World Press Photo of the Year 2016 — A winner?

As every year, there is much debate on the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year. That one image that is singled out by a jury to represent the best in photojournalism of the past year. The choice the jury makes is by definition a political one: pure photographic quality alone is not enough to make the distinction between all the contenders for that one award.

And, this year again, the jury made a political choice: to show ‘the face of hatred’.

Upon the announcement, the first controversy emerged: the chair of this year’s jury, Stuart Franklin, distanced himself from the choice by proclaiming the image did not get his vote, in an op-ed in the Guardian. The reason he cites, is that by awarding this image, it ‘furthers the compact between martyrdom and publicity’:

“Unlike the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the crime had limited political consequences. Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.”

I do not think the wider impacts of the event are relevant to the image being worthy of this award. The relevance of this image might not even be related to the particular moment it represents. Of course, this assassination is an important news event with implications beyond the tragic loss of a life, related as it apparently was to Russia’s involvement in Aleppo, Syria. The jury chose this image at it shows the ‘face of hatred’. A face though, that is oddly recognizable. A suit that is oddly familiar. A posture that is uncannily like the movies.

To me it is this recognition that makes it an interesting image: it allows the viewer to identify with this horrific situation. We are seeing someone, who at least in the Western world, looks vaguely familiar. But this man is a killer, a terrorist who indeed used a public event to make his statement. Not at a press conference as Franklin argues, but at the opening of an exhibition in a photo gallery, where the photographer happened to be present.

And this is where the photograph becomes even more powerful. Many people will have visited an exhibition space such as this one, with pictures on the wall (notice how the hanging system is visible and slightly amateurish). The body of the ambassador, worn out shoes and all, becomes any older man, mumbling a speech at any ceremony. In this picture, terrorism, an act of violence by an individual in reaction to actions by states, is right in front of us. The picture to me signifies not so much the face of hatred, but the face of terrorism: a new, more recognizable, face of terrorism.

When the airplanes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, we saw reality surpassing the movies. Burhan Ozbilici’s image copies the movies. The effect? Recognition and identification with a shooter, which brings home the horror of these acts all the more powerfully.

A picture that is both confronting and able to create a new frame of reference of terror and terrorism deserves to be the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year.

Ozbilici interviewed by WPPF director Lars Boering (left) evening of the announcement. An internet meme found online that same evening (right)