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This photo changes news photography

Extreme violence and powerful photography have historically gone hand-in-hand

The assassination. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP
The assassination. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

Earlier this week, this photograph streamed on our timelines like a gunshot lost in the din—unlike the real gunshot the photographer had serendipitously captured. It did surprise, but considering the fact that we scan timelines robotically, second-by-second, like a hyper-habit, the photograph also seemed banal at first glance. The frame could have been from a neo-noir film that somebody in my timeline was posting about. This scene was vastly more intimate than the spectacular cinematic resonance of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Centre in 2001. That was Die Hard, this could be from the next Thomas Vinterberg film. Unlike 2001, photography—and the visual image—in 2016 is prosaic.

The photographer’s decision to capture the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey, risking his life, drives home what the best news photography is capable of—adrenalin and courage leading to memorable documentation. It strips news photography of beauty completely. The ugliness and shock of the event is uninterpreted, the lens of the photographer casual, and literally accidental.

Extreme violence and powerful photography have historically gone hand-in-hand. War, conflict or disaster photography is beautiful, and that’s an unpalatable irony. Remember Raghu Rai’s frame from the Bhopal gas tragedy—the clouded, ghostly eyes of a child corpse buried under gravel? This year, the dead Syrian child washed ashore? These images are gut-wrenching, but mesmerizingly beautiful. As Susan Sontag argued in her famous book On Photography, “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty…. What moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful (the name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos, beautiful). Nobody exclaims, ‘Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.’ Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: ‘I find that ugly thing…beautiful’." She suggested we stop taking and consuming so many photographs so that photography remains relevant.

The extreme opposite has happened in the 2000s. The camera captures routine personal moments, which are then distributed to the world to see, without context or meaning. And this image is the prototype of this new age. The shooting of a diplomat by a jihadist in a black suit, inside an art gallery in downtown Ankara, hosting a photography show on seeing Russia through Turkish eyes, is underwhelming. It makes photography less of an art form, less imbued with mystery and craft. The job of the news or documentary photographer has perhaps changed forever. They have to be much more in the moment, grabbing images that can stream instantly on to billions of timelines.

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