‘Before my eyes:’ Photographer recounts moment Russian envoy was assassinated

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AP Photo

ANKARA — The Associated Press photographer who captured viral images of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov’s assassination at an art exhibition in Ankara has recalled the terrifying moment the gunman opened fire.

“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,” Burhan Ozbilici wrote on APNews.com.

“The gunshots, at least eight of them, were loud in the pristine art gallery. Pandemonium erupted. People screamed, hid behind columns and under tables and lay on the floor. I was afraid and confused, but found partial cover behind a wall and did my job: taking photographs.”

Ozbilici had never intended on attending the new photo exhibition in the Turkish capital but made a snap decision to stop in on his way home from the office. With Russia-Turkey relations appearing to thaw in recent weeks, the AP photographer thought some images of Karlov speaking at the gallery might be useful in the near future.

“He 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.”

‘I’m a journalist. I have to do my work’

But in the blink of an eye, the tranquil scene in the gallery was shattered. Gunshots rang out and people scattered as a blind panic hung in the air.

Ozbilici scrambled to the back of the showroom, finding partial refuge behind a wall. He watched as the gunman walked around the ambassador’s body, describing him as “agitated” as he struck several of the photographs on display.

“I was, of course, fearful and knew of the danger if the gunman turned toward me,” he wrote on APNews.com. “But I advanced a little and photographed the man as he hectored his desperate, captive audience.”

“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 ask me: ‘Why didn’t you take pictures?'”

He added: “I even thought about friends and colleagues who have died while taking photographs in conflict zones over the years.”

All the while, Ozbilici continued working, documenting the political assassination from a perspective that would lead news outlets across the globe within hours.

“As my mind raced, I saw that the man was agitated — and yet, he was, strangely, in control of himself. He shouted at everyone to stand back. Security guards ordered us to vacate the hall and we left.”

It wasn’t until Ozbilici began editing his photos that he truly comprehended the premeditation behind the shooter’s “calculated” attack.

He wrote: “When I returned to the office to edit my photos, I was shocked to see that the shooter was actually standing behind the ambassador as he spoke. Like a friend, or a bodyguard.”

Hailed as a ‘hero’

Within minutes of their release, Ozbilici’s photographs spread like wildfire through social networks.

Photographers and journalists the world over praised the AP photographer for his composure in the face of terror.

“What bravery AP’s @BurhanOzbilici showed to capture those photos. Wire staff very often unsung and very often the heroes of this trade,” wrote Barry Malone, online editor at Al Jazeera English.

Journalist Bronwen Dickey wrote on Twitter: “Before I die, may I know one-hundreth of @BurhanOzbilici’s courage.”

Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times added: “Awed by the courage of the photographer who capture this terrifying shot. (Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP).”