A Jewish world through a camera’s eye

A Jewish world through a camera’s eye

Guler Ugur puts her heart into her photography - to awesome results

A photo from Guler Ugur work: A message in the Kotel.

Successful photographers need clarity of vision. Their eyes have to be open to the joy, sorrow, magnificence, poetry, or just plain weirdness that surrounds all of us all the time.

Guler Ugur is blessed with that vision, but that is not the only one of her gifts. She also has an open heart, and that has guided her on her unlikely path to Jewish life.

As she tells her story, she speaks with passion at breakneck speed, in barely accented English. Her energy is cracklingly and tangibly evident.

Ugur is a self-contained multicultural entity. She contains multitudes. The oldest of eight children, she was born in Turkey in 1970 to Syrian parents who moved the family to Germany when she was four years old. Her father was a foreman in a mine, and “we lived in a totally ghetto community,” she said. “I always felt like an outsider in Germany.

Family pressures – specifically, the need to escape a planned marriage – led her to live with a German Catholic foster family when she was 14. In a short time, she learned about the Shoah, which was “the only thing I knew about Judaism when I was growing up,” she said. “I became obsessed with it. It’s because I always felt like an outsider.”

Ugur decided that she had to meet Simon Wiesenthal. “It took me eight months to get him on the phone,” she said. She was determined, however. “I didn’t have a lot of contacts, and it was a long chain I went through to meet him, but I was naïve” – and persistent – so she kept pushing.

“I went to Vienna and got an hour-long interview with him,” she said.

She asked him if he thought that the Shoah could happen again in Germany, and he said no, he did not. He believed in German youth, he told her. She was surprised. She did not share that belief.

Ugur’s interest in photography began when she was in high school. “I got a simple camera and took some pictures, and a teacher grabbed me and said you’ll be in the school photography club.” She paused, then said, “Everything good in my life that has happened to me has been because of photography.”

She worked with a German photographer, Jurgen Wassmuth, who was connected with the Parsons School of Design; in1989, she came to New York to study at Parsons. She interned for the photographer Eli Reed, who works for Magnum Photos, the famed agency whose members chronicle world events for all kinds of media outlets. Through him, she found herself at Crown Heights during the 2001 riots. She learned a great deal – including about race relations in the United States, for one thing. Until then, and despite her background, “I didn’t think in black and white. I didn’t think in color. I learned this way of thinking in America.”

She also learned about herself and her relationship to her subjects, as well as to her art. In Crown Heights, she found herself sticking her camera into the face of a grieving mother. She talked about it with Reed, and “Eli said to me, ‘When you photograph a person, you always have to ask yourself what you are giving that person when you take that picture.” Now, when she documents S’machot – weddings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and similar occasions – and “some of the people are very intense, or very tense, when I photograph them I ask myself ‘What am I giving to them?'”

Ugur particularly loves taking pictures of children. “It’s about winning the child’s heart,” she said, “and in the end I always do.”

She supports herself mostly with event photography – and she loves it – but she also works on purely noncommercial projects. “I do a lot with movement,” she said. “My last show was called ‘Emotion’ – it was about motion.”

She enjoys photographing women, so much of her noncommercial work focuses on them. She finds that “when I say that I’m a wedding photographer, that I do events, often people look down on me. It’s like they’re thinking ‘poor you.’ But I personally feel privileged. I feel like I can be a part of what’s going on. I get very emotional about it.”

She has traveled throughout the world taking pictures, and her photographer’s eye reveals details others might miss. “In Peru, the kids don’t smile much,” she said. “The kids there don’t know the concept of smiling.”

“Most children in the cultures with which we are most familiar begin to smile when they are very young, because they mirror what they see in the faces that hover above them, but smiling as much as we do is very American,” she said. She does not care as much if her subjects smile than if “they just look at me, and be open with their eyes and their hearts.” She has taken naturally to the American habit of smiling, “but when I went back to Germany, my nephew said, ‘Aunt, why do you smile so much?'”

Another thing Ugur learned in the United States was ethnicity. “I hadn’t been much of a Muslim,” she said. “I really just practiced being a human being. But when I came to America, people would always say ‘I’m Jewish’ or ‘I’m Catholic.'” As she started becoming more aware of Jews, not a mythic or heroic or victimized abstraction, as she had in Germany, but as actual people, she started becoming increasingly attracted to Jews.

Her ex-husband is Israeli. “Everything in Judaism is stories, and I love it, so I decided to get married in a Jewish ceremony. I didn’t even know you had to convert first,” she reports now, years later. “In Islam, you just have to say you’re converting, and that’s it. You’re converted. But I wanted a marriage based on something spiritual.”

Eventually, Ugur told her mother, with whom she had rebuilt a relationship, that she was about to become a Jew. To her surprise, her mother was not upset. “Of course, you always take the religion of your husband,” she told her daughter.

Ugur takes matters of the soul seriously. She worked with Rabbi David Adelson of the East End Temple in Manhattan, who said that he would perform her marriage, but only after her conversion. She studied, and “the more I learned, the more intrigued I became,” she reported. “I kept asking the rabbi when can I convert? When can I convert? He kept saying ‘You can convert when you’re ready.’

“I took a picture of a boy putting on his t’fillin, and his father is watching him. I have a session with my rabbi, and I described this picture, and he listened, and then he said to me, ‘You know what? You’re ready.’ I said ‘What?’ and he said, ‘You’re ready. But show me the photo.’ After that, everything went really fast.

“The day before I went to the mikvah, there was a program about the Holocaust at my shul, the Synagogue of the Arts, and I said, ‘If something ever happens like this again, I’ll be killed, too.’ It was a very bizarre feeling. The next morning, I went to the mikvah. I had to go in the water, and I cried when I came up. I can’t explain why.”

There were some complications. “I couldn’t share it with any of my Turkish friends. They did not understand. My Turkish friends would not have been happy about it.”

Her conversion helped Ugur’s work. “The photography became even more interesting because it had even more meaning. Every time I go to a bar mitzvah, I want to cry. I see people who have known each other from childhood. Even I see at least eight people I’ve photographed at every bar mitzvah now.

“The Jewish world is so small! It shows you how important community can be. I’ve never seen that in any other community.

“About 95 percent of my customers are Jewish. There is so much mentschlichkeit, so many connections. If you’re Jewish, it doesn’t matter where in the world you are. And I love my work.

“I always say that the moment I don’t discover anything new is the day I stop photographing.”

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