Last month, the Word Press Photo of the Year was engulfed in controversy surrounding the selection of the winning entry. Voters were torn between advocating for an image that they believed gave publicity to martyrdom, whereas those who voted for the picture were taken aback by its impact and the photographer’s poise under significant duress.
If you’re not familiar with the photo in question, Turkish photographer Burhan Ozbilici was on hand to witness and capture the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by a local off-duty police officer. Photos depicting assassinations are nothing new to the World Press Photo Awards. In fact, several similar pictures previously featuring in the competition have taken out the top prize.
While there is nothing comforting about the photo – which depicts the abhorrent actions some will undertake to further their own beliefs and causes – there are several aspects to consider beyond this realm of moral judgement. Nonetheless, first considering the moral consequences of affording ‘publicity’ to photos like this, it’s worth noting the photo had already received significant media coverage and drawn widespread attention by the time it reached such a competition.
For there to be a consistent belief in opposition to the publicity, the media would really need to decline releasing the photo in the first place. Once you then start to restrict and censor news, where is the line drawn? Does war, for all its violence, become a topic that is taboo and overlooked? Among many examples, what would have been of the human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison (Iraq) if we had not seen (some) photos of the shocking acts published through the media?
If you start to decline and censor photographers for what they cover, particularly in spontaneous situations like this, it goes against the purpose of press journalism. That includes, informing the world and future generations about the problems our society faced at different points of time. Without such, incidents like this would become nothing more than footnotes on the internet many years from now.
On the merit of the photo in question, no one could undermine the sheer composure of the photographer in a moment of terror. In the act of capturing such an event, the photographer affirms to us his demeanour is not overbearingly stricken by the murderer. Rather, it portrays a sense of courage that makes us admire and respect him, while resenting the subject – photography shouldn’t always be about empathising with the subject.
It’s a powerful image of an extremely uncomfortable and disturbing scene, but photojournalists and the press are not, and should not be expected to turn a blind eye to the problems of today. Controlling what we see isn’t the answer to concerns about misguided publicity. We need great instances of photojournalism like this to document and remind to us that as a society, we have many aspects that should concern us enough to lead a charge for change.