Gökşin Sipahioğlu

Turkish journalist and press photographer with enormous contributions in both areas, Gökşin Sipahioğlu is ‘a newspaperman who carries his camera like a pen’.

Who is a good journalist? The man, or woman, who goes after the news, who tries to report the facts as impartially and objectively as possible, who is honest, courageous, curious, creative? Who has an open mind and a strong sense of intuition? Who is a little bit lucky? Who risks his life to get a special shot, sometimes under fire, sometimes in pursuit of a famous star? Who’s in the right place at the right time?
I was moved to ask myself these questions when I visited the new exhibition that opened at Istanbul Modern on 7 September. Entitled ‘Right Place Right Time’, this exhibition brings together the photographs of Gökşin Sipahioğlu, founder of the Sipa Press, one of the world’s most reputable photo press agencies. And I found the answer to my question in Sipahioğlu’s visual documentaries of the events that shook the world, from the Arab-Israeli war of 1956, his first photo-feature, to his ‘Summer Olympics Tragedy’ shot in Berlin in 1972. There was little need for words, but only a good journalist could have conveyed what happened in just a single frame.

Known today as the ‘Sultan of photojournalism’ and ‘King of the Scoop’, Gökşin Sipahioğlu was born in Izmir in 1926. In 1950 he founded the Kadıköyspor Basketball team (today’s Efes Pilsen), for which he also played. He started his career in journalism as a sports reporter for the ‘İstanbul Ekspres’ and became editor in 1954. His first big scoop was a photo of wounded Egyptian soldiers shot during the Sinai war of 1956. In 1957 he founded the ‘Yeni Gazete’ which carried columns by such established Turkish writers as Çetin Altan and Aziz Nesin. Raising the newspaper photograph to prominence by printing it large, Sipahioğlu launched a trend in Turkey. As general manager of the daily Vatan, he started the ‘early edition’, one of his most significant contributions to Turkish journalism. Work always came first for him, and he rarely left the office before midnight. But Sipahioğlu’s passion for photojournalism was irrepressible, and in 1961 he was in Tirana, which was off limits to foreign newspapermen at the time. As an official deck boy he was on the first ship to reach
U.S.-blockaded Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis when his photographs made headlines in forty American newspapers. He joined the daily Hürriyet the same year, producing features on close to 80 countries in just four years. He was the first Turkish journalist to get a visa for China on the eve of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’. In 1967 he came within a hundred meters of his death when he shot photos of French gendarmes firing on the rebels in Djibouti in their rising against French rule. In 1968 he photographed the student movement in Paris, joining France’s Gamma Agency around this time and offering to go to Czechoslovakia for the Bratislava Conference, which was to be attended by leaders of the Eastern Bloc. Turned down by the agency, he went to Bratislava on his own; two weeks later Czechoslovakia was occupied by Warsaw Pact forces in ‘Prague spring’. The rebuff from Gamma would lead him to found the Sipa Press, France’s biggest and the world’s third largest photo press agency.

Sipahioğlu originally set out with the aim of distributing his own photo features. With him were his American journalist wife Phyllis Springer and Kosta Deponte, Athens correspondent for Turkey’s daily Cumhuriyet. Its name based on the first four letters of its founder’s surname, the Sipa Press was unofficially founded in 1969 in a 16-meter square space on the Champs Élysées. In the words of his colleague Güneş Karabuda, Sipahioğlu “knew how to send the hundreds of photo-journalists working for him to the right place at the right time.” Another journalist friend, Özgen Acar, sums up the three basic traits that made Sipahioğlu ‘the pasha of photojournalists’: “First, he had a good nose for the news. Nobody could outdo Gökşin in getting first himself and then the thirty or so full-time photographers and several hundred stringers that worked for him to a hot spot in advance of events. Second, he had a personality that was never jealous, that supported young talents rather than vain ‘old hands’, training them and making them famous. And third, he went out of his way to not to take sides either in war or in peace.”
And so the Sipa Press became a trademark, assembling one of the world’s most extensive photograph archives. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, Sipahioğlu was forced in 2001 to sell the agency, which had fallen into financial straits following investments to keep up with developing technology. Some thirty million photographs bearing witness to history remain in its archives today.

Gökşin Sipahioğlu, who was made ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres’ by French President Jacques Chirac in 1994, ‘Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2004 and ‘Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur’, France’s highest order of merit, in 2006, was honored with a ‘Medal for Outstanding Service to the State’ from the President of the Republic of Turkey in 2000.
Curated by Engin Özendes and realized with the contributions of Fortis at the Istanbul Modern Photography Gallery, the Sipahioğlu exhibition consists of 119 photographs. A comprehensive catalog including writings by the photographer’s friends was also compiled for the exhibition, which runs until 12 November.
Gökşin Sipahioğlu, who will celebrate his 80th birthday and fifty years in the profession on 28 December is still full of enthusiasm with his cameras at the ready. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said simply, “as a good journalist”.