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09.08.2019

The World's Longest-Running Traditional Sports Event, Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling

I’m Emin Özmen, photographer working with Magnum Photos.
I’m concerned with documenting human rights violations in my home country of Turkey and around the world. In 2011, I worked on famine in East Africa, on disaster of Japan Earthquake and economic protests in Greece. The following year, I started covering the Syrian civil war and IS crisis in Iraq, which I continue to document. Since a few years, I have been working on my two long-term projects: « Limbo », which documents the populations uprooted by the spiral of conflicts and « Hidden » about the Kurdish conflict that has simmered for decades in Turkey.

Recently I covered the civil war’s aftermath in South Sudan, the opioid crisis in Nigeria and the humanitarian consequences of the fight with Boko Haram at Niger. In 2019 I traveled to Venezuela to document the terrible humanitarian and economic crisis that plunged the country into violence.

As a documentary photographer I value every moment of life. What matters to me is to document what makes us who we are: contemporary, social and political issues as well as all the cultural values that constitute our world. By documenting these moments, I try to pass them on, at my humble level, to future generations. I believe it’s essential to preserve the memory of a place or a way of living and so to preserve a culture.

This time I was in Kirkpinar – Edirne, a city at the Turkish-Greek border, which attracts people from a wide range of cultures and age with its Oil Wrestling Festival; known to be the oldest sport festival in the world.

Wrestlers, who have been named “Pehlivan” for 658 years, come into the arena to compete. Edirne, once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, is the home to very important works of art, but also proudly carries this old tradition to next generations.

This tradition takes place in July, the hotest month of the year in this region, where the temperature reaches 40 degrees. When you get near the arena, the first thing you hear are the drums. When you approach closer, you hear the crowd cheering and shouting. Reminiscent of the Roman gladiators, the atmosphere inside the arena is tense. No one wants to lose a fight after a year of hard work. Police are there to contain disgruntled supporters. There are dozens of wrestling tournaments in Turkey, but there is nothing more prestigious than winning in Kirkpinar.

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I spent three days there, trying to capture the most intense moment, the explosion of emotions at the end of a fight, when one loses and the other wins. I tried to show the incredible atmosphere that prevails in the bleachers where thousands of people live every second of wrestlers’s confrontation with intensity and anxiety.

It was also a great feeling to see people gathering everyday outside of the arena before and after the matches. Many families have come to picnic in the middle of the traditional food stalls and children enjoy merry-go-round at the funfair.

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This year, on July 7, Ali Gürbüz won the coveted gold belt at the prestigious 658th Oil Wrestling Festival held in Edirne province in northwest Turkey. He was acclaimed as a hero.

I have been using Fujifilm cameras and lenses for many years, but I started to shoot with GFX just a year ago. Although it is a medium format camera, I find it quite practical at outdoor shootings. It’s also a great advantage that the camera produces high resolution images. So far I’ve used 45mm and 63mm lenses but the recent 50mm design is much more practical in terms of its size and ease of use. There is no loss in it’s sharpness and focus. From now on, this lens will be sufficient for me on its own.

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