Eerie — that’s the word for them, those photos of the Russian ambassador assassinated in an Ankara art gallery. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Blow Up, Julio Cortazar’s short story collection from 1968. . In many of those stories characters try to keep the world at an aesthetic distance, only to find that distance collapse. Or perhaps I’m just disturbed because we are entering very dangerous times just at the moment when a spectacularly unsuitable person is taking control of the most powerful nation on earth. But I think there’s something else at play, too — I think a large part of my inability to fully process the images from Turkey has to do with a kind of category error. They should, I tell myself, be documents of an atrocity, the kind of images we’re bombarded with all the time, and to which most of us have, perhaps at some cost to our humanity, developed antibodies. We see mediated atrocity every day. We tell ourselves we care, and perhaps we do. But generally we look at the wreckage, the carnage, the suffering faces, and we move on. This time, though, I’m having a hard time moving on, because I don’t just see the images as documents of atrocity. I also see them as aesthetic, and that doesn’t sit easily with the other way of seeing them. Indeed, it feels immoral. It feels wrong.
The photos were taken by Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, who clearly has the eye of a professional. He has a professional’s ethos, too — even to the point of what some would call heroism, others foolhardiness. In a statement to the AP, Ozbilici describes the events at the exhibit of Russian photographs where the assassination took place. The ambassador, says Izbilici,
[…] was speaking softly and — from what I could tell — lovingly about his homeland, stopping occasionally to allow the translator to relay his words in Turkish. I remember thinking how calm and humble he seemed. Then came the gunshots in quick succession, and panic in the audience. The ambassador’s body lay on the floor, just meters (yards) away from me. I couldn’t see any blood around him; I think he may have been shot in the back. It took me a few seconds to realize what had happened: A man had died in front of me; a life had disappeared before my eyes.
But his response isn’t panic. Ozbilici doesn’t flee to save himself. In fact, his response is just the opposite of the characters in a Julio Cortazar tale: instead of having his aesthetic bubble burst by terrible events, Ozbilici instinctively steps back from participation in the moment into the space of the observer. “This is what I was thinking,” he says: “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 ask me: ‘Why didn’t you take pictures?’”
And he does take pictures. Remarkable ones. In the strange combination of urgent action and an uncanny suspension of motion, they are reminiscent of some of Jeff Wall’s photographs (1984’s “Milk,” for example, or “Dead Troops Talk,” from 1994). Perhaps it is the dramatic nature of the poses — combined with the fact that they’re set against the stark, white background that instantly declares itself an art space — that makes the figures almost seem like an art installation. Perhaps an installation by Maurizio Cattelan, in line with his 2002 wax dummies of police officers, “Frank and Jamie.” If you begin to let yourself see the photos as works by Jeff Wall, they seem to show the calm at the heart of violence. If you begin to look at them as photos of an imaginary Cattelan installation, you start to think of them as meditations on the nature of exhibitions. But if you do either — and I have done both — you might find yourself uncomfortable to the point of queasiness with your own slip into aestheticizing. The atrocity is real. The violence is real. The death is real. And the photos? They’re so good, they almost don’t let you see that. They’re so good they make you feel bad to have shifted your attention from the moral urgency of bloodshed to the composition itself. They’re so good they make you wonder about the cruel indifference of beauty. They’re so beautiful that they lift you from the real to the aesthetic, so true they send you plummeting right back.