World Press Photo 2017: An Assassination in Turkey

At the end, when it comes to World Press Photo, whatever the awarded image is; the resulting debate is often the real winner.

Turkish photojournalist Burhan Ozbilici (Associated Press) has been awarded with World Press Photo’s Picture of the Year 2017 for a photograph of the gunman who killed the Russian ambassador, Andrey Karlov, at an art exhibition in Ankara, Turkey, on 19 December 2016. The image also won first prize in the Spot News Stories category.

“It’s not just a picture of the year, it’s the picture of a decade. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Just the day after the murder took place, Colin Pantall, lecturer on Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales, already labeled it as “the picture of a decade” in a remarkable piece in which he highlighted its iconic nature, its political motivations and historical links (Aleppo, Russia, Turkey, Franz Ferdinand 1914…), as well as its visual ties with such diverse themes as Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading The People’, Reservoir Dogs or John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Unlike many other newspapers, The New York Times ran the picture on its front page on December 20. In response to readers’ protests, The Times’ editor for standards and ethics Phil Corbett explained their rationale for placing such a graphic image on their home page.

Corbett adduced the geopolitical implications of the murder and the power of the image for showing the shocking nature of the attack without being “gory or sensational in a gratuitous way” as the main reasons.

In the UK, only The Sun did publish it on their home page. (It has to be taken into consideration, nonetheless, that another major, globally newsworthy terrorist attack occured that same day in Berlin).

On Monday, right after the World Press Photo released the announcement, Stuart Franklin, chair of this year’s photo contest jury, published an article on The Guardian titled ‘This Image of Terror Should Not Be Photo of the Year — I Voted Against It’ that sparked further controversy.

“It furthers the compact between martyrdom and publicity (…) and is morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading.”

The Magnum Photos photographer argues that yet both the impact of the image and the photojournalist’s bravery is undeniable — note that the picture was taken from eye level; Ozbilici wasn’t hiding — , it “furthers the compact between martyrdom and publicity (…) and is morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beaheading”, since it amplifies the terrorist’s propagandistic message.

Jon Levy, Founding Editor of Foto8, expressed the same concerns on Twitter, wondering “why orange suited beheading pics didn’t win if this can”. Franklin has also unveiled that the jury was “quite split” on the decision. Tanya Habjouqa, jury member, said: “It was a very intense, sometimes brutal, discussion — sometimes even emotional — but I feel proud. I think we were brave in our decision. We were bold. I think the selection is definitely going to push forward a debate and I think it is a debate that is essential to have.” Indeed.

“The organization rewarded the photographer, not the crime. If anything, the image embodies the hate and desperation in our world today and will have enduring historical value.”

Mary F. Calbert, American photojournalist and also part of the jury, defended their choice by emphasizing that the organization’s intention is to reward the photographer, not the crime. Lars Boering, Managing Director of the World Press Photo Foundation, endorsed her position.

Jury member João Silva added: “Right now I see the world marching towards the edge of an abyss. This is a man who has clearly reached a breaking point and his statement is to assassinate someone who he really blames, a country that he blames, for what is going on elsewhere in the region. I feel that what is happening in Europe, what is happening in America, what is happening in the Far East, Middle East, Syria, and this image to me talks of it. It is the face of hatred.”

Discussing the issue on Twitter, Pete Brook, independent writer and curator focused on photography, agreed with Franklin’s views, admitting it is a powerful image but adding that “it doesn’t reflect a year’s news, or photogs’ craft, or shared humanity”, while Jörg M. Colberg, Editor of Conscientious Photography Magazine, disagreed, asserting that what the image actually reflects is our flawed shared humanity. Brook, who believes the image to be flat, uninteresting, movie-poster like, compared it with Samuel Aranda’s 2011 winner picture: “it was also cinematic, compositional, but it had tenderness, hope, and a palette too”, elements that he thinks Ozbilici’s picture lacks.

Samuel Aranda’s World Press Photo winning image 2011

In line with Colberg, Olivier Laurent, Time’s Lightbox Editor, thinks that “it’s an image that totally reflects the insane state of geopolitics and the press today”. Lewis Bush, lecturer at the London College of Communication and Editor at Disphotic, pointed ironically that “at least we aren’t talking about Photoshop (yet)”, refering to the tedious debates about manipulation of previous years.

At the end, when it comes to World Press Photo, whatever the awarded image is, the resulting debate is often the real winner.

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