PHOTOJOURNALIST: The Life Story of Ara Guler

Photojournalist, a book by Nezih Tavlas, provides a compelling and in-depth look into the life of Ara Güler who is regarded as one of the most accomplished documentary photographers of the 20th century and the pioneer of photojournalism in Turkey. We have conducted an interview with the author.

What were the challenges in writing a biography for “one of the most important living representatives of creative photography today”?

Ara Güler is regarded as one of the most accomplished documentary photographers of the 20th century and the pioneer of photojournalism in Turkey but also who was known by all as a rough ride, a bit grumpy and foul-mouthed. During the time that I was writing Ara Guler's biography I spent more than 3 years with him. Initially, he was irritated by being the subject, but later, he got used to it and gave his blessing for my work. I have to admit it has not been easy, perhaps it was because we both were journalists our frequency synced right away. He did something he had never done with anyone else before: he opened his heart and his archive. He gave his letters, his works, his notebooks, everything that he had never shared with anyone to me. But do not think it was simple; there is no such thing as “He narrated and I wrote”. I spent days and weeks in the National Library, the Library of the Turkish Historical Society over one word uttered by Ara Guler. When you look at the reference section at the end of the book you will see what I mean. We did not have the opportunity to meet whenever we wanted because we lived in different cities. I was in Ankara, he was in Istanbul. I used my weekends and annual leave to meet at every opportunity and when that was not possible I took advantage of phone calls which lasted for hours. However, I always did my homework regarding the era we were working on; I put newspaper clippings from the relevant times, tickets, carnets, photographs, whatever I could lay his hands on to facilitate remembering and put them in his case. Like a detective, I asked hundreds of questions to uncover the tiniest issue. Although Ara Guler could get frustrated at times, with this method I was able to shed light on many issues and put them in chronological order. In fact this was instrumental in supplementing Ara Guler’s archive with works and news items that he did not have. During the interviews which lasted for days and hours, I frequently heard Ara Guler’s surprised exclamation of ‘how do you know that? Or ‘who told you?’ There were features that I delivered for which he would say ‘don’t write that’ and I respected it.

Which style and tone of writing did you take to write about a man chronicling history by his camera?

Actually, I wrote it like a documentary script. As the pages of my book narrating the life of the legendary name turn, you will evidence the underlying 80-year history of Turkey in passage. While you are reading the incredible tales that Ara Guler encountered throughout his life as he ran after wars, coups, civilizations, disasters and people which changed the fate of the world. Also these pages bear witness to the efforts and the price Master Ara Guler ended up paying to be able to be in the right place at the right time... On every page you turn you will feel that terrific ‘sense of humor’ Ara Guler has in his outlook on life. When we published the book immediately landed on the best-seller lists in Turkey, only benefit I got that Ara Guler started to introduce me everywhere we went as “My biographer” what else did I expect, besides I donated all of the profit from the book sales directly back to Association for Supporting Contemporary Life which supports contemporary education and life standards for Turkish society. Yet another thing by book everybody knows Ara Guler but they realized that his unforgettable frames which have been embedded in our minds were not generated merely as a result of chance or coincidence. Following Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier Bresson and Paul Strand, the representatives of the realism movement in photography in the world, Ara Guler, who was raised on the soil of Turkey, claimed his rightful place among these legendary names.

When was the first time when Ara Guler's photographs caught your attention?

As a journalist who expressed myself through writing by words in my whole entire career I always believed the power of visuals. That’s why Ara Guler's photography caught my attention when I was child, that’s why I started to take photos I was a student at the faculty of journalism. As a reporter my news photos had been published in both national and international magazines & newspapers. When my 18-year journalism career has taken me to war zones such as Iraq, Somalia I ended my career as a journalist but I continued to take documentary photos from street and daily life. Ara Guler was always our idol, our icon who will never reach his heights. Before the book we have never met, my friend from London Hasan Senyuksel introduced me to him for signing his book for my son. When we met I builded up my courage and I told him “I read everything about you but what make me puzzled is why you are repeating stereotypes about you. I am sure you have millions of stories not shared; you should have been injured, narrowly escaped death, fallen in love…” He stared up at me openmouthed and shouted “Who the hell you talking to, smart a**. If you can do it, right now right here” I told him I would be dying for it but I have a flight to catch. Two days later I got a huge cargo box from him which contains his letters, works, notebooks and everything that he had never shared with anyone. I realized that my words were deeply ingrained in him. The following Saturday I was ready for interview with fully completed from beginning to end 5.000 pages documents, interviews, letters and clippings in 4 days, this amazed him and made my work easier.

Your book style also helped to create a documentary about him.

Yes, actually when my producer friend Umran Safter called me I was waiting for such an offer. It made me very happy because my second dream would become true; showing his talent to all over the world. As a matter of fact she succeed. Last year they created a magnificent documentary from my book, titled “The Eye of Istanbul” his nickname, and they won top award at US film festival deservedly and we started to have invitations from all over the world for showing the documentary. While we are visiting the countries everybody asked the English version of my book and then I decided to publish it.

What do you think are the elements of his photography that makes his real signature?

Wherever Ara Güler is on the globe, people are at the core of his photographic scope; some are known by everyone and some are only ordinary people. Ara Güler knows everyone he photographs: where they have come from, what they do, their hopes, and concerns, thus magically he knows which position and which pose would reflect them the best.

Ara Güler's photographs explain a lot. Each portrait, national and international, bears a potential for pages and pages of comments. Each Ara Güler frame carries the clues of his authorship, wisdom, theatricality.

Therefore unexceptionally every image from his lenses tell everyone that "This is an Ara Güler photograph" The sensitivity reflected in his images, the flawless compositions and the splendid esthetics are his real signature.

Despite all this romanticism, Ara Güler never departs from realism for he sees himself as a photojournalist, a man chronicling history by his camera.

Ara Güler believes photojournalism, that he has exercised all his life, to be not just covering events but to convey to the future generations the life, art, customs and traditions of the times and what people do, their sorrows and joys.

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