Orhan Pamuk remembers his friend Ara Guler, the great photographer, who lovingly captured Istanbul and its people.
By Orhan Pamuk
Ara Guler, who died on Oct. 17, was the greatest photographer of modern Istanbul. He was born in 1928 in an Armenian family in Istanbul. Ara began taking photographs of the city in 1950, images that captured the lives of individuals alongside the city’s monumental Ottoman architecture, its majestic mosques and magnificent fountains. I was born two years later, in 1952, and lived in the same neighborhoods he lived in. Ara Guler’s Istanbul is my Istanbul.
I first heard of Ara in the 1960s when I saw his photographs in Hayat, a widely read weekly news and gossip magazine with a strong emphasis on photography. One of my uncles edited it. Ara published portraits of writers and artists such as Picasso and Dali, and the celebrated literary and cultural figures of an older generation in Turkey such as the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. When Ara photographed me for the first time after the success of my novel “The Black Book,” I realized happily that I had arrived as a writer.
Ara devotedly photographed Istanbul for over half a century, continuing into the 2000s. I eagerly studied his photographs, to see in them the development and transformation of the city itself. My friendship with Ara began in 2003, when I was consulting his archive of 900,000 photographs to research my book “Istanbul.” He had turned the large three-story home he inherited from his father, a pharmacist from the Galatasaray neighborhood in the Beyoglu district of the city, into a workshop, office and archive.
The photographs I wanted for my book were not those famous Ara Guler shots everyone knew but images more attuned to the melancholy Istanbul I was describing, the grayscale atmosphere of my childhood. Ara had many more of such photographs than I expected. He detested images of a sterile, sanitized, touristic Istanbul. Having discovered where my interests lay, he gave me access to his archives undisturbed.
It was through Ara’s urban reportage photography, which appeared in newspapers in the early 1950s, his portraits of the poor, the unemployed and the new arrivals from the countryside, that I first saw the “unknown” Istanbul.
Ara’s attentiveness to the inhabitants of Istanbul’s back streets — the fishermen sitting in coffee shops and mending their nets, the unemployed men getting inebriated in taverns, the children patching up car tires in the shadow of the city’s crumbling ancient walls, the construction crews, the railway workers, the boatmen pulling at their oars to ferry city folk from one shore of the Golden Horn to the other, the fruit sellers pushing their handcarts, the people milling about at dawn waiting for the Galata Bridge to open, the early-morning minibus drivers — is evidence of how he always expressed his attachment to the city through the people who live in it.
It is as if Ara’s photographs were telling us, “Yes, there is no end to beautiful cityscapes in Istanbul, but first, the individuals!” The crucial, defining characteristic of an Ara Guler photograph is the emotional correlation he draws between cityscapes and individuals. His photographs also made me discover how much more fragile and poor the people of Istanbul appeared when captured alongside the city’s monumental Ottoman architecture, its majestic mosques and magnificent fountains.
“You only like my photographs because they remind you of the Istanbul of your childhood,” he would at times say to me, sounding oddly irritated.
“No!” I would protest. “I like your photographs because they are beautiful.”
But are beauty and memory separate things? Are things not beautiful because they are slightly familiar and resemble our memories? I enjoyed discussing such questions with him.
While working in his archive of Istanbul photographs, I often wondered what it was about them that so profoundly appealed to me. Would the same images appeal to others? There is something dizzying about looking at the images of the neglected and yet still lively details of the city I have spent my life in — the cars and the hawkers on its streets, the traffic policemen, the workers, the women in head scarves crossing bridges enveloped in fog, the old bus stops, the shadows of its trees, the graffiti on its walls.
For those who, like me, have spent 65 years in the same city — sometimes without leaving it for years — the landscapes of the city eventually turn into a kind of index for our emotional life. A street might remind us of the sting of getting fired from a job; the sight of a particular bridge might bring back the loneliness of our youth. A city square might recall the bliss of a love affair; a dark alleyway might be a reminder of our political fears; an old coffeehouse might evoke the memory of our friends who have been jailed. And a sycamore tree might remind how we used to be poor.
In the early days of our friendship, we never spoke about Ara’s Armenian heritage and the suppressed, painful history of the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians — a subject that remains a veritable taboo in Turkey. I sensed that it would be difficult to speak about this harrowing subject with him, that it would put a strain on our relationship. He knew that speaking about it would make it harder for him to survive in Turkey.
Over the years, he trusted me a little and occasionally brought up political subjects he wouldn’t raise with others. One day he told me that in 1942, to avoid the exorbitant “Wealth Tax” the Turkish government was imposing specifically on its non-Muslim citizens, and to evade deportation to a forced labor camp on failing to pay the tax, his pharmacist father had left his home in Galatasaray and hidden for months in a different house, never once venturing outside.
He spoke to me about the night of Sept. 6, 1955, when in a moment of political tension between Turkey and Greece caused by events in Cyprus, gangs mobilized by the Turkish government roamed the city looting shops owned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews, desecrated churches and synagogues, and turned Istiklal Street, the central avenue that runs through Beyoglu, past Ara’s home, into a war zone.
Armenian and Greek families ran most of the stores on Istiklal Avenue. In the 1950s I would visit their shops with my mother. They spoke Turkish with an accent. When my mother and I would return home, I used to imitate their accented Turkish. After the ethnic cleansing of 1955, the purpose of which was to intimidate and exile the city’s non-Muslim minorities, most of them left Istiklal Avenue and their homes in Istanbul. By the mid-1960s, barely anyone was left.
Ara and I were comfortable talking in some detail about how he went about photographing these and other similar events. Yet we still did not touch upon the destruction of the Ottoman Armenians, Ara’s grandfathers and grandmothers.
In 2005, I gave an interview where I complained that there was no freedom of thought in Turkey and we still couldn’t talk about the terrible things that were done to the Ottoman Armenians 90 years ago. The nationalist press exaggerated my comments. I was taken to court in Istanbul for insulting Turkishness, a charge that can lead to a three-year prison sentence.
Two years later, my friend the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in Istanbul, in the middle of the street, for using the words “Armenian genocide.” Certain newspapers began to hint that I might be next. Because of the death threats I was receiving, the charges that had been brought against me and the vicious campaign in the nationalist press, I started spending more time abroad, in New York. I would return to my office in Istanbul for brief stays, without telling anyone I was back.
On one of those brief visits home from New York, during some of the darkest days after Hrant Dink’s assassination, I walked into my office and the phone immediately started ringing. In those days I never picked up my office phone. The ringing would pause occasionally, but then it would start again, on and on. Uneasy, I eventually picked up. Straight away, I recognized Ara’s voice. “Oh, you’re back! I am coming over now,” he said, and hung up without waiting for my response.
Fifteen minutes later, Ara walked into my office. He was out of breath and cursing everything and everyone, in his characteristic manner. Then he embraced me with his huge frame and started to cry. Those who knew Ara, knew how fond he was of swearing and forceful masculine expressions, will understand my amazement at seeing him cry like that. He kept on swearing and telling me, “They can’t touch you, those people!”
His tears weren’t slowing down. The more he cried, the more I was gripped by a strange sense of guilt and felt paralyzed. After crying for a very long time, Ara finally calmed down, and then, as if this had been the whole purpose of his visit to my office, he drank a glass of water and left.
Sometime after that we met again. I resumed my quiet work in his archives as if nothing had happened. I no longer felt the urge to ask him about his grandfathers and grandmothers. The great photographer had already told me everything through his tears.
Ara had hoped for a democracy where individuals could speak freely of their murdered ancestors, or at least freely weep for them. Turkey never became that democracy. The success of the past 15 years, a period of economic growth built on borrowed money, has been used not to broaden the reach of democracy but to restrict freedom of thought even further. And after all this growth and all this construction, Ara Guler’s old Istanbul has become — to use the title of one of his books — a “Lost Istanbul.”
Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Red-Haired Woman.” Ekin Oklap translated this essay from Turkish.