On 19 December last year, the Turkish photographer Burhan Özbilici went to a press conference in an Ankara art gallery. He had been on his way home from the office and only attended by chance. As it happened, the event turned into a murderous spectacle when the Russian ambassador toTurkey, who was delivering a speech, was assassinated.
Özbilici had the composure, bravery and skill to take the photograph that is today named World Press Photo of the Year, the judging of which I chaired. 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. 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.
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.
This debate’s not new. The Greeks probably started it, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, when Herostratus sought notoriety by torching one of the seven wonders of the world and the judiciary, in response, banned any mention of his name. To be clear, my moral position is not that the well-intentioned photographer should be denied the credit he deserves; rather that I feared we’d be amplifying a terrorist’s message through the additional publicity that the top prize attracts…