Face to Face on the Front Lines: TIME Talks to Bulent Kilic

TOPSHOTS-TURKEY-MINE-BLAST
Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images
A man kisses his son who was rescued from after an explosion in a coal mine which killed at least 284 miners in Manisa, Turkey, May 13, 2014.

This year Bulent Kilic’s powerful, assured work — made most recently in the aftermath of the deadly coal mine collapse in Soma and earlier amid the political unrest in his native Turkey and the turmoil in Ukraine — brought him wide attention and established him as a force to watch on the news wires. TIME talked to Kilic about his pictures and his formative years — and discovered a bold young photographer whose compassion and integrity are as strong as his imagery.


Bulent Kilic was born 35 years ago in the Eastern Turkish province now known as Tunceli—an area dominated by Alawite Kurds and haunted by the memory of the Dersim Massacre, a mid-1930s Turkish military campaign against the region’s minority groups that claimed the lives of thousands and displaced many more. When Kilic was just five-years-old his father, a teacher, relocated the family to Istanbul. There, living in the city’s Uskudar district, “opposite a famous mosque, from where prayers rung out loudly,” Kilic says he was awakened to the fact that “he had entered an entirely different world.”

Kilic studied journalism and photography at the University of Ege during which time he became a correspondent and a journalist for the socialist newspaper Evrensel, taking, developing and printing his own pictures. By 2003 he had aspirations to work in mainstream media; but two years later, after meeting with a foreign photo agency and realizing “that my real dream was through this path,” he joined AFP as a stringer.

Kilic, like most photojournalists who work for news agencies, has covered his fair share of sport, fashion, conflict, and politics over the past decade, mostly in his native Turkey while major stories unfolded elsewhere. “We can’t excel in all of these [disciplines] but we can adapt to a few, ” Kilic says. “The benefit of shooting sports is that you become faster at processing what you see, your reflexes improve.”

Things changed dramatically for him in 2011, when AFP assigned him to northern Syria, to cover the civil war.

“When they started to shoot artillery into Idlib [in northwestern Syria] I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready for this experience,” Kilic says. “It was like a game of roulette, with artillery dropping left, right and center around us.”

During 2012 and 2013, Kilic visited Syria seven more times and, although he felt more prepared, he says the conditions remained extremely difficult. “There are no laws, the situation in those lands is like the movie Mad Max,” he says. “Civilians are forced to migrate from one spot to another while they are attacked by inhumane murderers.” Kilic found making photographs of those displaced in large cities and in the refugee camps distressing, while the kidnap and murder of a fellow photojournalist Olivier Voisin affected him deeply, but he kept working.

Kilic’s compassion for his subjects is evident. Earlier this year he covered the unrest in Kiev and says he felt a connection with the activists: “The solidarity in the communal squares, the 24 hours of tea and food preparations and the kindness and sincerity of the people really touched me.” He says he also felt their loss.

Beyond his powerful photographs from the barricades, Kilic also focused on quieter moments—heavily etched portraits of the protesters that reveal the emotional weight of their struggle. Of a picture he made of a protestor who threw a molotov cocktail, for example, he says that “it is important to see the portrait, because the facial expression is strong enough to give you the story.”

As many photographers moved to Crimea, Kilic chose instead to return to Turkey.

“The events in Turkey are complicated and I had to make time for my own country,” he says. “Sometimes a photo that you spend months trying to capture in a foreign country can be found a few miles away from your own home.” Kilic’s arrival in early March coincided with the death of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old teenager who died of injuries he sustained amid the 2013 demonstrations when he was hit by a police tear-gas canister while buying bread for his family. Kilic covered the funeral and the surrounding unrest. As the Turkish government closed down YouTube and Twitter and international condemnation over censorship within the country grew, Kilic documented election rallies — photographing with the same confident, sure eye that marked his work in Ukraine.

“The national and international agencies in Turkey have an important job to do,” he says. “Censorship is our country’s biggest problem.”

Kilic’s most recent work documents the horrific explosion and collapse of the Soma coal mine in the western Turkish province of Manisa, which killed more than 300 miners. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in Turkish history, with many saying it highlighted Turkey’s abysmal work-safety record. Emotions in the crowds who gathered at the scene of the explosion were high, Kilic says. “People were shouting and crying as miners, most of them already dead, were carried out by emergency staff,” he adds. “They were poor workers, neglected by the government.”

In the wake of the catastrophe, much of the public’s anger has been directed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose reaction to the disaster was widely seen as abrasive and insensitive.

“It is important how you take a picture,” Kilic notes. “It is also important what kind of a person you are and how you choose to live your life.”


Bulent Kilic is a photographer for AFP based in Istanbul.

Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.


Related Topics: , , , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/superfund/voosen-textat the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,241 other followers