An exlusive interview on | Part 2 of 2 Continues in this page.
“THE EYE OF ISTANBUL: THE LIFE AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF ARA GÜLER”
“WARS BRINGS THE END OF HUMANITY;
EVERY BULLET THAT HITS TARGET IS A TICKET TO THE AFTERLIFE”
Interview with Binnur KARAEVLI, Director of "The Eye of Istanbul"
Conducted by Bircan Ünver for The Light Millennium
The film EYE OF ISTANBUL was recently completed in November 2015 and is currently being submitted to film festivals and distributed internationally. The film is having a world premiere at the DC Independent Film Festival. Award-winning director, Binnur Karaevli has garnered praise and awards for numerous films, such as “Voices Unveiled”, “Searching for Paradise”, “Dance of the Whirling Dervish” and “Evelyn of the Desert”. The Eye of Istanbul is directed by Binnur Karaevli and Fatih Kaymak, produced by Umran Safter and written by Binnur Karaevli and Ahsen Diner.
Bircan Ünver (BÜ) Ara Güler states in the documentary that his direct connection and core approach with the MAGNUM Photographers is “Human Interaction”. Indeed, this is the essence and hearth of Ara Güler’s photography: that he truly and honestly cares of all peoples, and interacts with them in a way that is honest and pure to him, and his photographs are proof to that. As a documentary filmmaker, what is your comment on this? That despite Ara Güler enormous success and talent, we do not have seen many new photographers in the line of MAGNUM and Ara Güler, as he indicates he is the second generation of the MAGNUM. With that, I wonder, who is representing the third generation of MAGNUM in Turkey?
Binnur Karaevli (BK): Ara Guler puts people in the center of his photographs. He is not a landscape photographer. His philosophy is closely aligned with Henri-Cartier Bresson’s philosopy of capturing humanity at the right place and moment in history. There are several photojournalists who follow the same tradition in Turkey. We interviewed a couple but then some of them didn’t end up in the film because of the running time. There is Coskun Aral who is in the film. There are other Magnum photographers in the film such as Bruno Barbey, Joseph Koudelka and Nikos Economopoulos who continue the tradition. But it is important to view the impact of Ara Guler’s work and the Magnum photographers work as a product of the late 40s, 50s and the 60s. That was a time without digital cameras, iphones, instagram, etc. So there are a lot of people who continue the same spirit of capturing people on camera but now they have many different outlets.
BÜ:What is the most compelling story of Ara Güler, based on his determination to interview and photograph the 20th century's most prominent figures such as Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin, Bertrand Russel, and Sophia Loren?
BK: They are all very interesting. The fact that it took Ara 3 years to set up an interview with Picasso tells me that he is persistent, resourceful and has a sense of purpose. He literally camped out in front of Charlie Chaplin’s house for two weeks, finally his wife relented and invited him inside. When Ara saw that Charlie Chaplin was in a wheel chair, he decided not to take his photographs. This shows his humanity.
BÜ: What was the most challenging aspects of shooting this documentary, as well as the most rewarding one from the director’s point of view?
BK: There were so many challenges during this shoot. I think this has been one of the most challenging productions I have ever been involved with. First of all, I have been working with my own crews in Los Angeles and in Istanbul for years now, however, because of budgetary restrictions and because of the producer’s wishes, I worked with a new crew on this film. Granted they were all hardworking and nice but it is always a challenge when you work with new people. They had to get to know me and I had to get to know them. And we really didn’t have much time to do preliminary research shoots. I really like to at least work for a couple of weeks with a new crew shooting research materials before going for the real thing. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that luxury. The other biggest problem I had with the production was shooting in 4K. Because the film was about a master photographer, I wanted the film to be stunning visually as well. So the decision was made to shoot in 4K. The production team reassured me that they could all handle 4K but it became evident after the first couple of days of shooting that the support system for 4K (with 4000 horizantal pixel quality) is not available in Istanbul. Actually it is available for commercials and short films but not for longer formats. So we had to rent more memory cards, and sometimes cut our interviews short.
The other big challenge was scheduling the shoot around Ara Guler’s doctors’ appointments and his dialysis treatments. Ara was a fantastic support, he really did so much for us but he is 88 years old and naturally has health issues. So we had to accommodate him. I had already done another documentary about an artist, Belkis Balpinar, the renowned Kilim Artist but working with Ara was different. He is a legend and of course with that fame comes a lot of barriers and layers and a lot of people surrounding him. But all and all, I must say that he was very open with us and gracious with his time. He let us in to his life for about 8 weeks.
BÜ: What did you learn as the first time, about Ara Güler himself and photography during the research and shooting process of your documentary?
BK: I didn’t know much about the philosopy of the Magnum photographers. I am now fascinated with the works of the Magnum photographers. I also didn’t know that Ara Guler discovered a very important archeological site in Turkey.
BÜ: There are two interesting references, which both refer to the early years, in fact, also his very first job as a photojournalist… such as the smashed Atatürk bust-sculpture in Gumussuyu by Ticcanis 1955; and also vandalism by the minorities that same year. With that, I wonder that why there has not been any reference and indication to the year or the political era when there is a reference to Sept. 6 and 7! Because it is also not a 9/11, in that the entire world knows about it. What is your comment on this?
BK: I don’t have much comment on this. Ara Guler’s first assignment was to photograph the destruction of the bust of Ataturk by the Ticcanis. This is in the film because it is his first assignment and he remembers it perfectly. The vandalism and attacks of September 6th and 7th on the Greek and Armenian shops in Istanbul is in the film because this incident happened fairly early in Ara’s career. He was a photojournalist for several years and this incident happened in 1954. There are several interesting things about these attacks: they happened in Ara’s neighborhood, he was worried about his father and their pharmacy so it was personal; he was a young photojournalist and the photographs he took of the vandalism helped propel his career; he saw vandals trying to throw off a piano from a second story window but the piano’s leg was stuck. He shouted at them, “wait, the leg is stuck, wait a minute, let me position my camera and then throw it off”. He shot the piano falling down. But Ara’s assistant says that nobody has ever seen this photograph. Therefore, the reason why I put this section in the film was to show glimpses of Ara’s personality and his early years as a photojournalist. There is no particular political reference in that section. The audience is free to draw their own conclusions.
BÜ: My question is not based on that event or the fact but about how it is presented in the documentary. It is, in particular, why is A. Güler's assistant, while deliberately making a comment re minorities-vandalism in reference to the Sept. 6/7 events, but not bothering to mention the actual year of it, and/or the political climate of the time that was during the Menderes Era, for instance. It did not happen during the Ataturk Era neither during the Inonu's era until 1950, or during the 70s or 80s etc. Thus, when none of these is referred within its historical context, then literally encourages to misinterpretation or manipulation that most of the viewers both in Turkey and internationally even won’t know exactly what he is referring to, or won’t bother to figure it out such as year, period, and/or who was in the power at the time etc…
BK: The Events of September 6th and 7th in 1954 refer to the attacks on the Greek and Armenian shops in the Beyoglu/Taksim district of Istanbul. This is Ara Guler’s neighborhood, this is the area where he grew up and this is where his father’s pharmacy was. These events happened during the early stages of Ara Guler’s photojournalism career. He took a lot of photographs of these events and gave these photos to the paper he was working on. However, today most of these photographs are buried deep down in his archives. This incident is mentioned in the film because of two reasons, a)it is from his early days of his career and shows his complete dedication to his job because he was so involved in taking photographs that he remembered that his father’s pharmacy might be attacked as well much later in the day; b) the incident with the falling piano is an interesting anecdote about the view point of a photojournalist. If we had put the entire political context of these events into the film, it would have taken us to so many other political and historical events that we would have spent 10 minutes of the documentary time on Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, the problems, the politicians. etc. This would have taken the story off course and muddled the film. But it is very possible that some people like yourself might feel that this section might be misinterpreted by the viewers and could be manipulated by others. This is a risk that we take with every film. Everything in this film is a choice made by me and/or my production team and yes, every section is open to interpretation by the viewer. I am sure that this film will be misinterpreted by many viewers. It is hard to prevent that. However, I want to reiterate here that Ara Guler is not a very political person. He is a photojournalist. He has photographed military coups, protests, political leaders, wars, events, regardless of who these politicians are. He has never taken any sides or publicly declared his political affiliations or even feelings. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I did not want to put him in any category or in any box. As the famous photographer Reza Deghati says in the film, “like the great masters in the world, Ara cannot fit into any category, box or agency, he is an independent soul."
BÜ: Although Ara Güler is the master of black-and-white photojournalism. With his six-decades of black-and-white photographs it creates an impression as if time never has passed or changed! What is your impression on this? Also, I wonder if he also is planning an exhibition with his colored photos?
BK: I like Ara’s colored photographs as well. Especially his colored photographs from around the world are brilliant. But he is well known for his black and white images of Istanbul. In the documentary, I showed both black and white and colored photographs. Even though it is a non-linear film, there is still a chronology of how his work has evolved and when the film comes to the world section, all the photographs are in color.
BÜ: When Ara Güler talks about how he has chosen his profession against his parent’s will, he also brings a larger criticism, that no one cares about Istanbul, and only care about money! He proves that he has taken Istanbul very seriously, with his love and care to people of Turkey. His passion with his profession has opened the doors of top prolific figures of the 20th century, and at the age of 87 (re 2015), he is still producing photography. He is happy and bright with humor. Yet despite all of his accomplishments, and a over million photos, he indicates that he hasn’t taken his last photo yet, and he doesn’t know when that will be! Based on this ground, what should we take from this? What is Güler’s advise to us and young generations?
BK: One of Ara’s best quotes in the film is, “you have to discover the meaning of life for yourself”. This quote encapsulates his philosopy and his life journey. His life journey has been about discovering the meaning of life for himself. He is a man free of societal pressures. He has never cared about money or material things; he has lived his life in the pursuit of his passions. Maybe that is why he is till so sharp and full of life. At age 88, he still curious and interested in life. In the film I wanted to show a life well lived. Ara’s biggest advice could be derived from his actions. Follow your bliss, work hard, be curious…to me this is his philosophy. I like that philosophy.
“Forget about nationalism, I am a child of Taksim”
BÜ: Did Ara Güler mention any discrimination or suppression on his life and work because he is a Turkish-Armenian, was born and raised in Istanbul?
BK: No, Ara Guler never mentioned that his Armenian heritage has been a hindrance to him. I asked him many times but he said that he felt no different than a Turkish boy growing up in Istanbul. Of course, I am not so sure whether this was true or not. I couldn’t find anyone alive who would contradict Ara’s words. After spending time with Ara while making this film, it is my impression that he just doesn’t want to be drawn into the whole Armenian-Turkish issue. As we all know, it is a very volatile topic. Ara seems to want to be regarded as a photojournalist and wants to be viewed for his work not for his background, heritage, nationality or religious beliefs. BESIDES HE FEELS VERY TURKISH, HE HAS REPEATED THAT MANY TIMES DURING HIS INTERVIEWS. HE HAS BECOME A CULTURAL ICON IN TURKEY. AND HE SEEMS TO REGARD HIMSELF AS A MAN BORN IN ISTANBUL. HIS ARMENIAN HERITAGE IS HIS PRIVATE LIFE. AS I HAVE MENTIONED BEFORE ARA GULER IS NOT POLITICAL. HE REGARDS HIMSELF AS A VISUAL HISTORIAN SINCE HE SAYS IN THE FILM, ‘I WRITE THE MOST ACCURATE HISTORY BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEAS OF MINE OWN, THE CAMERA TAKES THE PICTURES, I DON’T PUT MY IDEAS IN IT.” HE WANTS THE VIEWER TO INTERPRET HIS PHOTOGRAPHS, HE DOESN’T WANT TO MAKE STATEMENTS ABOUT HIS OWN IDENTITY, CULTURAL PREFERENCES, RELIGION OR POLITICS. He says in the film, “Forget about nationalism, I am a child of Taksim”. Taksim is the neighborhood where he was born and where he grew up. That is his identity.
BÜ: I wonder that if Turkey has an established annual award and honor for the “Living Legends” such as Ara Güler!
That would be great.
BÜ: “If I was not a photojournalist, I would love to be an Architect”, Güler states. What is his reason for that?
BK: Ara Guler loves the works of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. He spent 5 years working on a book about Mimar Sinan. He seems to love architecture.
BÜ: What is Güler’s stand point on war?
BK: As Ara says in the film, “wars bring the end of humanity; every bullet that hits its target is a ticket to the afterlife”. Obviously he doesn’t care for wars.
BÜ: What you would’ve like to have in this documentary most but had to leave out?
BK: There were three things I would have liked to have in the film but I couldn’t: I would have liked to have a little bit more about his family, his cultural heritage which is Armenian and his upbringing in the film. I kept asking Ara Guler about his family but his answers were short and he kept saying that he felt Turkish when he was growing up. He did not talk about how his Armenian background helped shape him when he was growing up. I also would have liked to have a bit more about his personal life in the film but he didn’t want to talk about his first marriage. Also it became clear to me that the line between his work and his personal life was nonexistent. He really dedicated himself to his work. It would have been great to have a long section in the film about his Turkish writer/artist friends and the people who influenced him in Turkey. But I had to let go off some of those scenes in the editing room because the interviews were not as clear as they could have been. These scenes did not add to the film so even though I wanted to keep them, at the end they ended up on the cutting floor.
Note: This interview has been compiled through Skype conferences and email correspondence.
End of 2 of 2. | Part 1 of 2
For further information, visit www.eyeofistanbul.com.
For Biography of Ara Güler, please click here
2015 Ara Güler Retrospective Exhibition at Arte Gallery, Istanbul
Posted on March 7, 2016. Updated on March 13, 2016. Special Thanks To: J.U.C. for proofreading.