Opinion: Photo of the year drew eyes to Syria-Russia relations


Lucas Misera

Lucas Misera

Burhan Ozbilici, photographer behind the now-famous picture of the assassination of a Russian ambassador in Turkey, was likely pleased to find that his work earned the title of 2017 World Press Photo of the Year. Others in the media were not as enthusiastic about the decision.

Stuart Franklin, chairperson for the panel of judges who decided on the award, wrote in the Guardian that the photo had no place taking home the prize, arguing, “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.”

Frankly, I find it laughable that a member of the media is essentially condemning a piece of work as sensationalism, given the very nature of the business. Yet, it’s a debate that took place, and it’s one in which I strongly agree with the panel’s decision to select the photograph.

If a major basis of his argument concerns the picture showing the “killer and the slain,” then his input holds no legitimacy when viewed in the historical context of the World Press Photo of the Year.

Consider 1961, when a picture depicting the assassination of Japanese politician Inejiro Asanuma via the sword of a radical 17-year-old won the award. What about the 1968 winner that showed the brutal execution of a Viet Cong prisoner during the Vietnam War? His argument that the violence weakens the photograph’s prospects as the best picture – especially as a panel member of an award that has recognized images such as these in the past as winners – borders on hypocrisy.

Another major point in his dissenting opinion surrounds the photo’s alleged inability to enact real change, as Franklin argues, “Photography is capable of real service to humanity, promoting empathy and initiating change. This image achieves neither … ”

Franklin, to suggest that capturing the assassination of a Russian ambassador over the country’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, has no potential to enact change and ignores the significance of that moment.

Shortly after murdering the ambassador, the Turkish assassin shouted, “Do not forget Aleppo, do not forget Syria.” Although his precise motive for the attack is uncertain, many speculate it was in response to improving relations between Turkey and Russia or Russian bombing of Syria.

Whichever the reason, the assassination was sparked by a world power supporting war crimes on behalf of the current Syrian government — a civil war which may have claimed the lives of over 400,000 fighters and civilians since turmoil arose in 2011.

It’s a civil war in which the al-Assad regime has used chlorine gas on its victims, targeted hospitals geared toward the treatment of children, destroyed schools and attacked civilian-heavy shelters following the establishment of a cease-fire.

By Franklin suggesting that the Russian ambassador’s assassination was of “limited political (consequence),” he compares the act to that of Archduke Ferdinand — an event that would spark World War I. 

Perhaps he has a point. Perhaps the Turkish assassin did nothing significant enough to effect broad, global change.

However, the assassin successfully — even if briefly — turned the world’s attention to Russia and the crimes al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin perpetuate in Syria.

When the world needed to turn its eyes to the often overlooked climate in the Middle East the most, this moment demanded every person’s attention.

So, sorry Franklin — your panel got it right: Ozbilici deserves credit for his brave documentation of one of the most attention-grabbing moments of 2016.

Lucas Misera is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected]