face of Carlos. But he drew the guy the way he wanted; maybe he said "damn" and made him ugly, how are we to know? The photograph shows the truth, that's why it isn't art.

John Berger whom you photographed gave a more philosophical reply; he said "memory"...
He is a friend of mine; did he say memory? How so, how many people will it hold in memory? Let's say that a guy named Igor saw King Carlos, what's going to happen when he dies? Everyone drew Jesus, are any of those alike? The Muslims were clever, they forbade drawing pictures of Muhammad and were saved from trouble.

Good watch repairers come out among those with long fingers, it takes something else to be a good wall mason. What would make a good photographer?
There's no such thing; the photographer mustn't be exaggerated. Einstein is no artist but is 10 times more important than an artist. Art makes people happy when they are alive, broadens their horizons; makes it easier to understand some things, but the Turkish people understand half of everything anyway, that's something else.

Don't you feel important at all?
Not at all, what is it that's important about me. There's Picasso who, for me, counts for three thousand presidents.

How many presidents does your latest exhibition "100 Faces in Our Literature" make?
There are of course very important ones amongst them; most are those who did their duties. What's important is to be important for the whole civilization. Was Picasso only important during his own period of time? Also, we chose 100 faces for this exhibition so that it would sound good; I've got 300 faces from Turkish literature. Likewise, there are people I didn't photograph because of my dumbness. For example, Sevgi Soysal, Yahya Kemal, Cahit Sıtkı. With some, it wasn't the right time, but Yahya Kemal was a man that I saw all the time at Park hotel, I talked with and drank with him. You have to take their pictures whoever they are. A French journalist girl came for this exhibition, she is the journalist for Le Monde, I took her to the exhibition and she couldn't recognize a single one. I showed her Aziz Nesin, no response, she hasn't even heard of Nazım Hikmet.

Isn't it her fault as well if she didn't hear any of them?
You see, that's Europe. Doesn't learn because it doesn't care about you, it makes its own man very important. The English write all histories. The enormous Ottoman Empire is an empire that ruled for seven hundred years, in the foreign edition of the Britannica encyclopedia, it is only 16 pages. The Holy Roman Empire, 80-100 pages. They are that kind of a race, what am I to say.

When you worked for foreign newspapers, were you incensed about the content or language of the news about Turkey?
I used to brush them off and snubbed them; they were scared of me. (The phone rings. A public relations lady who wants to invite Ara Güler somewhere, starts by saying "May I speak to Ms Güler?" Somehow, Mr. Güler does not give it away and laughs a lot, he then hangs up.) Where on earth did they find her…What was I saying? I did a Mimar Sinan book, they don't know Mimar Sinan. Is there a single name that Europe can show against Mimar Sinan? The architect of the Twin towers? He is Minoru Yamasaki, I spent four days with him, I did an interview, I took pictures of the towers from a helicopter when they were first built.

Is Turkey very distant from the West?
For the Europeans, Istanbul is the beginning of the east and the end of Europe. Don't you bother; Turkey is nonetheless European.

Geographically or mentally?
The wives, mothers, etc. of Ottoman sultans were all foreign. When the child is born, he becomes half European. Don't forget that it was our land until Vienna. How could Europe forget this, who is Europe to forget it? Europe is the center that sets the world at loggerheads. So what, if I enter that union! I don't like Europe; all imperialist ideas, all assimilations; historically, taking away the gold of Incas, going off to robberies on ships, were all the work of the Europeans. Now are we to take off our hats to these countries because they have got rich? Liechtenstein, for instance, there are these tiny countries in Europe. For one thing, it hurts my pride to be with them. Their whole population is one quarter of the Be_ikta_ town, for heaven's sake! All right, it's beneficial to enter the union, let us enter it, but it shouldn't be exaggerated this much.

Why do you think that we exaggerate it this much, why do we burst to ascribe ourselves as European?
It is to our interest, that's what our politicians think; I don't think that they are very enthusiastic. It's as though Europeans are speaking with the cannibal of Yemen, we have such cultured people that would thrash all of them; the rest is humbug. We are 70 million people, what things these 70 million can do.

But Germany is very frightened of us Turks; in five generations, the German President may be Turkish. If all Turks in Germany withdraw their money from the banks at the same time, Wednesday at 9:45, the German economy will collapse. Hence, they want us to always remain backward. Ok, now I'm bored. So I wasn't as bad as you feared, was I?

It's 1958. The Kemer Dam was to open. It is a place between Nazilli and Denizli, between the mountains. I had to go there and take photographs for the center page of the Hayat Magazine. I went to Aydın. The governor knew me and he gave me a car with a driver. When we got to the dam, the light was reverse. I climbed up the mountain and waited for the light to turn back. I was on the hill; couldn't get down and climb up again. I stayed there until the evening. Hours later, when I got back the driver began to grumble, "Sir, I'm finished, done for, my wife is waiting". Anyway, I said, "I'm finished, let's go". He knew a shortcut so we set out on the road. We got lost. At that time, there were no paved roads in Anatolia. Night fell, it was all dark; we took the surroundings as monsters and were terrified. Where have we come to, where are we going? We are squabbling all the time, he's swearing at me and I at him. No mobile phones back then. I said to him, "Let's stop at a place for tonight, we will continue in the daytime". We found a coffee house; everyone was asleep but there were two men inside. We told them, "this is our situation, we need a place to stay, where is the village official?"

There were kerosene lamps lit up inside; my eyes got used to it slowly. I saw that they were playing dominos in a corner. But they were playing the dominos on Roman column heads. I saw another column at another corner… Since we had the black plated car of the city, they instantly found a place for us and we went to bed. In the morning, I woke up and said, "There's something going on here". I started to go around. All the kids surrounded me saying, "there is some here; here, too". I toured around and saw that the guys crushed grapes inside tombs; the place that's the hippodrome today was a field, they reaped it with a sickle. They lived both in the Republican era and in the Roman era. I did my interview at once. A theatre house had not been opened back then, the column heads were visible. Anyway, we turned, again arguing with the driver. I came to Istanbul. The pictures of the dam were printed in the Hayat Magazine, but I told them about the other interview and said that it was very interesting. They told me, "How come you went and took pictures of stones". This was the editorial direct! When they didn't publish it in the magazine, what was I to do, I asked Sabahattin Eyüboğlu. I learned all about it. At the time, I was working for a newspaper in England. I told them, they researched it and it came out that there was probably the old Roman city, Aphrodisias. Of course, our newspapers even forgot that I had photographed it; they used the feature cutting it out from the English newspaper. After some time, a telegraph came from the Horizon magazine in America; it was a very big magazine. "We saw your interview, we want to print it, too. We set about 10 pages, send us any colored photos you have." I had no colored photos because I had used all my colored films at the dam, and had taken black and white shots there. I sent a reply saying, "I will send them in a week", then sallied forth straight to Aydın. I asked the same driver of the governor. I told the guy, "Come on, you will be lost again, take me to the same coffee house". We found it, this time I took many very professional photos. There was an excavation in 1810, then everyone forgot about it…

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