For this exercise, we are asked to consider an image we believe to be ‘controversial’ or to transgress social barriers. I could have chosen many images for this project, most of which could be considered controversial because they are graphic and disturbing, however, I have chosen a photograph showing the assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, by Melvut Mert Alintas in 2016 because of the interesting questions about visual representation and our reading of reality that it raises.
I remember distinctly at the time that this event occurred and this image was all over the new and social media, the overriding comment was that it did not seem real or that it was like a still from a film. This comparison is discussed by Grant Scott (2016) who likens the image as being part ‘Reservoir Dogs’ – the suit, the stance, and, part ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ – the attitude, the anger, the cry to the media. Despite being an image of an extreme act of violence, Scott notes that the cold reality of the situation, and the narrative unfolding, is like “a movie still appropriate for mass media consumption.” Although it is clear what is happening, it is the space within the image that allows us to write our own narrative that makes it so shocking. Scott makes the summary that the image tells a story in “hyper digital clarity creating a cinematic news image for our times. The narrative is clear, shocking and deeply affecting in its emotional coldness.” The reference to digital is significant in reference to the way the image was initially disseminated via Twitter and Facebook. It is not unusual for news images to be shown quickly in this way, however, this is not the shaky and badly composed iPhone imagery that has become the language of eye witness photography – the obvious professionalism of the photograph is what makes it so disconcerting and causes us to question whether what we are viewing is real or staged.
The aesthetics of the image and the effect this has on the viewer is expanded upon in article by Jerry Saltz. The violence and bloodletting present in the photograph are in contrast to the upscale, art gallery setting with everyone dressed elegantly in black – something that makes them both surreal and painfully beautiful. He continues his analyis:
“What makes the pictures so different from all of the other pictures of death we see? The poses are almost classical, frozen, or rehearsed as if from theater, ballet, painting, or mannequin display. The photographer, working the art opening for the Associated Press, deserves all of the enormous credit he’s received for responding as fluidily as a war photographer to the sudden outbreak of violence. But if I told you the images were fake, or staged, you might believe me. As Kurt Andersen put it on Twitter, ‘the great photojournalism of 2016 is continuing to resemble still from a scary, not-entirley-realistic movie’ – and that strange familiarity we feel looking at the images is one reason they are so uncomfortable to contemplate. Everything in the images is emotion articulated, caught, performed, and real. All this triggers an unreal internal visual dance. It’s a new surrealism of modern life, made all the more harrowing because it could not be more truly real.” (Katz, 2016)
This tension between reality, what we believe and how it is displayed through photographs is fascinating, and I agreee entirely with Katz’s belief that that if he said the images were faked or staged we might believe him.
John Macpherson (2016) points to a number of details in the image that both make it powerful and add subtle layers of meaning. Firstly, the trigger of the gun and the way that the assassin’s finger is held away from it – something that professional users of guns are trained to do and an indication of the skills possessed by the gunman. Secondly, a detail that helps us identify with the victim in a human way – the worn sole of his shoe, only visible because he is sprawled dying on the floor, signifies a common humanity and ordinariness amongst the extraordinary scene that the viewer can identify with.
In 2017, the photographer Burhan Özbilici was awarded World Press Photo of the Year for the image. In an article for The Guardian, chair of the judging panel for that award Stuart Franklin explains that despite recognising the impact of the image he voted against it winning the top prize as he feared it would amplify the message of the terrorists:
“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…Placing the photograph on this high pedestal is an invitation to those contemplating such staged spectaculars: it reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity.” (Franklin, 2017)
While I agree with Franklin’s concerns, and I definitely feel troubled with giving the image a prestigious award, I am not sure there is an alternative but to show the picture. The risk that the message of the terrorist could be amplified by showing the picture is a real concern – but who should we trust to make these judgements about what should and should not be published? That said, without the power of this image, would the story have been as widely publicised and reported upon? It is widely considered that the photographic essay rather than the single image is the best way to show the reality of an event, and yet, in this age of instant news and social media, it is the single image that is increasingly important.
Easton, L. (2016) AP photographer: ‘I composed myself enough to shoot pictures.’ AP Blog. Available at: https://blog.ap.org/behind-the-news/ap-photographer-i-composed-myself-enough-to-shoot-pictures?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=AP_CorpComm (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Katz, A. (2016) Three photographers witnessed an assassination. One photo went viral. Time.com. Available at: https://time.com/4608713/russia-turkey-assassination-photos/ (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Franklin, S. (2017) This image of terror should not ne photo of the year – I voted against it. The Guardian, 13th February 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/13/world-press-photo-year-turkey-russian-assassination (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Macpherson, J. (2016) A finger, a trigger, a shoe. A death. DuckRabbitBlog. Available at: https://www.duckrabbit.info/blog/2016/12/finger-trigger-shoe-death/?highlight=andrei%20karlov (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Saltz, J. (2016) Considering the Ankara assassination photos as history painting. New York Vulture. Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2016/12/those-harrowing-ankara-assassination-photos.html (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Scott, G. (2016) The single image narrative: sometimes it chooses you. The United Nations of Photography. Available at: https://unitednationsofphotography.com/2016/12/22/the-single-image-narrative-sometimes-it-chooses-you/ (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Shepherd, J. (2017) Photograph of Russian ambassador assassination wins top prize at World Press Photo contest. The Independent, 13th February 2017. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/photography/world-press-photo-2017-russian-ambassador-assassination-of-the-year-a7577551.html (accessed 3rd July 2020)
Walker, S. et al (2016) Russian ambassador to Turkey shot dead by police officer in Ankara gallery. The Guardian, 20th December 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/19/russian-ambassador-to-turkey-wounded-in-ankara-shooting-attack (accessed 3rd July 2020)