Photo: Winner of the World Press Photo 2016 photographer Burhan Ozbilici (R) and Managing Director of the World Press Photo Foundation Lars Boering, speak on stage during the announcement of the World Press Photo prizes in Amsterdam, on February 13, 2017 Photo: JEROEN JUMELET/AFP/Getty Images.
Burhan Ozbilici’s photograph of Mevlüt Mert Altintas moments after the assassination of Andrei Karlov, Russian ambassador to Turkey, at an art gallery in Ankara on December 19, 2016, instantly became one of the most infamous photographs ever made. In a surprising move, World Press named it the 2017 Photo of the Year, making it the third time in the Award’s 60-year history that a picture of an assassination has won this prize.
The murder occurred while the Russian ambassador was giving a speech during a press conference that celebrated the artistic collaboration between the two nations. Mevlüt Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old off duty police officer working security for the event, killed the ambassador in front of a room of video cameras and journalists.
Burhan Ozbilici, a photographer for the Associated Press, had the presence of mind to stand, face the killer, and shoot—his camera. He detailed the moment for the AP, recalling, “This is what I was thinking: ‘I’m here. 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?”'”
While Ozbilici’s action was assuredly brave, the photograph and its propagation raise a set of concerns for many. Stuart Franklin, Chair of the 2017 World Press Photo Award, wrote in today’s edition of The Guardian, “Özbilici’s is an impactful photograph, no doubt. Yet, while I was all for awarding it the spot news prize that it also won, I was strongly opposed to it becoming photo of the year. I narrowly lost the argument. I voted against. Sorry, Burhan. It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading.”
Indeed, the image is disturbing on many levels, not in the least because it heroicizes the act of murder through the use of aesthetics. Inside the pristine white cube of he art gallery, where photographs of landscapes of Russia line the walls in a melody of blue and greens, the killer stands with a finger pointing in the air, mouth open mid-yell, gun pointed to down, while the ambassador lays splayed on the ground.
The photograph repeats an oft-used archetype: that of David and Goliath, of the lad willing to sacrifice his own life to overthrow the tyrant. The image is less shocking for what it is than what it creates: the iconography of victory around this act of violence.
What’s more, as Franklin writes, “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.”
Not every member of the jury agreed with Franklin’s position. Juror Mary F. Calvert issued a statement saying, “…[it] really spoke to the hatred of our times. Every time it came on the screen you almost had to move back because it’s such an explosive image and we really felt that it epitomizes the definition of what the World Press Photo of the Year is and means.”
Founded in 1955, World Press Photo is an independent, non-profit organization designed to support professional photojournalism on an international scale. Crave previously covered last year’s winners, catalogued in World Press Photo 16 (Thames & Hudson).
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.