President Erdogan preparing to cut the ribbon to inaugurate the exhibition (Aram Arkun photo)

Turkish Cultural Diplomacy: Ara Güler Photography Exhibit in NY Inaugurated by President Erdoğan: Video Included

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NEW YORK — An exhibition of the works of award-winning Turkish-Armenian photographer Ara Güler (1928-2018), given the epithet of the “eye of Istanbul,” was inaugurated on September 23 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House in downtown New York City, near Wall Street.

At the entry to the museum exhibition (Sarkis Baharoglu photo)

It is no coincidence that the exhibition, sponsored by the president of the Republic of Turkey, started at the same time as the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which brings greater international attention to events in New York. The exhibition, opened with a speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continues in New York until October 10.

A view of the exhibit at the US Customs House (Aram Arkun photo)

President Erdoğan entered the hall with his wife, Emine Gülbaran, and a large entourage of officials, who filled the first three or four rows of seats. Security was tight. Erdoğan’s daughter Esra and her husband Berat Albayrak, National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım (now Justice and Development Party Izmir parliament deputy), Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın and Turkish Nobel chemistry laureate Aziz Sancar were all present for this cultural event.

The Program

The evening commenced with a musical performance by Turkish pianist and composer Fahir Atakoğlu, who used a photograph of Istanbul by Güler on his 2008 album, “Istanbul in Blue.” John Bailey, president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2017 to 2019, then spoke. He called Güler very much a man of the people, a world traveler, who patiently could photograph both peasants and heads of states. He would go to great lengths to approach his subjects but would not cross certain lines. For example, after long efforts, he succeeded in obtaining access to Charlie Chaplin, but after seeing the latter’s sad state in old age, he declined to photograph the legendary actor.

Cinematographer John Bailey (Aram Arkun photo)

Bailey concluded with a famous definition of photojournalism by Güler, declaring, “The person running towards the explosion is a photojournalist. The one running away is not. Ara Güler ran toward his story. By doing so, he ran into history. Such is the man, such is the artist.”

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Bailey also participated in a panel discussion the next day held within the scope of the exhibition, together with Christopher Mahoney, vice president of Phillips Photography, and photographer Alexey Titarenko.

President Erdoğan took the podium after Bailey to praise Güler’s works. He said that Güler believed in peace and brotherhood, and that it was important that this exhibition was held during the UN General Assembly. He continued: “Culture and art act as universal bridges in the development of relations between societies. In this sense, I hope that the works of Ara Güler, a global brand in the real sense in the profession, will reach the masses of different cultures and nations coming from the four corners of the world to New York.”In addition to stating that Güler’s works, reaching millions of people, are one of the greatest values created by Turkey, Erdoğan said that Güler’s memory lives on in his photographs, some of which are of Erdoğan’s family.

Cutting the ribbon to inaugurate the exhibition (Sarkis Baharoglu photo)

After the end of the ribbon-cutting (see video clip below) and the formal event, Erdoğan went to look at the photos and was immediately so tightly surrounded by a huge crowd of officials, guests, security and journalists that it was impossible to approach him. Several Turkish television stations covered the event along with Turkish newspapers.

Deputy Chairman of the Dogus Group Hüsnü Akhan (Sarkis Baharoglu photo)

Among the prominent visitors from Turkey at the opening was Deputy Chairman of the Doğuş Group Board of Directors Hüsnü Akhan, who for 13 years was the chief executive officer of the large Turkish conglomerate, and helped establish the Ara Güler Archive and Research Center and the Ara Güler Museum while Güler was still alive. Akhan explained to the Mirror why his company was involved in this work. He said: “Well, first of all, we at Doğuş Group are always quite keen about saving Turkish culture and art. So, Ara Bey is one of the famous and more capable photographers of Turkey… not just Turkey. Even though he was a Turkish citizen, his art and his  contributions to the art of photography are worldwide. That is why we wanted to keep his wonderful archive, and to restore it, to deliver it, transfer it to the next generations. That is our main aim as Doğuş Group. Arts and culture do not see borders. Needless to say, it is not doing something with religion or nationality or nation. Art and culture are always universal.”

The New York exhibit primarily showcased Güler’s masterful and moving black-and-white photos of scenes in Turkey from the 1950s and 1960s, including his famous series on fisherman of Kumkapı. There are many portraits of celebrities like Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, and Brigitte Bardot. There are also a few color photographs of scenes from Anatolia.

A famous photo of Armenian fisherman at Kumkapı (Aram Arkun photo)

The Güler exhibition first debuted in London in April 2019 at the Saatchi Gallery, then went to the Polka Gallery in Paris in May, and the Tofukuji Temple of Kyoto, Japan, in July during the G20 summit, before coming to New York. Further planned sites for the exhibition include the Trastevere Museum of Rome in January 2020 and the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, in May 2020.

At the event, multiple copies of an exhibition catalog entitled simply Ara Güler, published by the Ara Güler Archives and Research Center and the Ara Güler Museum, and presented by the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, were available.

The bilingual Turkish and English hardcover catalog opens to a photograph of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey taken by Güler facing a letter bearing Erdoğan’s signature. The latter praises Güler as a photographer, and declares, “Ara Güler, with his photographs published by prominent press agencies and publications, contributed immensely to the promotion of Turkey. The late Ara Güler’s albums and exhibitions, which include his photographs that constituted the headline or cover photos of many newspapers and periodicals, attracted attention in many great cities of the world.” The brochure distributed specifically for the New York exhibition contains the same letter by Erdoğan.

Güler’s Armenian Background

The New York exhibit, the book and brochure all provide a brief biography of Güler. His Armenian background can only be inferred indirectly from two brief allusions: his graduation from the “Getronagan Armenian high school” in Istanbul and the publication of some of his stories as a young man in Armenian newspapers.  (See https://mirrorspectator.com/2018/10/22/turkish-officials-honor-ara-guler-while-reluctant-to-mention-his-armenian-heritage/)

Not one word was spoken about Güler’s Armenian background by the speakers at the New York event. In contrast with this deliberate avoidance of Güler’s ethnic background, some of Güler’s most famous photos were of Armenian subjects, such as those of the aforementioned Kumkapı fishermen first published in the Istanbul Armenian newspaper Jamanak [Zhamanag] in the 1950s. One of these photos is reproduced in the current exhibition, as is a photograph of Armenian-American writer William Saroyan.

Güler’s given name at birth in 1928 was Mıgırdiç [Mgrdich] Ara Derderyan, but his father Dacat, a pharmacist, and mother Vercin, were forced to change the family name as a result of the Surname Law of 1934. His father Dacat was born in Shabin Karahissar (Şebinkarahisar) in 1896 and came to Istanbul with his mother as a 6-year-old for school. The rest of his family, deported during the Armenian Genocide, were killed or lost.

Ara Güler avoided speaking publicly about the oppression that Armenians living in Turkey, including his family, experienced. However, he did once tell Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk that his father had to leave his home and hide for months in a different house, never once going outside, to avoid the discriminatory “Wealth Tax” of 1942 and possible relocation to a forced labor camp for failure to pay this tax. Güler also witnessed and photographed the pogroms of September 6-7, 1955 in Istanbul (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/orhan-pamuk-ara-guler-istanbul.html).

As Turkish journalist Ozan Ceyhun wrote in Daily Sabah, a media sponsor of the exhibition, on September 25, “Güler obviously has a very important place in cultural diplomacy that is successfully being conducted by the country’s presidency. Turkey’s values are shared with the world’s public opinion in this program where Turkey’s foremost artists are embraced and their projects put in the spotlight. The Turkish president’s Chief Adviser Fecir Alptekin is responsible for this along with her team, and Ara Güler exhibitions are allowing many residents in various cities of the world to have a taste of this artist’s works, of whom Turkey is proud of.”

Making works of photography more accessible to the world is praiseworthy, but omitting an important dimension of the photographer while using his work out of context for political purposes is not.

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