Last month the whole world came to know AP photojournalist Burhan Ozbiliçi, whose image of the assassin of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov during and after the killing at an art gallery in Ankara last December got the 2017 World Press Photo of the Year award. The fact that what is arguably the most prestigious photo award in the world should go to an image of a terrorist at his moment of triumph has prompted worldwide controversy. But for Ozbiliçi there was no question about capturing as many images of the moment as he could: Not only of the assassin but of terrified exhibition goers...
Ozbiliçi is not too keen on prizes in general, and to this day part of him wishes he had somehow saved the ambassador’s life rather than photographing the murderer. But when he found out that his photo, having gone viral on social media, had been seen 18 million times in 24 hours, he suspected that it would be honoured in one way or another. In addition, Ozbiliçi is clear about upholding a long tradition of independent journalism, which he feels is the best way to deal with gunmen.
He takes his coverage of this tragedy to be in the proud and courageous tradition of photojournalists who risk (and indeed give) their lives in the line of duty. Ozbiliçi mentions the American Reuters war correspondent Kurt Schork and the Spanish TV cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno, who were both killed in Sierra Leone in May 2000. He also remembers AP colleagues: The British photographer Kerem Lawton, killed in Kosovo in 2001; and the German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, killed in Afghanistan in 2014. Their memory as much as anything motivates him to respond at the crucial moment, living up to the AP’s history of journalistic professionalism.
Kashmiri earthquake survivor waits for supplies by Pakistani army relief centre, November 2005. Photos captured by AP photojournalist Ozbiliçi
Ozbiliçi covered the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia in August and September, 1990, the first Gulf War at the Turkey-Iraq border, the Kurds’ exodus to Turkey and their return to Iraq after the war, from March to August, 1991, earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan as well as all major events in Turkey, including July 2016’s failed coup. He has travelled widely in Europe and Central Asia. A man of dignity, he has often turned down valuable gifts from world leaders. He dislikes images of blood and death, but he feels photojournalists have an obligation to document disasters. “We remember half a million innocent people killed in Syria, little babies and women, and we remember cats, dogs, birds, trees looking at the work of photojournalists.”
On his second, 24-day visit to Egypt, in October 1994, Ozbiliçi met the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal by accident in the elevator of the hotel where he was staying. Heikal invited Ozbiliçi to his office where, speaking in a mixture of English and French, they discussed Egypt’s identity crisis, the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the beauty of Egyptian women. Ozbiliçi also had the opportunity to visit Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in hospital where he was recovering from an attempt on his life by Islamist extremists.
The son of a Turkish intellectual, Islamic law expert and hero of Turkey’s War of Independence, Burhan Ozbiliçi, 59, was born in Erzurum in eastern Turkey, once the centre of an Armenian province named Garin in Historical Armenia. Ozbiliçi was schooled all over Turkey, receiving a French education in literature, history and journalism in Ankara, where he now lives within walking distance of the AP office. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks English and understands the full spectrum of Turkish dialects. He is interested in French, Turkish and Russian art and literature, and he admires France’s southeastern province of Provence where he spends his annual vacation, as well as the ancient city of Olympos inside the province of Antalya in Turkey.
He is an animal lover with a penchant for horses and dogs as well as the cats he grew up with in the house – the cat even accompanying his father to the mosque at prayer time. Ozbiliçi has three cats of his own: Koc, Bobo and their little daughter Binnaz; together with his books and paintings, they keep him company, preventing him from feeling lonely. “We are one happy family,” he says. “We speak with each other and we miss each other when I am not home. My cats are a source of energy for me; sometimes I can forget my country’s tensions just being with them.”
Ozbiliçi loves his independence. He remembers walking with his father along the river for hours, and crossing it, swimming, to the mountains. “I was my father’s wild wolf,” he says. Today he starts his day by checking email and doing some exercise, including a brief walk with the cats on the terrace, watering his plants before breakfast to the news channels. He then walks to the office.
“My father preferred that I should receive a French education as it was considered an influential language at the beginning of the 20th century,” Ozbiliçi begins. “France was also a role model for the new Turkish Republic and the French language was preferred by a majority of Ottoman intellectuals. My father had perfect Arabic and Persian.”
But it wasn’t his father that drove him towards photojournalism.
“I have been always very curious about life, the world, history, peoples and countries. My childhood hobbies were reading, writing and capturing nature. I dream too much and I am a hopeless romantic. I put all my feelings onto paper. We had two wall newspapers in secondary school, Turkish and French, for which I used to write articles. Also while I was a student, I worked as an editor for weekly and monthly magazines.”
Ozbiliçi worked at various Turkish newspapers, including the English-language Turkish Daily News, before joining the AP as a full-time photo stringer in 1989; he has been AP staff photographer since 1996. The Russian ambassador incident was not his first experience of an assassination.
“On 18 June, 1988, I found myself in the middle of the assassination attempt against Prime Minister Türgut Özal in Ankara, where I started to take photos of the incident. At that time, I was working for the Turkish Daily News and the AP. Yes, after almost 30 years I found myself in a similar situation, the assassination of the Russian ambassador. But there’s a huge difference between the two incidents,” Ozbiliçi says.
“The recent incident was so direct, I was standing very close to the scene and it was very difficult to photograph. I tried to work something like a miracle, drawing on my inner power and maintaining hope. I, of course had more experience with which to face the situation than I did in 1988, I had more courage, I was cooler. I had gained experience from other incidents too,” he adds, “photographing clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in Turkey’s southeastern region as well as inter-Kurdish fighting between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK around Iraq-Iran border in September and October, 1996.”
But, having captured many images, how did Ozbiliçi select this one photo to participate in the World Press Photo contest? As it turns out, he didn’t. “I sent all my unedited photos to London. I had to help with the main story and with the help of the Ankara reporter Suzan Fraser and our South Africa Bureau Chief Christopher Torchia I wrote a first-person account with my own byline. Our London editors made basic edits, they changed very little because the light was good enough in the exhibition hall and all the photos were in focus,” Ozbiliçi explains.
“It was only later that AP New York selected photos to participate in the contest. I had no idea and never asked whether my photos were sent. Just a short while before the prize announcement I got a phone call from Amsterdam and World Press Photo Managing Director Lars Boering, saying, ‘Burhan, I have good news for you.’ ”
Despite professional as well as cultural ties to France – “I covered the hijacked Air France plane towards the end of 1994, and I am a student of Paris AP Bureau” – Ozbiliçi feels he has never wanted to leave Turkey.
“I love my country and I don’t wish to live outside Turkey despite of the problems journalists face these days. For me, those journalists who choose to leave Turkey escape their responsibility to face the situation in their country. This is not patriotism.”
Though he refuses to say who are his favourite photographers, Ozbiliçi mentions the German Vietnam War AP photographer Horst Faas as his mentor; and among the younger generation of photographers he admires Jordanian AP photographer Mohamed Muheisen and Turkish AFP photographer Bulent Kilic. He also cites “my Swiss friend, painter Reto Rodolfo Pedrini – he inspires me a lot with his beautiful paintings”. But does Ozbiliçi cover culture as well as news?
“I cover all important news from politics to culture. I like assignments where I can help people in need, I like reporting on humanitarian missions. I’ve always favoured carrying injured people to taking ‘prize-winning pictures’ –when Kurds were fleeing Saddam’s bombardment in March-April 1991, for example,” he says.
“After the terrible earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005, I worked non-stop for 33 days. I used to sleep in Pakistani army vehicles, and I washed in the rivers of Neelum and Jhelum. It was very hard on the peaks of the Himalayas, but I was very happy with the assignment as I had the chance to help people. I could weep along with Kashmiri people and I had also their love and respect. I could not just stand, watch and take photos of injured people.” “My father taught me to help people, especially when they are in danger,” he adds.
But was Ozbiliçi ever on assignment in Egypt?
“As it happens one of my favourite assignments was in Egypt. I went to Egypt twice, both times in 1994. The first was in September to cover the UN Development and Population Conference. The second was in October to cover Clinton’s visit. That was the time I met Naguib Mahfouz and Hassanein Heikal. Egypt is a very rich and colourful country, people are very warm. For a journalist, there are lots of things to cover and endless things to enjoy in Egypt.”
Ozbiliçi started photographing with a 1957 Leica IIIG with a 5cm lens, he says.
“Later, I had all the Leicas, the M4, M4P, M6 and M7, all the film cameras. I also had all the last film Nikons. In this last decade, we’ve been using AP-provided Canon equipment. I am currently using EOS 1D X and EOS 5D MarkIII cameras.”
Ozbiliçi has mixed feelings about the contemporary media.
“The media today has endless opportunities and also serious problems. There are ‘citizen journalists’ everywhere and this causes serious problems. News photography’s golden age was in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It became more difficult after the millennium.
Photojournalists now have a better working atmosphere, they produce pictures of better quality, but they face more serious issues in terms of credibility. Today’s photojournalists have to get a better education and acquire better knowledge. They have to read more and travel more.” That said, Ozbiliçi has used his mobile phone for videos and still photographs on assignment. The iPhone, he says, is acceptable in some urgent cases, though it doesn’t provide the best results.
Ozbiliçi feels his greatest weakness is that he cannot behave diplomatically in the face of injustice, even if he is facing a high dignitary.
“This can get me in trouble. As a journalist, I can take huge risks just to learn the truth and convey it to my readers. On the other hand I never let any negative energy dirty my soul and my mind. I never give in to material interests or base desires. Freedom, justice and solidarity are my main values in life. I have much self-confidence based on love, respect, hope and high moral values. My honesty and hard work make me a stronger person.”
But what does the future of photojournalism hold?
“Today good independent journalism faces serious problems worldwide, but we can overcome this as we all need real democracy, human rights, freedom, social justice, education for all, solidarity and peace. One of the biggest enemies of independent journalism is corrupt and totalitarian regimes. The future of photojournalism depends on journalism in general; the world will need us forever in the future, but we have to stand firm regarding our independence. We have to work hard and never side with dirty money and corrupt politicians.
“We have serious problems in Turkey at the moment,” Ozbiliçi says, “but most journalists are also to blame for the current situation.
Putting the blame on politicians alone is a copout. We have to recognise our problems and our mistakes too, we have to accept that we, journalists, are equally responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Turkey.”