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Tuesday, 20 December 2016
Burhan Ozbilic's Iconic Photograph of the Ankara Assassination
picture by BURHAN OZBILIC for Associated Press
Yesterday was a terrible day for news. There was the Berlin attack, the electoral college elected Donald Trump as US president (despite,er Russian, interference in the election) and the Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov was assassinated at a photography exhibition in Ankara by Mevlut Mert Altintas (who is now being painted as an off-duty anti-Erdoganist riot policeman)
I saw the picture of the assassination come up on the AP Twitter feed and was stopped in my tracks (which is why the blog has come back to life briefly). It was amazing, an instant icon that brought up so many contradictory feelings and linked to so much of visual culture and history.
It is such an astonishing picture that it almost blurs over the fact that two real people died in this attack, both the gunman and the ambassador himself.
What makes it astonishing is the timing. It was an assassination. I don't know exactly what happened in Aleppo in the previous days and weeks and months, except that there was death, violence and a brutality in attacks that targeted civilians, hospitals, medical staff, everybody. And that the bombing of Aleppo was led by the Russians and Assad forces. And that thousands of innocent people died.
picture by BURHAN OZBILIC for Associated Press
If you kill innocent people, you are culpable of something, if you defend the killing of innocent people you are culpable of something. That doesn't justify murder, but it goes some way to explaining it, and categorical imperatives notwithstanding, we do have that idea of what goes around comes around hard wired into us. For most of us that idea is never too far below the surface.
This assassination was an accusation then. Again, it doesn't justify it. It's murder. Andrei Karlov was a real man with people who loved him. But it's still an accusation. And that's the first thing, rightly or wrongly, that came out of the picture. It's a picture that accuses, it's an assassination that strives to see itself as just. In this case the victim is a Russian ambassador. In another case, it could be a British, an American, a Saudi, an Israeli, an Indian, a Chinese, an Indonesian, an Egyptian, a Burmese, a Thai, a Filipino, an almost-anywhere ambassador, or minister, or leader.
So there's this terrible idea embedded in the picture that the ambassador was a justified target.
But the picture also memorialises Aleppo. This is an astonishing picture and the reason this murder was committed (because it was murder let's not forget. The same as dropping a bomb on a hospital is murder) was as revenge, a terrible thing. A by-product of that revenge is a memorial. This will make Aleppo stay in the memory because embedded in this act of violence are all the acts of violence that preceded it, that made it happen.
That's one side of it. There are all the other visual elements that make the picture stand out; the dress, the shoes, the sticking out tie, the long finger, the mid-speech and especially, especially the revolutionary stance.
It's John Travolta in Saturday Night fever meets Reservoir Dogs all in the setting of a white cube gallery - that adds a level of performance to it. And places it in a moral vacuum so we're further distanced from the horror of the act.
But the pose is also meant to be heroic. It's Berlin 1945, it's Marianne (shown above in Delacroix's painting), it's Les Miserables, it's Iwo Jima, it's every propaganda poster going. And because it's a photograph we don't hear him shouting Allahu Akbar as you do on the TV footage so there's a thing.
After Altintas shot the Karlov, he gave a speech about the injustices in Syria and this being revenge. You can bet that he practised that countless times, that he rehearsed it in his head. In the same way that he rehearsed how he would stand, how he would pose. So the whole thing is a performance as well. It's a propaganda piece. In a gallery. It's Chris Burden gone wrong.
The fact that it happened in Turkey and involved Russia also gave the picture a historical context (Franz Ferdinand, 1914 etc - and see the clipping that Guy Martin put up on Facebook for some deeper historical context) and also the feeling that the image symbolises a very dreadful future. Let's hope that's wrong, and anyway, the dreadful future is a dreadful present for so many people near where this event happened. The most dreadful future might be that for the people of Turkey.
It's a picture that will feature in some places more than others, that will be censored completely in some places, that will be reproduced in all kinds of forms. Interestingly, it was not on the covers of any of the UK newspapers this morning apart from the Sun. The Sun led with the right story and the right picture. All the other papers led with Berlin. Which doesn't make you optimistic about picture editing in the UK
What does it all mean. I don't know. It's the suit, the setting, the banality of it all. David Fathi did a reverse image search in the minutes after the picture's release - this is what came up which is interesting in itself.
The image search now is still not that different. After the initial slew of Altintas images, we're into presentation land, grey suits, finger pointing and George Clooney. It's bizarre. No other images look like this one, but at the same time so many do.
And the photographer. Well, every now and then we say how there are no iconic pictures anymore. Mmm, here's one and it's by Burhan Ozbilic, a professional photographer who describes his experience of taking the pictures from which this image came. And it's amazing for so many reasons, most of which we don't even know yet. It's not just a picture of the year, it's the picture of a decade. And I don't know if that's a good thing.