Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

It’s not about pretty pictures

Controversy has arisen after an image of a terrorist assassin was awarded “Photo of the Year”. Al-Ahram Weekly finds out more

It’s not about pretty pictures

A brutal image, taken moments after the assassination, in December, of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, was named “Photo of the Year” in the 2017 World Press Photo contest last week.

Looking at the photo you see a young man in a black suit and tie — the assassin — raising his left hand up, pointing his finger, shouting in anger, “Allahu Akbar (God is Great). We die in Aleppo, you die here.”

The man looks excited that he successfully shot his victim to death, holding the gun with his right hand, pointed at the ground. Beside him lies the body of the victim on the ground. In the background you see three framed photos hanging on the walls of the art gallery where the killing occurred.

The powerful image shows the shocking nature of the attack.

Debate over the qualification of the image as “Photo of the Year” continues, especially that the head of the award jury voted against it.

“The photo is very well composed. The eye of the viewer goes around all the elements, lingering and questioning,” Thomas Hartwell, photo editor for The Associated Press (AP) Middle East desk in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Last week the whole world came to know AP photojournalist Burhan Ozbiliçi, who was simply on his way home on the eve of 19 December when he decided to pass by a photo exhibition about Russia at an art gallery in Ankara. Ozbiliçi arrived at the moment when ambassador Andrei Karlov was giving a speech. Moments after his arrival, 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, an off-duty police officer, opened fire and shot the ambassador to death.

Instead of fleeing the horrible scene, Ozbiliçi (59), born in Erzurum, Turkey, bravely stood his ground and continued taking photos of the assassination scene, including the terrified visitors to the exhibition who couldn’t escape and kneeled cowering.

Later, the gunman was shot dead by riot police.

In no time, the image went viral on the internet. The next day, it became the front page photo of several newspapers, or the main one accompanying stories on the assassination published worldwide.

“The image went viral on the internet because it was strong visually. I am sure most of the people who shared it didn’t know who the ambassador was before the incident. Had it been a mediocre or poor quality image with bad composition it would not have had the impact,” Hartwell told the Weekly, adding that it was clearly a political assassination and not a random act of terrorism.

After announcing the result of the contest, AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said, “Burhan’s striking image was the result of skill and experience, composure under extreme pressure and the dedication and sense of mission that mark AP journalists worldwide. We are enormously proud of his accomplishment.”

Award jury chairman Stuart Franklin, who did not vote for Ozbiliçi’s image, said that it was difficult to say much about the jury’s deliberations because of a non-disclosure agreement jurors signed. The image, he said, was a hard-hitting news photo that was “extraordinarily well taken”. Franklin’s worry was about “amplifying a terrorist message in some way” by giving the photo a top prize. He also revealed that the jury was “quite split” on the decision.

Hartwell blames Franklin for speaking against Ozbiliçi’s photo. “I have served on many juries for photo contests. I have often seen pictures get top prize that were not maybe my first choice, but we had to follow fixed procedures. I do not think it was proper for Stuart Franklin to come out so strongly against the picture. There is a well-honed process that has been fine-tuned over the years in this contest. The decision that resulted in Burhan winning the top prize should have been respected in my opinion. Do strong pictures of war amplify the conflict or convey the horrors for those who are far removed? In my view, you don’t blame the messenger,” Hartwell told the Weekly.

In an interview with The New York Times, winning photojournalist Ozbiliçi said, “I was, of course, fearful and knew of the danger if the gunman turned towards me. Even if I get hit and injured, or killed, I’m a journalist. I have to do my work. I could run away without making any photos. But I wouldn’t have a proper answer if people later ask me: ‘Why didn’t you take pictures?’ ”

Hartwell sees Burhan’s decision to continue to take pictures as being brave and correct. “I have known Burhan for many years and I am very happy for him that he achieved this award. He used his well-trained skills as a professional photographer to tell the story as he witnessed it in front of him. He knew the importance of documenting the moment and he did not shirk his responsibility. I think a less experienced photographer might have choked, fled or ducked.”

Reactions to the decision of the World Press Photo jury were strong on Twitter. Both praise and criticism. “This is sick and highly immoral.” “An incredibly well-deserved win. Such an iconic image from such a horrific situation.” “It’s a great capture but can’t help feel all it does is encourage another attack.” “Next year we expect photo of ISIS butchers beheading some pure thing in orange to win the contest. Good night, humanity,” were some of the comments under the World Press Photo’s posts on their Twitter page.

“It was the decision of a jury of his peers not the organisation. The World Press Photo organisation runs the most respected contest for photojournalism in the world with tens of thousands of entries each year. The broader impact of their training, mentoring and exhibitions impacts the industry like no other. The photo chosen to be at the top — Picture of the Year — always has its critics,” Hartwell told the Weekly.

It’s not about pretty pictures

More than 5,000 photographers from 125 countries submitted 80,408 images to the contest this year. The World Press jury awarded prizes in eight categories to 45 photographers from 25 countries. The categories include Contemporary Issues, Daily Life, General News, Long-Term Projects, Nature, People, Sports, and Spot News.

According to an AP press release issued on the day the winners were announced, “this is AP’s seventh World Press Photo of the Year award. Two other AP photographers were honoured with 2017 World Press Photo prizes, Vadim Ghirda, second prize in Contemporary Issues, for ‘Migrant Crossing,’ and Felipe Dana, third prize in Spot News, for ‘Battle for Mosul’,” it said.

Winners will be recognised at an awards ceremony in Amsterdam in April. Perhaps the real winner in the World Press Photo Awards this year will be the resulting debate.

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