Q&A: Ara Güler, photographer, 1928-2018

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ara Güler, the story goes, liked to joke that he was the most famous Turkish photographer of his generation – but Armenian. Born to Armenian parents in Istanbul in 1928, he studied at the Getronagan Armenian High School and met a wide circle of artists through his father, a pharmacist on the prestigious İstiklal Avenue. While still at school he took odd jobs in movie studios and attended drama courses held by Muhsin Ertuğrul, the founder of modern Turkish theater; while studying Economics at the University of Istanbul, he worked as a journalist for the newspaper Yeni Istanbul, and then for Hürriyet.

In 1958, the American magazine company Time-Life opened a branch in Turkey, and Güler became its first correspondent for the Near East. Commissions from Paris Match, Stern, and The Sunday Times in London soon followed. After completing his military service in 1961, he joined the Turkish magazine Hayat to head up its photographic department; around this time, he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, and Marc Riboud, who invited him to join Magnum Photos. He became a full member and, while he later withdrew from the agency, maintained a close connection with it.

Güler worked extensively in Turkey, and in Iran, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and many other countries, and in the 1970s, photographed politicians and artists such as Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. He leaves behind an archive of some 80,000 images. He will probably be best remembered for his evocative black-and-white photographs of Istanbul, however, which were mostly taken in the 1950s and 60s.

“Generations of Turkish photographers grew up looking at his nostalgic and dreamy Istanbul photos,” says Magnum photographer Emin Özmen. “His passion and commitment were boundless and inspired us all. The city has gradually lost its charm, but its pictures will always be there to remind us of the good old days. He dedicated his life and his energy to photographing life itself, and for this reason he is an example for many photographers.

“He had such a strong character, he was full of energy and funny. Even if his health had worsened in recent months, he was always happy to welcome others and share good memories with friends in his famous Ara Kafé, near the no less well-known Istiklal Avenue. We will miss him.”

Turkish photographer Ara Güler, Istanbul, Turkey 2018 © Emin Ozmen/Magnum Photos

Derya Tasdemir, who was born and brought up in Brussels but now lives in Istanbul, interviewed Ara Güler in 2013:

Derya Tasdemir: What makes photojournalism different to other branches of photography?
Ara Güler: A photojournalist has a mission. Guys like me, we write history. We capture important events from this era for the future generation. We immortalise what we see. We are visual historians.

The difference between photojournalist and other photographers is huge. For example, advertising photographers are in my opinion capitalists and their main concern is money. Photojournalist however, observe the world. They acknowledge the importance of culture and habits. Different societies have different moral codes. Photojournalists become one with the camera films while other photographers work for their own satisfaction.

DT: How did you become a member of Magnum Photos?
AG: I met Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. He was my boss and my friend. He, Cornell Capa and Marc Riboud had a small office in Paris near Champs-Élysées. They offered me a membership and I accepted. At that period in my life, everything was beautiful. I was happy and satisfied. My photographs were being published in the best papers and magazines in the whole world. Of course, being a Magnum photographer was an honour. Magnum Photos is a cooperative. You are your own boss. In the beginning there were 16 photographers, myself included. I was proud the be one of them. Being a Magnum photographer doesn’t make you rich, it makes you proud.

DT: How did your career start at Time-Life?
AG: In 1958 Time-Life opened an office in İstanbul, and they offered me to the chance to be the correspondent Turkey. That was actually the true beginning of my career. It opened a lot of doors for me. For example, if I wanted to get an interview with someone, I only had to mention that I was working for Time-Life and I was in.

Thanks to Time-Life I got the chance to photograph Salvador Dali. Dali had an agent for things like interviews. I called, and asked if I could photograph him. He started asking a lot of questions and when I said it was for Time-Life he immediately gave me an appointment for the next morning. Also, other international magazines started to call me. Before I knew it I was working with Stern, Paris Match, and The Sunday Times in London.

Now, I don’t know anybody from Time-Life. My colleagues, my friends from Time-Life are all retired. I still follow then though, I still feel like a part of the team, like I’m still working for them.

DT: Have you retired? Or do you still work?
AG: I think some professions don’t accept retirement – for example, an artist, a painter will paint till his death. So, no, I’m never going to retire. I will take photographs until the day I die.

DT: What do you think is more important in a photograph, the technical details or the content?
AG: The content. Anyone can learn technical details like shutter speed, etc. But for the content, you have to have a soul, a spirit. Not only an eye for detail, but you have to be cultured. You have to know the world and everything in it. You have to understand what you see. You can’t watch Natalia Medvedeva play tennis and think it’s a dance [he laughs]. Most importantly, you have to feel it.

DT: Should people go to college for a photography education? Do you really need a diploma to be a successful photographer?
AG: No, not necessarily. For example, when I was young I wanted to be a playwright. I took theatre courses while studying economics. In total I wrote nine plays, but I couldn’t make a profession out of it. I also didn’t do anything with my economics degree. But I learned a lot, and that helped me in life and with my career. So, no, you don’t have to specifically study photography, but education is important.

But you can also educate yourself. Especially nowadays, you can research a lot online. You don’t need a diploma to photograph, you need your eyes and mind. Experience is also important. You learn a lot while working, not just sitting in a classroom. But still, stay in school kids [he laughs].


Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy