On 19 December 2016, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaşa assassinated Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov. The murder was captured on camera by photographer Burhan Ozbilici, who managed to keep his composure in a life-threatening situation, allowing him to document the event . Two months later, the World Press Photo Foundation named Ozbilici’s shocking photograph the World Press Photo of the Year. The image also earned the first place prize in the Spot News category of the same contest.
Ozbilici’s picture gave the world a terrifying and surreal perspective as to what had occurred, and undeniably deserved recognition. However, controversy arose after the image was named the World Press Photo of the Year. While the award pays homage to Ozbilici’s astounding work, it should be noted that the assassin intentionally chose a publicized event to stage his murder: a press conference attended by journalists and photographers from international news outlets. It is clear that the killer wanted his message to be spread to as large an audience as possible, a goal that organizations such as the World Press Photo Foundation helped him attain by showering the photo with accolades.
The World Press Photo Foundation’s decision remains controversial as there is no “overriding and justifiable need ” for the public to see the image, let alone give it an award such as the Photo of the Year. It was a radical act by a sole perpetrator whose aim was to get his message across to as many people as possible. By awarding it Photo of the Year, the organization perpetuated the murderer’s message, unintentionally or otherwise.
The fact that the documentation of an act of terrorism was held in such high esteem is dangerous. Terrorism is the use of intentional and indiscriminate violence to pursue a political or ideological goal. The goal of the killer was to exact “revenge for Syria and Aleppo ” through an act of terrorism. The publicity that follows an award-winning image such as Ozbilici’s exposes more of the public to the events surrounding the photograph. In the case of this assassination, the added publicity was exactly what the killer was seeking to achieve.
By definition, photojournalism is the art or practice of communicating news through photographs. Like any other form of expression, however, photographs are subjective and can be interpreted in different ways. At its core, photojournalism is meant to tell a story as perceived by the photojournalist. Burhan Ozbilici undoubtedly did his job as a photojournalist and deserves to be commended. However, the World Press Photo Foundation’s decision to make his image the Photo of the Year was ethically questionable and poorly thought out. Photographs are powerful enough to inspire and instill change. Institutions like the World Press Photo Foundation have a moral obligation to thoroughly consider the photographs they praise. Recognizing photographers for their work is one thing, but spreading terrorism is another.
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