The False Heroism of a Photojournalist

The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on Tuesday shocked the world. Even though within less than 24 hours, 12 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Berlin, three people were shot and wounded in a mosque in Zurich, and the slaughter in Aleppo dragged on, the shooting of ambassador Andrey Karlov was shocking in its own unique way.

Although it involved only one victim, his official position and the tense relations between Turkey and Russia automatically compelled media coverage as intense as those of events involving multiple fatalities.

But it was more than that. The ghastly moment of Karlov’s death was captured by an Associated Press cameraman. In a video clip circulated later that day, over 18 million people were able to view Karlov making remarks at the opening of an art gallery — and then suddenly falling over as shots rang out. The world was treated to the sight of a living human being whose life is ended abruptly with one brutal act.

The shooting took place so suddenly, without any warning, that at first the people at the event did not even realize what had happened. It took a few moments, after seeing Karlov lying on the floor and a man standing over him with a pistol shouting about revenge for Aleppo, that it became clear what had happened.

And at that moment, Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, who was covering what all had expected to be a routine cultural event, understood that he was on the scene of a major story.

What transpired in his mind? In a first-person account of what happened, Ozbilici tells us:

“This is what I was thinking: I’m here. Even if I get hit and injured, or killed, I’m a journalist. I have to do my work. I could run away without making any photos. … But I wouldn’t have a proper answer if people later asked me, ‘Why didn’t you take pictures?’”

So he went to work. “I advanced a little and photographed the man as he hectored his desperate, captive audience … I was afraid and confused, but found partial cover behind a wall and did my job: taking photographs.”

The AP trumpeted the performance of their man with a special story, headlined: “Witness to an assassination: AP photographer captures attack.”

Indeed, Ozbilici became an instant celebrity, giving interviews and garnering praise from colleagues around the world. “What bravery AP’s Ozbilici showed to capture those photos,” exclaimed Barry Malone, the online editor at Al Jazeera English. Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times said she was “awed by the courage of the photographer …” And so on.

But is this what a person should think and is this how he should act when another human being lies on the floor dying and he and others are in mortal danger as an armed assassin brandishes his murder weapon and rages at them?

Or should he be thinking about whether the ambassador was still alive, and if there might be some way to save him? Or about the safety of the other people in the hall, who were all under threat, and whether or not anyone had been wounded by the numerous shots that were fired?

Yet, the photographer’s primary thoughts were not about the fate of others — it was all about getting pictures for his story. Rather than reacting as a human being concerned about others, he decided to go on taking pictures. He remembered to be a photojournalist while forgetting to be a human being.

What was accomplished by this ostensibly noble focus on journalistic mission in a dangerous situation? An “iconic image,” as one colleague called it? No doubt. The image was on the covers of newspapers everywhere, including The New York Times, USA Today, the Financial Times, El País in Spain, the tabloids Liberation in France and The Sun in Britain.

However, the facts of the assassination would have become known without his pictures, from the testimony of many eyewitnesses, the police and government officials. The “iconic image” added nothing to public knowledge of the event. Rather, it was an exercise in global voyeurism masquerading as the pursuit of journalistic truth.

Of course, Ozbilici’s fellow journalists praised him. They are enrolled in a profession in which career advancement is often achieved through reckless self-endangerment and callous disregard for the suffering of others for the dubious purpose of “getting the story.”

To be sure, journalists do serve the public by covering war and terrorism; without their services we would be at the mercy of propagandists and cover-ups. Sometimes, going into dangerous places is unavoidable. But the paramount value should be human life, not getting the job done.