Turkish Officials Honor Ara Güler While Reluctant to Mention His Armenian Heritage

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By Haykaram Nahapetyan

Special to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator

ISTANBUL – Istanbul-based Turkish-Armenian Ara Güler was not only the most famous photographer ever to emerge from Turkey. He was the one who actually founded professional photography in modern Turkey. Turks called him the “Eye of Istanbul” for his famous images of the city, although he would refer to himself and news photographers more broadly. “We are the eyes of the world. We see on behalf of other people. We collect the visual history of today’s earth,” was how the New York Times quoted him.

So, when on October 17 the Eye of Istanbul shut both his eyes for eternity in one of the hospitals of Istanbul, Turkish media in its entirety reported this as flash news. The sad announcement remained as a frontpage article in many newspapers for many hours. Up until now Güler’s death and the subsequent funeral ceremonies continue to remain top news in Turkey. Some excerpts from those reports come to confirm that it is not merely the Armenian perspective that Güler was “number one” in Turkey –  this is actually what Turkish media says.

“Ara Güler… was the biggest photo reporter ever grown up in Turkey” –  Hurriyet.

“The most prominent name of Turkish photography in international arena” – Milliyet.  

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“He shaped Turkey’s public memory with his photographs” – Sabah.

And there are many more examples…

Suffice it to say that Ara Güler was the only photographer from Turkey who was elected to and became a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP; today called the American Society for Media Photographers).

The list of celebrities whose images Güler immortalized is impressive: British PM Winston Churchill, artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, movie makers Federico Fellini and  Alfred Hitchcock, writers Tennessee Williams and Orhan Pamuk, actors Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman, renowned Armenian composer Aram Khachadurian and many more.

Turkish authorities, from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Parliament Speaker Binali Yildirim, to ministers and MPs publicly expressed condolences. Because of the funeral services the tramway communication in one of Istanbul’s main avenues was stopped.

Topics: photography
People: Ara Güler

With all the attention coming from Turkish authorities, one thing, however, was hard to not notice: Ara Güler’s Armenian roots were not highlighted by the officials at all and got just a few sometimes controversial mentions in the Turkish mainstream press of recent days. Some indirect references to Güler’s Armenian heritage have been made by press during the coverage of liturgy at the Armenian church and his funeral at the Armenian cemetery. Hurriyet mentioned that Dle Yaman and Groong were played at the funeral without noting that those were Armenian folk songs. The same newspaper featured that some soil was brought from Shabin Karahisar, from Güler’s father Dajad’s tomb, to be scattered his grave in Istanbul – yet again providing no details about the Armenian profile of this community or the artist’s parent.

The author was able to locate only one article in Sabah’s English edition that clearly stated that Güler was an Armenian. More liberal media outlets questioned why Güler’s Armenian descent remained unmentioned throughout his life.

“Was Ara Güler an Armenian? Who was his father? These questions are being asked after the death of the master-artist,” a piece in InternetHaber mentioned. The publication found out that the original name of Ara Güler was Aram Gülerian.

Some pro-governmental mainstream publications called him a “Turk.” Paradoxically those statements often appeared in the same piece that would refer to the Christian liturgy for Ara Güler conducted at the Beyoglu Armenian church of Istanbul.

Recently another great Armenian, Charles Aznavour passed away. The French government and public from President Emmanuel Macron to endless media publications would continuously highlight Aznavour’s ethnic origins. President Macron even twitted in the Armenian language. However, Turkish officials turned out to be reluctant to do anything similar for Ara Güler, a man who did so much work to make Istanbul recognizable and prominent in the world of international photography.

As for Armenians and other peoples of the world, Ara Güler had one additional underappreciated achievement: the great photographer claimed that he had been able to track the traces of Noah’s Ark while taking pictures on the mountain of Ararat.

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