The story of the Gezi photo that broke old hostilities
İdris Emen – ISTANBUL / Radikal
DHA PhotoIt is a photo that has come to symbolize the spirit of the Gezi protests that rocked Turkey at the beginning of June 2013. A man holding a banner from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a forerunner of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the search for Kurdish rights, leads what appears to be a woman holding an Atatürk flag away from a police attack in Taksim. In the foreground, another person flashes the ultranationalist Grey Wolf sign in defiance of the police.
Together, it’s three people with mutually antagonistic political backgrounds, captured in a single shot and united in their opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the country’s police force.
“That photograph broke the status quo,” Ali Şahin recently told web portal Radikal. “Think about it: An [ultranationalist], a nationalist and a patriotic Kurt meet in the same shot, and the police shoot water at them. It’s an arresting photograph.”
Şahin was the man holding the BDP flag that June day, helping the supposed Kemalist woman escape from the police.
“Everyone thinks that that the person I helped was a woman and that I aided her because I liked her,” Şahin said. “However, it was a 55-year-old man. Because of my political sense of ethics, I lent a hand to a demonstrator in distress.”
Old man headed back for more
An Alevi Kurd from the eastern province of Malatya, Şahin said he was working on a film project in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa when the Gezi protests erupted in Taksim over the AKP’s plans to destroy the area’s last green space and replace it with an Ottoman-themed mall. Unable to return due to his work commitments, Şahin ultimately resigned from his position to come to Istanbul.
“The TOMAs [police water cannon] were hitting protesters with water. At that moment, I saw a protester with an Atatürk poster. When the TOMA hit the protester with water, he lost his balance and fell on the ground, so I walked over to him. I grabbed him by the hand and got him to his feet, but because he had been hit hard, he couldn’t walk. I took him by the arm and began to drag him. Just then, the TOMA began to hit us both with water,” Şahin said.
“As I was trying to take the man away, two plastic bullets hit me in the chest, so I started to stagger too. I left him in a safe place and started to rest, but, despite everything, the guy got up again and headed toward the TOMA once more,” he said.
Photo straight from a script
Şahin said he saw the photo, which was taken by Doğan News Agency photographer Uğur Can, a few hours later. “At the time, I didn’t know the photograph would become that symbolic. Afterwards, everyone started talking about the photo.”
Noting that he worked in cinema, Şahin said, “That photo is such a good setting that even if a scenarist set the scene, it wouldn’t have been better.”
While the photo became symbolic, it initially attracted opprobrium from both sides of the Kemalist-Kurdish divide. “I received a lot of insults after I shared it on social media. Some commented, calling me a ‘terrorist’ and saying ‘who are you to help us?’ Nationalist Kurds also reacted because I had helped them. Despite everything, though, many people congratulated me.”
Changing personal perceptions
Şahin also noted the transformation in his own perceptions after the photo was published. “The best part about Gezi Park was that it managed to bring together opposing camps,” he said. “For instance, I used to be fairly dismissive toward Kemalist and [Turkish] nationalists. I always thought that we were different. But after that photograph, I realized that we have a number of common points. For instance, during the Gezi Park events, we would visit the CHP [Republican People’s Party] stand; they would also join our halay dance and bring us food. As such, my perception changed. After Gezi, I realized that I had been liberated.”
Şahin said one of his main wishes was to meet the nameless 55-year-old man once more. “After the incident, I didn’t see the man again. I have no idea who the man I helped was, but I am curious. I’d love to sit down and chat. He was a bit crazy because after I helped him, he went back to fight.”