Does World Press Photo of the year of assassination promote terror?

The winning photo capturing the murder of Russian ambassador on camera raises questions about sensationalism and giving publicity to terrorism

The decision by the World Press Photo jury to award their main prize to an image of the murder of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov in an Ankara art gallery has aroused considerable controversy. The decision was one which split the distinguished jury and led the jury chairman Stuart Franklin to write an article for the Guardian outlining his unhappiness at the outcome.

While accepting the collective democratic decision Franklin strongly disagreed with it and is not quoted in the official press release about the awards.

The assassination of the ambassador by off-duty policeman Mevlut Mert Altintas took place on December 19th last at the opening of a photography exhibition. AP photographer Burhan Ozbilici dropped by the opening by chance on his way home and decided to take some pictures for the record when Altintas opened fire.

"The event was routine enough – the opening of an exhibit of photographs of Russia, " said Ozbilici afterwards. "So when a man on stage pulled out a gun I was stunned and thought it was a theatrical flourish.


“ Instead, it was a coolly calculated assassination, unfolding in front of me and others who scrambled, terrified, for cover as the trim man with short hair gunned down the Russian ambassador.

The gunshots, at least eight of them, were loud in the pristine art gallery. Pandemonium erupted. People screamed, hid behind columns and under tables and lay on the floor. I was afraid and confused, but found partial cover behind a wall and did my job: taking photographs”

" ... he was probably angry about Russian bombardments of Aleppo that were aimed at driving out anti-government rebels. Many civilians have been killed in the fighting. He also shouted 'Allahu akbar', but I couldn't understand the rest of what he said in Arabic."

Franklin acknowledges the incredible bravery of the photographer who stood his ground and kept taking pictures throughout the incident.

It's the third time that coverage of an assassination has won this prize, the most famous being the killing of a Vietcong suspect, photographed by Eddie Adams in 1968.

“Özbilici’s is an impactful photograph, no doubt,” says Franklin. “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.”

Mary F. Calvert, another member of the jury, spoke about the winning photograph: “It was a very, very difficult decision, but in the end we felt that the picture of the year was an explosive image that 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."

It reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity

In his piece for the Guardian Franklin makes the point that "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."

The director of the PhotoIreland festival Angel Gonzalez agrees with Franklin. He sees the image as a single act of terrorism, using media in effect to promote a terrorist message.

Referring to the neat suit worn by the assassin, Gonzalez remarks that the image has the feel of a movie, perhaps an echo of the Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs. It perpetuates, he believes, the fiction that life is a movie and it’s a frame which pulls people away from reality rather than awakens them to it.

Occasionally, Gonzalez concedes, you have to confront the public with an unpleasant image, deliver a slap in the face, but with an image like that of Alan Kurdi (the dead migrant boy on the beach) you are awakening the world to a wider reality and a massive issue.

He argues that there were less “iconic” images taken of the shooting incident which were actually more interesting – wider composed views showing for instance the crowd cowering behind a wall in the gallery.

Franklin argues for a more empathetic view of the world through imagery

Franklin and Gonzalez both argue for photojournalism which transcends spot news, which manages to convey a bigger, more subtle, more complex view of the world. In particular Franklin argues for a more empathetic view of the world through imagery.

It’s a viewpoint that is hard to dispute but the difficulty always in traditional print media especially is to find the single image that tells the whole story. It’s a very big ask and there is the constant danger that “iconic” images can verge on the clichéd.

On the day of the shooting we discussed the photographs at the 5pm editorial conference at The Irish Times. We had been scratching our heads looking at far tamer offerings for the front page when the shooting images started landing via the wires.

While it was a shocking moment it was essentially a picture of a murder

As tends to be my instinct I argued for the strongest images on the front. Deputy editor Paul O’Neill argued in reasoning similar to Franklin’s, that while it was a shocking moment it was essentially a picture of a murder and as a principle we try as far as possible to shield our readers from images of dead bodies.

There are two main reasons for this – the first is simple human decency and dignity, the second is the numbing effect that happens when you overexpose your readers to images of horror.

The net effect of the latter is to have people switch off altogether and the intended visual message never gets through. In the end events that night overtook the shooting as a truck driven by a terrorist ploughed into a Christmas market crowd in Berlin killing 12 people and injuring 48.

The ambassador’s shooting appeared as a small image in a side panel.